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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finding Solace in the 2015 Boston Red Sox

The 2015 season has been in shambles nearly from the beginning for the Boston Red Sox. Languishing in or around last place for much of the year, the misery has been punctuated by a string of unwelcome circumstances. Although the campaign will not be remembered fondly by most fans, there are still glimmers of hope that are getting increasingly brighter and are beacons of untold possibilities for the years to come.

Usually, there’s no need to look past consistent losing for the source of a bad season. However, Boston fans have also endured a steady stream of bad news. Popular World Series heroes Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino saw their level of play drop so significantly that they were traded away in different deals last month. Popular manager John Farrell was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, and general manager Ben Cherington and long-time team president Larry Lucchino announced their resignations. The most recent cherry on this melted sundae was the sudden announcement that popular television play-by-play man Don Orsillo was not having his contract renewed following the season. This seemingly capricious move immediately created widespread outrage among fans, who are seeking some tangible explanation for the change.

This team won the World Series just two years ago but are now facing their second straight last-place finish, and third in four years. Fortunately, one does not need to be a Pollyanna to see some of the emerging positive signs among all the negativity. In the smoldering embers of what is now a laughably optimistic start of a depressing year, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for what the future holds.

The Front Office Shake Up: Cherington, who had essentially spent his entire baseball career working in various capacities with the team deserves plenty of credit for his good work, which culminated in the surprise title drive in 2013. However, he was also a bit of a gambler, declining to spend “big bucks” on pitching—deemed too much of a fiscal risk, yet spending nearly $200 million combined on free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, who have both played like busts in the first years of their respective deals. He had four years to enact his philosophies and strategy as general manager but the extreme feast or famine results necessitated the recent change.

Although a new permanent general manager has yet to be named, the team is in a good position to find a replacement. They have already brought former Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski on board to serve as the new team president, and have also added former Los Angeles Angels GM Jerry Dipoto as a special advisor for the rest of this season. If one of those two doesn’t take the job, their influence and acumen will be good leverage in finding the right candidate.

The Kids Are Going to Be Alright: Although the Red Sox have been near the top in most organizational farm system rankings in recent years, it feels like it’s been a while since a high-impact youngster has developed into a star. One silver lining for the team’s overall poor play this year has been the increased chances created for prospects to see the field. To date, one would be hard-pressed to say that their overall performance has been anything less than encouraging and in some cases, downright impressive.

Despite being in his third major league season, shortstop Xander Bogaerts is still just 22. In addition to drastically improving his defense, he has also become an offensive force, to the tune of a .316 average on the year, and a .338 mark since June 1st. Once the right-handed hitter’s power develops, he will have turned into the all-around impact player fans have been waiting for since he starred in the minors as a teenager.

Outfielder Mookie Betts (also 22) converted quickly from the infield, and is already a Gold Glove caliber glove. He has also shown power and speed (12 home runs and 17 stolen bases), and has also seen his bat heat up as the season has worn on, as evidenced by his .292 batting average since the start of June.

Fellow outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo have both experienced the roller coaster between being hot prospects and potential busts over the past couple of seasons. That now appears to be over as they are both running on all cylinders. In addition to superb defense, both have been scorching hot in the second half of the season (.309/.394/1.048 and .352/.387/.955 batting average/on base percentage/OPS slash lines respectively). At this point, a 2016 outfield of them and Betts is starting to look like a potential impact group.

Not to be outdone by their batting brethren, there have been young pitchers making noise as well. Southpaw starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens are just 22 and 23 respectively but have shown as much poise and results as anyone in the Boston rotation this season. Rodriguez has allowed two or fewer earned runs in 11 of his 16 starts, while Owens is striking out nearly a batter per inning and recently shut down the Kansas City Royals, the team with the best record in the American League.

In the coming weeks the Red Sox will likely lose more games than they win. There will probably be more mistakes than what is usually considered acceptable. There could even be more news that upsets fans. What will also continue are the bright rays of the future that should be getting easier to pick out through the muck and mire of the 2015 season. Boston fans, it’s been bad, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Keep your chin up and your eyes firmly gazing forward and you’ll be able to get through these tough times.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mashi: A Review

Although baseball is the American Pastime it truly is an international game. In recent years, the major leagues have seen players coming from an increasding variety of countries, with Japan being among the most prominent. For that reason it‘s surprising how relatively unknown Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese big leaguer, is to modern fans. Fortunately, that obscurity should change with the 2014 release of Robert K. Fitts’ Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (University of Nebraska Press).

Murakami (or Mashi, as he was affectionately known) was a left-handed relief pitcher who appeared in a total of 54 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. Sent to the United States by his Japanese professional team as a teenager in 1964 to gain seasoning, he pitched so effectively in the low minors that year that he earned a late-season promotion to the majors where he continued his dominance.

Mashi’s signing of a 1965 contract with the Giants sparked a near international baseball incident, as both his American and Japanese clubs jockeyed to assert what they each believed were their rights to his services. Ultimately, he returned for one more season with San Francisco, but at the young age of 21 at the time of his final major league appearance, he reluctantly returned home in deference to familial and cultural expectations that he remain loyal to Japanese baseball—which operated a code of honor modeled after the famous Samurai warrior class of years past.

This is an amazing story. Fitts sets the stage early on with his vivid descriptions of Mashi’s experiences on diamonds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Although baseball was fundamentally the same game, the vast differences in approach and cultural influence simultaneously made it completely different. The pitcher’s ability to not only navigate this shifting terrain, but also thrive, makes it all the more fascinating.

Fitts’ easy writing style is enhanced by the participation of Mashi in this project. The former ballplayer’s recollections, along with a good number of his personal candid photos really tie things together. Much of his baseball journey was dictated or heavily influenced by others, giving him a burden not borne by many of his peers. His perspective shows how much the business side affects the game, and in particular, how much impact it had on his career.

Mashi is very well written and sourced, making it an authoritative voice on the subject. Some of the themes of particular interest include:

Mashi’s adaptation to American baseball and culture. Barely out of high school upon his arrival, he had a crash course on every level imaginable.

The overt and more concealed racism he experienced as a major leaguer. In particular, Fitts does a great job of digging up some of the erican media coverage, which frequently was unable to resist highlighting the pitcher’s ethnicity in varying degrees of inappropriateness.

The murky side of baseball’s front offices are a theme throughout this story. Mashi often seemed to be treated as property first and a person second. His talent was such that teams fought for the right to control him and how and where he would play.
The Murakami family dynamic is also a fascinating element. Mashi’s father was strict and traditional, and his initial opposition to his son playing the game was perhaps the largest hurdle he had to clear in attaining his baseball dreams.

With Mashi being Fitts’ fourth book on Japanese baseball, it’s time to proclaim him as one of foremost experts on the topic today. One can only hope that this top-notch baseball historian will continue to produce work as thorough and enjoyable as this story of the major league’s first Japanese player proved to be.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Josh Pennington: Boston Red Sox Pitching Prospect on the Comeback Trail

The Boston Red Sox are enduring a disappointing 2015 campaign, languishing in the cellar of the American League East for much of the season. Although things have gotten to the point where several veterans have been sent away by trade or release, not all is lost. The broken expectations have led to extended opportunity for young players, whose spots in the minors are now being seized by other industrious prospects. One youngster who could make a rapid ascension is pitcher Josh Pennington.

The right-hander attended Lower Cape May Regional High School in Cape May, New Jersey. Unfortunately, torn elbow ligaments derailed his senior season in 2014, and he had to undergo Tommy John Surgery. Despite a scholarship to attend St. John’s University, he elected to start his professional career and was selected in the 29th round by the Red Sox in that year’s first-year player draft.

Having spent the last year rehabbing his arm, Pennington has worked his way back and finally took the mound as a pro for the first time this year. The 20-year-old has been eased along slowly as to not tax his repaired arm. Pitching for the team’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, he has appeared in seven games, going 2-1 with a 0.82 ERA, notching 22 strikeouts in 22 innings.

This season will be all about him building back his strength and getting his feet beneath him. However, beyond that, the future looks bright. Although his injury and inexperience make him a raw prospect, there is talent there to spare. With a repertoire that includes a low-90s fastball, he could develop into an intriguing prospect.

Pennington was gracious enough to answer some questions for me this past year. Keep reading to learn more about Boston’s young hurler on the rise.

Josh Pennington Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite team growing up was the Phillies just because I grew up in a family that loved Philadelphia sports. My favorite player was Jimmy Rollins because he was the face of that franchise. He also was a great example of a professional on and off the diamond.

You had Tommy John surgery during the summer of 2014; how are you progressing from that?: I am progressing very well. Everything has been by the book, nothing out of the ordinary. It's really been a very straight forward rehab process given that I still have a while until I pitch in a game.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think needs the most work?: The pitches that I throw are four-seam, two-seam, slider, curveball, and a splitter. I know my splitter needs the most work since I just started throwing it right before I had TJ. I think it could be one of my best pitches as soon as I develop it.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you, and what was your draft experience like?: I first found out the Red Sox were interested in me when they sent a draft questionnaire the fall of my senior year; along with when my area scout Ray Fagnant came down for a home visit in the winter. My draft experience was amazing. My dream was always to play professional baseball. Although the wait was killing me, as soon as my name was called, I was just so happy that I was being given a chance.

You suffered your injury in April and had previously committed to St. Johns. If you remained healthy, do you think your draft would have turned out differently?: If healthy, there is no doubt in my mind that things would have been different. Yet I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason.

What are you primary goals for 2015?: My primary goals in 2015 are to first get 110% healthy. Also I want to finally get back out on that mound and be able to show everyone what I can do.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Some Odd Struggles of Hall-of-Fame Players

Baseball players gain membership in the Hall of Fame because of their superior talent and subsequent accomplishments that raise them above their mere mortal peers. Despite their legendary feats, even these all-time great encounter struggles from time to time during their careers. Some of these bumps in the road make sense (like facing other Hall-of-Fame players), while others defy explanation. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting examples.

Mickey Mantle Hitting at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium: The switch-hitting outfielder is one of baseball’s most iconic figures, hitting a combined .298 with 536 home runs during an 18-year career with the New York Yankees. For whatever reason, he just wasn’t the same player when playing on the road in Cleveland. Perhaps it was playing in a facility that was also known as “The Mistake by the Lake” because of its cold and windy conditions. The Mick played 159 games there over the years, and while he bashed 36 home runs, he hit a pedestrian .267 with an 83 OPS+ and struck out 135 time—the most he had in any park as a visitor.

Hank Aaron Batting Against Reliever Jim Brosnan: The Home Run king could obviously handle pitchers of all stripes, as he hit .305 with 755 home runs during his 22 seasons in the majors. Unfortunately, he had the darndest time figuring out the right-handed Brosnan. In 49 career at-bats against him, he mustered just seven hits (.143 batting average) with only one walk.

Brosnan pitched for four teams over nine seasons, posting a 3.54 ERA. While he could never be accused of being a slouch, he was also certainly not a star, so his total dominance of one of the greatest hitters who ever lived remains a mystery.

Sandy Koufax Facing the Cincinnati Reds: The great southpaw typically toyed with the opposition like a hangry (yes, hangry, not hungry) cat might with a mouse, going 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA. However, for whatever reason, when he suited up against the Reds, he pitched with the abandon of your average fourth starter. In 57 career games (45 starts) against them, he was 19-20 with a 3.74 ERA. It’s the only team against which he has a losing record—in fact he had at least a .593 winning percentage versus every other team he faced during the regular season. Additionally, it is his highest ERA against any one team by a full half run.

While the Reds weren’t an annual second-division team during Koufax’s 12 major league seasons, they also finished as high as second place only twice during that time, making his struggles against them all the more perplexing.

Willie Mays Batting Against Pitcher Max Surkont: The right-handed Surkont posted just two winning records in nine major league seasons with five teams, finishing up at 61-76 with a 4.38 ERA. However, he morphed into Cy Young when facing the Say Hey Kid.

Mays, who hit .302 with 660 home runs during his distinguished career, managed just three hits in 32 at-bats against his tormentor. Other than a double, he had no other extra-base hits, and he also whiffed six times (again surprising, as Surkont was not a strikeout pitcher—fanning just 4.3 batters per nine innings during his career).

Bob Gibson Pitching Against Third Baseman Richie Hebner: “Feared” is a term so loosely thrown around in sports that it often loses meaning. However, it aptly described the right-handed Gibson. He terrorized the National League for 17 years, accumulating a 251-174 record and 2.91 ERA. Known for his penchant for pitching inside and getting strikeouts (3,117 in his career), it’s hard to imagine batters looking forward to facing him—with the possible exception of Hebner.

Hebner had a solid 18-year major league career, hitting .276 with 203 home runs. Surprisingly, those numbers were enhanced by the 62 at-bats he had against Gibson. In those matchups, he collected 24 hits (good for a .387 batting average), 10 walks and five home runs—all while striking out just eight times. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that although he had the hurler’s number, he managed to escape without being hit by a pitch from his nemesis.

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