//Sunday Notes: Versatility is Value When Benches Are Bereft of Depth

Sunday Notes: Versatility is Value When Benches Are Bereft of Depth

Positional versatility has become increasingly important now that teams are carrying 13 or 14 pitchers on their rosters. That leaves benches bereft of depth, meaning that an ability to move around the diamond makes a player especially valuable — if not essential. One-dimensional non-regulars are marginal assets unless they excel in a specific area.

In the opinion of A.J. Hinch, the term “utility player” is anything but a pejorative. Moreover, everyday players who display versatility make a manager’s job easier.

“I don’t want “utility” to be explained as a negative thing,” the Tigers’ skipper told reporters recently. “A utility player has traditionally been defined as a guy who can’t play every day. And that’s not true. Some guys it is, some guys it isn’t. I caution everybody that it’s not a slight.

“When you have an everyday guy that is elite at that position, absolutely, you’re going to leave him at that position,” continued Hinch, who circled back to his Astros days and cited Alex Bregman having played short when Carlos Correa was hurt. “That’s a multiple position for an elite player.”

Hinch’s Detroit team clearly lacks the top-end talent that he had at his disposal during his Houston tenure, which suggests mixing-and-matching might be common in Motown this summer. If spring training is any indication, it might even be the M.O. Hinch has done no shortage of shuffling, and come the regular season, the likes of Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum, Jonathan Schoop, and Harold Castro will be utilized as moving pieces in hopes of optimizing the lineup. Ditto Isaac Paredes, once he’s called up from the alternate site.

“If we just lock in guys in one spot, they’re immovable and we have a very rigid roster,” explained Hinch. ‘If they’re all going to be All-Stars, if they’re all going to be high-end contributors, I’m all in. But if they’re not — and the majority of the league is not — it benefits our team, and ultimately the players, for them to be able to have a secondary position.”

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Torey Lovullo sees it much the same way. I queried the Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager on that same subject, and while his answer wasn’t as expansive as Hinch’s, the mindsets matched up well.

“Defensive versatility is something we believe in, and we are working hard to find out who is going to be able to make strides and keep moving forward in that area,” said Lovullo. “What it does is enable me to create a lineup that’s going to have different looks on different nights. It gives me the ability to put guys in there that, from an offensive standpoint, are going to create run-scoring opportunities.

“And we believe in playing on both sides of the baseball here in Arizona,” the 2017 National League Manager of the Year added. “We’re not just going to throw guys out there and put them in a defensive situation where they’re uncomfortable, or not playing fast, smart baseball. We feel very strongly that we’re going to be able to do that, and mix-and-match to give us some offensive versatility.”

Much like the Tigers, the D-Backs have multiple players capable of manning multiple positions. Ketel Marte stands out in that regard, while Josh Rojas and Josh VanMeter are likewise capable of playing both the infield and the outfield. Daulton Varsho — slated to begin the season at the alternate site — is unique in that he can both play the outfield and catch.

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Third-string catchers have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. Once an affordable luxury — Roger LaFrancois was on the Red Sox roster for all of the 1982 season and got into just eight games — it is now anything but. For that reason, having a bench player capable of donning the tools of ignorance is an appealing safety net, not only in the case of in-game injuries, but also in potential pinch-hitting and pinch-running scenarios.

I asked Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash about that in a recent Zoom session.

“It’s always in the back of our minds,”said Cash. “If we hit for Mike Zunino, or he comes out of the game early for whatever reason, we’re down to one catcher. Then, [if] something goes sideways, there’s that fear of who goes back here in an emergency… I look at a guy like Willians Astudillo, with the Twins. That’s a very valuable player to be able to stick him at third base, put him in right field, and catch him in the back half of the game.”

Sans an Ausudillo on the roster, who goes behind the plate if something goes sideways in Tampa?

“Right now, our third catcher… I’m not quite sure who it would be,” admitted Cash. “Last year was Hunter Renfroe. He was the guy that was chomping at the bit to do it, because he had caught in the past. I’ve got to say [Mike Brosseau] would be a guy of consideration. Maybe Ji-Man [Choi]? But Ji-Man would probably end up getting hurt if we put them back there.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Preston Wilson went 2 for 5 with a home run against Paul Wilson.

Reggie Jackson went 2 for 7 with two home runs against Roy Lee Jackson.

Matt Williams went 4 for 7 with a home run against Mike Williams.

Edgar Martinez went 4 for 10 with a home run against Dennis Martinez.

David Ortiz went 5 for 17 with four home runs against Russ Ortiz.

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The Marlins aren’t projected to win a lot of games in 2021, but by all accounts the organization is moving in the right direction. What is the N.L. East team’s biggest strength? I asked that question to Miami GM Kim Ng.

“Right now, I would say young starting pitchers is our greatest strength,” responded Ng. “I think we’ve seen it out here for the last several weeks. Sandy [Alcantara’s] performance the other day; he had nine strikeouts. Elieser [Hernandez] had a great game the other day in a B-game. Trevor Rodgers was very good yesterday. They’ve all shown glimpses, and fairly consistently given that this is spring training — of what they’re capable of.”

Following up, I asked the executive if she was referring solely to the big-leagues — Alcantara, Hernandez, and Rodgers are all projected to be in Miami’s starting rotation — or if prospects were part of that equation.

“I would say depth through the minors, as well,” responded Ng. “I would say pitching, and we also have quite a few outfielders.”

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What is the strength of the Pirates organization? I asked that question to Pittsburgh GM Ben Cherington earlier this month.

“We feel pretty good about the sort of middle-infield depth that we’re developing,” replied Cherington.”With pitching, I think we’re heading in the right direction [although] you can never have enough. I think we have some outfield talent in the organization [although] we need more. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last year looking at, ‘How do we keep getting better [at] coaching? How do we keep getting better in our evaluation process?’ I hope the strength, more than anything, is that there’s a culture being developed [to] simply get better all the time. Let’s be honest with each other about where we are, challenge each other’s assumption about what we need to do to keep getting better. That will turn into the more observable outcomes that you’re asking about.”

In short, that longish answer was an admission that the Pirates have a long way to go to become a contender. Not that anyone would suggest otherwise. This is an organization essentially building from the ground up following back-to-back last-place finishes, and the trading away of veterans like Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove. There’s light at the end of the tunnel — Cherington has a good track record when it comes to developing talent — but it’s going to take awhile. Fans in Pittsburgh will need to continue to be patient.

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The top middle-infield prospect in the Pirates system is Nick Gonzales, whom the club draft seventh-overall last year out of New Mexico State. A shortstop who projects as a second baseman, the 21-year-old right-handed hitter faces questions about his defensive prowess, but few doubt his ability to mash. Coming into draft day, he was commonly comped to Milwaukee’s Keston Hiura.

I asked the young infielder for his opinion of that comparison.

“Keston’s a great hitter and I love watching him hit,” responded Gonzales, who is No. 3 on our 2021 Pirates Top Prospects list. “He’s a great player, so once I heard that comp I watched him a lot more. He can swing it, and I really like his swing — just a short, compact swing. Defensively… I think I’ve made big strides from college, and big strides from when I was in Altoona, as well.”

Gonzales spent last summer in Altoona, at Pittsburgh’s alternate site. A non-roster invitee this spring, he has three hits, including a double and a home run, in a dozen at bats.

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SPRING TRAINING STANDOUTS

Pittsburgh’s Kevin Newman is 20 for 28 with six doubles and no strikeouts.
Washington’s Josh Bell is 18 for 43 with six home runs and five doubles.
Boston’s Bobby Dalbec is 14 for 45 with seven home runs and two doubles.

Miami’s Trevor Rogers has 29 strikeouts and has allowed 13 hits in 19 innings.
Toronto’s Alek Manoah has 15 strikeouts and has allowed one hit in seven innings.
Pittsburgh’s David Bednar has 17 strikeouts and has allowed three hits in eight-and-a-third innings.

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I recently took the opportunity to ask Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli about batting orders. More specifically, is it best to not clump together high-strikeout-rate hitters within a lineup?

“I do think that where you put hitters matters,” answered Baldelli. “General thoughts about strikeout rates? Yes, I prefer to mix up guys with some different hitting profiles [and] when you have a lot of good quality hitters in a lineup to choose from, you can do that. I don’t think you always have the option of mixing handedness or strengths [but] when you have that option, you can do some different things. I think there are benefits. When facing certain pitchers, if you stack a lineup — not just by handedness, but by hitters’ strengths, or the way their [bat] paths work — you may get a desired result.”

I proceeded to bring up how in the early 1990s, the Tigers would sometimes hit Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, and Rob Deer back-to-back-to-back. That was three home-run threats in a row, but with runners on base it was also, potentially, three rally-killing strikeouts in a row.

“There are probably people who are pretty thoughtful, and knowledgeable, that might look right at us and say, ‘You know, if they’re good, productive hitters, it may not matter,” responded Baldelli. “But I actually do think it matters. And again, it’s not just left-right, and it’s not just the swing-and-miss. Sometimes I think it has a lot to do with how a hitter’s swing works, what a pitcher generally does, the way their stuff works and moves. There’s no perfect, ideal way to do this. We all know that, but sometimes you get a group together and they work well in a certain way. It’s not always a very straightforward question, but I think there is value in spending time on it. And we do.”

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A quiz:

Which pitcher has given up the most home runs since the start of the 2000 season?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES/FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Boog Powell signed with the Atlantic League’s Gastonia Honey Hunters earlier this week. The former Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners outfielder was in the Cincinnati Reds organization last year.

Mike Bolsinger signed with the independent Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks earlier this month. Bolsinger, who a year ago filed a lawsuit against the Houston Astros claiming their sign-stealing sidetracked his big-league career, last pitched professionally with NPB’s Chiba Lotte Marines in 2019.

NPB announced that no extra innings will be played this season, and that March and April night games in most prefectures will start before 6 p.m. The Japanese government has requested that businesses in the areas hardest hit by the current wave of the coronavirus pandemic close by 9 p.m. (per jballallen.com.)

NPB avoided an Opening Day tie on Friday when Yoshiyuki Kamei hit a walk-off home run to lift the Yomiuri Giants to an 8-7 win over the Yokohama BayStars. The Giants have won the Central League title each of the past seasons, only to lose the Japan Series to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Japan’s defending champions had their own walk-off whey beat the Chiba Lotte Marines 3-2 on Saturday. The Hawks homered four times while winning Friday’s opener by a score of 8-2.

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The answer to the quiz is Bartolo Colon. “Big Sexy” has surrendered 388 home runs since the start of the 2000 season.

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Mike Devereaux and J.J. Hardy fielded questions from the media following Friday’s announcement that they’ve been elected to the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame. The former, who roamed the Camden Yards outfield from 1989-1994, and again in 1996, shared a memory that O’s fans would like to forget.

“In 96… we ended up playing Cleveland [in the ALDS] and beating them.” recalled Devereaux. “Then we went up against the Yankees when that one kid, Jeffrey Maier — I’m still not too happy about him — caught that ball. That was a very crucial game for us for us to win; it would have kept us rolling. It’s hard to win a World Series. Everything has to go right, especially once you get to the playoffs.“

A fan reaching over the fence to glove a ball about to be caught is the epitome of something going wrong. The inexplicable fan interference non-call in the eighth inning of ALCS Game One resulted in a Derek Jeter home run, tying a game the Yankees went on to win. Devereaux’s Orioles never recovered, ultimately losing the series in five games.

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Which of Ronald Acuña Jr, Juan Soto, and Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to have the best 2021 season? I asked that question in a Twitter poll on Thursday, and the consensus was clear. Soto received 64.5% of the vote, Acuña garnered 23.8%, and Tatis tailed both with just 11.7%.

My own thoughts? As scintillating as Soto and Tatis are — and “scintillating” seems the perfect word — my vote would go to Acuña. My colleague Jay Jaffe chanced to write about Acuña and Soto on Friday, and while he didn’t make a similar claim, it’s unlikely that he’d push back on mine. At worst it would be a gentle shove.

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Shohei Ohtani made news last Sunday when he served as the Angels’ leadoff hitter in a game he started on the mound. One of the batters he faced was asked about that rare occurrence the following day.

“I can’t wait to watch him do both at the same time,” said San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth, who’d been a two-way player at the University of Michigan. “Yesterday was super impressive. I know what it feels like to pitch the first inning and then lead off, or vice versa. He’s incredibly talented. He hits the ball super hard. He runs like a deer. And I think he hit 101 [mph]. The things he does on the field are just jaw-dropping.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Los Angeles Times, Bill Shaikin shared why MLB should consider moving the 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta.

At Maryland Today, Pablo Suarez wrote about how Tyrone Brooks has been going to bat for diversity in baseball.

Renel Brooks-Moon has been the public address announcer for San Francisco Giants for each of the past 22 seasons. Vinciane Ngomsi wrote about her for Yahoo Sports.

National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” gave us How Black Players Propelled Cleveland’s Baseball Team To Win The 1948 World Series.

MLB.com’s Joe Trezza shared the story of how Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander, thanks to a random confluence of circumstances, became a cult hero in the U.K.

Sports Info Solutions’ Ted Baarda presented us with a lineup of NPB position players to watch during the 2021 season.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Gio González threw 1,933 innings and went 131-101 with a 3.70 ERA.
Carlos Zambrano threw 1,959 innings and went 132-91 with a 3.66 ERA
Dennis Leonard threw 2,187 innings and went 144-106 with a 3.70 ERA

Colorado Rockies hitters had a .311 OBP and a .257 batting average last year. Cincinnati Reds hitters had a .312 OBP and a .212 batting average last year.

Barry Bonds had 129 runs scored and 232 walks in 2004.
Joe DiMaggio had 132 runs scored and 24 walks in 1936.

The Houston Astros have won eight straight Opening Day games. The modern era (since 1900) record is nine, co-held by the 2007-15 Seattle Mariners, the 1983-1991 Cincinnati Reds, the 1975-1983 New York Mets, and the 1937-1945 St. Louis Browns. (per @slangsonsports)

Astros outfielder Eric Yelding had 64 stolen bases and a 69 OPS+ in 1990.

The first player-turned-broadcaster was Jack Graney, who called games for his old team from 1932-1953. A member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame — he hailed from St. Thomas, Ontario — Graney had been an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians from 1908-1922. Graney also holds the distinction of being the first batter Babe Ruth faced when the latter debuted in 1914.

Pinch Thomas had a .318 OBP playing for the Red Sox and Indians from 1912-1921. A catcher, Thomas had a .417 OBP in 36 career plate appearances as a pinch hitter.

The Boston Red Sox traded Mike Easler to the New York Yankees in exchange for Don Baylor on today’s date in 1986.

The St. Louis Perfectos acquired Cy Young from the Cleveland Spiders on today’s date in 1899.

Players born on today’s date include Moses Yellow Horse, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921 and 1922. A native of Pawnee, Oklahoma, Yellow Horse is believed to have been the first full-blooded Native American to play in the major leagues.

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