With the second round of cuts made, spring training battles for an Opening Day roster spot are coming down to the wire. Here’s a look at who is primed to start the year in the minors and who is beginning to house hunt in the Miami area.
* Stats in this post reflect those preceding play on 3/23.
One major development that occurred this past week involved starting third baseman Martin Prado. Playing in his fifth game for his home country Venezuela (and hitting .368/.429/.526 while doing so), Prado pulled up lame while running into second base. He was removed from the game and has since been sent back home to Miami to undergo further testing on a gimpy hamstring. The inittal from Don Mattingly who didn’t sound too optimistic when breaking the news is that Prado would undergo an MRI Saturday. Prado’s Marlins’ teammates, trying to voice words of encouragement to an evidently disappointed Captain, didn’t sound too cheerful either. The MRI results were revealed Monday. They show that Prado has a grade 1 strain of his right hammy. He will definitely be out for Opening Day and could be out for an extended period of time. According to Mattingly, there is no timetable for Prado’s return. It leaves the Marlins with a hole at third base and a roster spot a lot more wide open than before. So how do the Fish fill those voids?
Fourth Bench Spot
Cuts: Yefri Perez, J.T. Riddle, Austin Nola
Cuts: Jarlin Garcia, Dillon Peters
We are eight games in to the 27 game spring training ledger and Opening Day roster battles are in full swing. Here is a look at who’s hot and who’s not in Marlins camp among those vying to have their name announced and line up along Marlins’ Park’s baselines on April 11.
Fourth Bench Spot
|Dan Straily||The return piece in the Marlins’ late offseason trade that was very fortunate to have the season he had last year in Cincinatti. His luck was first proven by his ability to somehow hold down a 2.90 ERA by way of a .197 BAA and a .212 BABIP at one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league (versus a much more Dan Straily like and much more realistic 4.70 ERA via a .242 BAA and .269 BABIP on the road). This spring, his luck last year is being proven by his early allowance of four runs off two homers in just 2.2 IP. Since he came at the expense of the Marlins’ second best pitching prospect Luis Castillo, he will probably be given a long leash and stick around until the very end of spring training, but with a straight fastball that barely touches 90 and breaking pitches which he can’t command low in the zone, Straily will either start the season in AAA or be sent there not long after the season starts, the product of another doozy by Michael Hill.
|Jarlin Garcia||The Marlins’ third best pitching prospect entering 2017, he missed time with an injury in 2016 when the Marlins called him up to the majors following a 4.04 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, .239 BAA start just to keep him on the bench for nine days. Upon his return to AA, the Suns tried to ease him back into action but his second time back out, he went down with an injury that would cost him two months. He spent the rest of the season in the GCL and in Jupiter getting back in to shape. He arrived at spring training this year back at 100% and has had a good start (albeit in very limited action), not allowing a run over his first three appearances, all which lasted a single inning. He’s fun to watch on the mound, winding up slowly before exploding through his delivery which generates mid-upper 90s heat. He shows a good velo range, dropping his piggybacking changeup and best breaking pitch down about 10 miles an hour and mixes in a power curve which he needs to develop a better feel for and throw it from more consistent release points. The Marlins are probably going to take it easy with Garcia who has thrown in just 16 games above A ball. However, while it is possible that Garcia’s long term future is in the bullpen, the Marlins, with very little MLB ready rotational depth to speak of, could give Garcia a shot at the back end if he gets back on track in the upper minors to start the year and as soon as the Dan Straily experiment fails.
|Justin Nicolino||6’3″ 200 pound lefty who was once a promising prospect, appearing inside the Marlins’ top 10 prospects every year from 2013-2015. Made his MLB debut in the last of those seasons, tossing to the tune of a decent 4.01 ERA and 1.24 in 12 starts. Started 2016 in AAA where he was very good. Despite a somewhat embellished 4.13 ERA, he held down a 1.18 WHIP and a 49/13 K/BB, warranting another call to the majors. However, upon his second arrival in as many years in Miami, that’s when Nicolino took a turn for the worst. In 18 games (13 starts) and 79.1 IP with the Marlins, he was lit up to the tune of a 4.99 ERA by way of a .307 BAA and 1.46 WHIP. He walked 20 while striking out just 37. His woes have continued this early spring as he’s allowed six runs on nine hits in 4.1 innings. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why things have gone so far downhill for Nicolino. His reputation for having impeccable control has followed him to the majors where he limited walks to 2.4 per nine innings in 2015 and improved that metric slightly to 2.4 in 2016.
|Jeff Locke||Acquired in the offseason as a free agent from the Pirates. A 3.63 ERA, 1.271 WHIP, 3.22 career minor leaguer, had a solid first full season in the majors in 2013, posting a 10-7 record in 30 starts with a 3.52 ERA via a 4.03 FIP and making the All-Star Game. However, that’s also when his control problems began. Having never posted a walk rate above 3% in his career, that metric ballooned to nearly 5%. In 2014, Locke was in the strike zone much more often but judging by his walk rate shrinking down to 2.74% but judging by his allowance of more than a homer per nine innings and on 13% of his fly balls, he was getting way too much of the zone. You wouldn’t know it if you judged him by his 4.49 ERA but going on his peripherals, 2015 was Locke’s best season. That year, his walk rate normalized back to 3.21 but his K rate improved to 6.9%, a MLB career high, his HR/9 shrunk back down to 0.8. Despite a heightened .312 BABIP, he held down a 3.95 FIP and was a 1.6 WAR pitcher. Locke’s slow but steady improvement in getting his walks in check while also improving his command to become the guy he was two years ago can be attributed to then Pirates’ special assistant to the GM and renowned “pitcher whisperer”, Jim Benedict. It is that version of Locke the Marlins hope can be brought back by Benedict who was hired away from the Pirates by Miami last year. What the Marlins don’t to see is the Locke that struggled mightily without Benedict last season, the Locke that only struck out 5% of his hitters while walking 3.3% of them, allowed hard contact at a career high 30% rate while inducing weak contact outs at a career low 16% rate, and had a 5.44 ERA (seventh highest in baseball) by way of a 4.84 FIP and 1.53 WHIP (10th highest in MLB).
It was the Marlins’ hope when signing Locke that being reunited with Benedict would bring Locke circa 2015 back but this spring, it hasn’t happened. A lot of the reason for that is because Locke suffered a throwing shoulder injury early in spring training workouts that required an MRI and revealed tendinitis. However, since starting to throw again last week, Locke has apparently not shown much, causing Don Mattingly to label him as “a guy we just don’t think is ready“. Even though he just arrived in Miami and hasn’t thrown much since doing so, there’s still doubt surrounding the possibility of even Benedict fixing the 29-year-old for a second time, at least in getting him back into rotational capacity.
While he may never get back into a MLB rotation, Locke isn’t a complete lost cause. Despite his overall horrible 2016, he finished the year in the bullpen where he held down respectable numbers, including a 3.38 ERA and a 3.0 K/BB. Though he will probably start the year in New Orleans due to all of the missed time with injury this spring, he adds another lefty arm to the Marlins’ great relief depth. After getting back in shape in AAA and hopefully making a smooth transition to a full-time pen role, a process that will undoubtedly be aided by Benedict, Locke should make his Marlins’ debut out of the pen this season with the possiblity of seeing some spot starts. As for an Opening Day job though, he’s completely out of the running.
It’s that wonderful time of year again where the weather is getting warmer and spring training baseball is inching closer to returning to Roger Dean Stadium. With it this year, the return of players to the field and fans to the bleachers will also bring an auspicious group of talented young men vying to either either make it back to the majors or to make their first MLB squad in 2017. Here is a look at some of the Marlins’ talent hoping to impress this spring training.
1 – Drew Steckenrider, RHP
Steckenrider owns a feel good story, one of determination and perserverence that makes him an extremely easy guy to root for. After a mediocre start to his career in which he threw primarily as a starter to the tune of a 4.01 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP between short season and low A, the Marlins’ eighth round pick in the 2012 Draft went down with an injury to his throwing elbow and missed the bulk of the 2013 season and all of the 2014 season. After Tommy John surgery and 18 months on the shelf, Steckenrider returned in 2015. That year, between Greensboro and Jupiter, he traded off throwing both in starts and in relief. In 58.1 IP as a starter, he had a 3.56 ERA by way of a 1.48 WHIP. Looks good on the forefront but most of that success came with the Grasshoppers and competition much younger than the then 24-year-old. As a member of the Hammerheads, even though he was throwing in one of the biggest pitchers’ parks in the minors, Steckenrider got touched up for a 4.41 ERA by way of a nasty 1.71 WHIP and .284 BAA. As a Hammerheads’ reliever throwing in nearly the same amount of innings that he threw as a starter (24 in relief vs 32.2 in the rotation), Steckenrider stifled the most mature competition he’s ever faced, holding down a 1.50 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .239 BAA while striking out 14 and walking seven.
Based off those numbers and the fact that he was just a season removed from a potentially career ending injury, the Marlins provided Steckenrider with some stability, putting him the in the much less physically strenuous bullpen full-time in order to safeguard and prolong the life of his potentially very live arm. With his mind at ease regarding just what exactly his role on the team was, Steckenrider shined in throwing exclusively out of the pen in 2016. Following a near perfect ten inning start in Jupiter in which he didn’t allow a run and posted a 17/2 K/BB while allowing just two hits, Steckenrider was called up to AA. He spent most of the season there, tossing 30.1 innings and holding hitters to a .120 BA, a mark which led the Southern League (among pitchers with at least 30 IP) and a 0.73 WHIP which was second in the Southern League. He also successfully converted all six of his save opportunities.
After facing the prospect of figuring out life after baseball two seasons previous, Steckenrider ended 2016 pitching at the highest level of Minor League Baseball. For the AAA Zephyrs, he converted seven more saves in seven chances, running his season total to 14 in 15 chances.
Following the season in which he was named an organizational All-Star, Steckenrider took his talents to the Arizona Fall League where he continued to impress. In 10 games and 13 IP, Steckenrider posted a 15/4 K/BB and a 1.23 WHIP and collected three more saves while pitching against some of baseball’s top prospects. He was also one of three pitchers to contribute to the Mesa Solar Sox’s combined no hitter on November 1, just the third no-no in the 25-year history of the AFL.
As Steckenrider confided to Today’s Knuckleball, the sense of stability the Marlins gave him in 2015 when they moved him from the dreaded swing man role to a full-time relief role has made all the difference.
“I would start, and then I’d do my arm care stuff, but then I’d be out in the bullpen a few days later, which, I would never get the recovery, and I never got the rhythm and the bounce-back time,” Steckenrider admitted about his difficult role in 2015. “It was really hard to have success. But this year, I finally got into that consistent role in the back end of the bullpen, and I earned my spot back there early. It was nice because I stayed there all year, but I also got into a good routine with the trainers and strength coaches, and that kept me healthy and on the field.”
The lanky 6’5″, 215 Steckenrider shortens his distance to the plate with an overwhelming smooth delivery especially for a guy with limbs as long as his and heat as fiery. He maintains his looseness well through his quick stretch delivery right up until the point where his arm starts going forward from his full arm circle windup. All the way through his delivery, he remains straight up and down and manages not to fall off to either side of the plate. In short, although simple, it is a mechanically fantastic delivery for a guy his build. Steckenrider’s go-to pitch is a fastball that usually ranges from 95-98 but can touch triple digits and has great late run to the corners. Since becoming a full-time late inning reliever, he has simplified his approach and doesn’t feature his breaking stuff a lot in favor of attacking with the heat but he will attempt to get guys to chase and offset the fastball in equal or positive counts with an 82-83 MPH 10-6 slider. With good feel for the pitch, the late breaker is is a great compliment to his heat and generates an equal rate of swings and misses. Steckenrider can also throw a 83-86 MPH changeup but with little fade and an inconsistent arm slot release, it’s the least developed of his pitches.
Sticking to his bread and butter, the heater and slide piece combo, Steckenrider has revitalized a career that once was on life support. He heads into spring training this year with a shot at making the Marlins’ bullpen. While he will have to do battle with the likes of more proven talent such as Brian Ellington, Hunter Cervenka and Jake Esch, don’t count Steckenrider out for a spot on the Opening Day roster this season.
Anderson, a Marlins’ 2014 fourth round draft pick, heads into 2017 as Miami’s top positional prospect. He earns that title after a .265/.348/.389 2016 campaign. After getting off to a .302/.377/.440 start with the Hammerheads, Anderson made the difficult jump to AA. In 86 games, he slammed eight homers, bettered only by two other Jacksonville Suns. He also appeared, as evidenced by collective 1.67 K/BB (including a 59/36 K/BB with the Suns) to temper the strikeout woes that hampered him in 2015 when he K’d 109 times to just 40 walks (2.275 K/BB). Improved plate vision and patience allowed the power hitter to get under and square up the ball much more often as shown by a 0.76 GB/FB rate as opposed to the 1.03 mark he posted in ’15 and the fact that he collected 128 hits, most in the organization. At the end of the year, he was named the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year. Despite all of these positives and accolades all of which he showed while making the hardest jump there is to make in the minors, Anderson was critical of his .243/.330/.359 tenure with the Suns, equating it to nerves and the stress he put on himself to succeed right away and with that initial high-tension situation out of the way, promised bigger things in 2017.
“Any time you jump a level you want to instantly have an impact,” said Anderson. “That’s kind of what happened with me. I went up there and put a lot of pressure on myself to perform really well. You just have to take a step back and realize that it’s baseball, it’s a game, you’ve been playing it your whole life.”
Anderson gave a sneak-peak and what those bigger things will be in the Arizona Fall League. In 22 games and 77 ABs, Anderson lit the AFL ablaze by hitting a league-most five homers with a .273/.360/506 slash line numbers which ranked right up on the offensive leader boards with some of baseball’s top prospects such as the Indians’ Bradley Zimmer, BaseballAmerica’s #31, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, #41, the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, #54. His .866 OPS was fifth in the AFL and his .234 ISO ranked third. Anderson ended his 2016 tenure with the Solar Sox by going 2-4 and smacking his sixth homer of the campaign to help Mesa to the league championship crown.
Anderson is a third baseman by trade and is extremely athletic making him good for the occasional spectacular play. However, his 6’3″, 185 pound frame along with his inaccurate throwing arm that was the primary culprit in him racking up 27 total errors last year and 18 in 2015 make him a much better fit at the other corner.
While Anderson will need to continue his positive development in the upper minors to start 2017, his successful 2016 campaign along with his showing in the AFL definitely has him in very good standing with the organization. With a good showing in spring training and continued success with the Shrimp, Anderson could put himself in the running for an MLB debut this year, especially if the Marlins follow through with not signing a lefty hitting platoon partner for Justin Bour in favor of carrying an extra reliever. Last year, Anderson hit lefties at a .303/.370/.500 clip.
Riddle, the Marlins’ 13th rounder from 2013 comes into 2017 as the club’s ninth best prospect. He earns that title after a .276/.326/.366 campaign in 389 ABs with the Suns followed by a .268/.281/.357 15 game tenure in AAA to end the year. The 25-year-old has had success in every level he has played at. His .274/.318/.369 career bat has helped negate the fact that he entered the majors as a 22-year-old following a three-year college career at the University of Kentucky in which he slashed .283/.358/.384. He has extremely quick bat speed within his snappy line drive approach, which allows him to limit Ks as he fights off tough pitches (he boasts a an above average 14% K rate for his career) but he does need to improve his patience and career walk rate of just 6% in order to become every day starting material.
What puts Riddle in the conversation to be an every day contributor to an MLB lineup someday soon despite owning a slightly above average career MiLB .274 BA and .687 OPS at age 25 is the fact that he is a wizard defensively. In regards to middle infield prospects, Riddle is perhaps one of the best in baseball. In 2020.1 MiLB innings at shortstop, Riddle has made just 34 errors and posted a 4.17 career range factor. He is equally as good at second base, the position he played most in college and in which he has been at fault for just one single error in 262.2 career minor league innings. Riddle boasts equally as impressive range at second via a 4.13 range factor. His arm which has been clocked as high as 93 MPH as well as his ability to make fantastic reads off the bat also give him eligibility at third base and all three outfield positions. Should Riddle improve his plate vision and learn to work counts a bit better, he lines up as an elite defender with average offensive skills and speed, exemplary of a bottom of the order catalyst advantageous to turning the lineup back over. At the very least, his glove already makes him a more than solid defensive replacement. Thanks to his flexibility and prowess at a range of defensive positions, with a good showing this spring and continued improvement in New Orleans, Riddle could make his major league debut later this year.
4 – Tayron Guerrero, RHP
Guerrero, the organization’s 26th best prospect, came to the Marlins as a secondary piece in the Andrew Cashner trade but may prove to be the only valuable piece the Marlins get out of it. That is if Guerrero can iron out one big issue: body control. Once a tall lanky arms and legs guy, Guerrero bulked up, going from 170 pounds to 210 pounds in a single offseason. While the extra poundage and muscle turned his once mediocre 86 MPH fastball ranking 45-50 on the 30-80 scale into a sizzling 95 MPH offering with the ability to reach triple digits, giving it a 65-70 rating, the same problems he’s had since the beginning of his career in keeping his long extremities under his control have persisted. This stems from a herky-jerky delivery that holds little to no fluidity and fluctuating unstable release points. Guerrero has showed flashes of a successful late inning reliever at times offsetting his straight and narrow fastball with a good late sweeping out pitch slider but his inability to stay consistent is what has kept him out of MLB bullpens and instead mired in the minors.
Albeit in a tiny sample of 14 IP, Guerrero has had a good start to his Marlins’ organizational career, tossing to the tune of a 1.93 ERA by way of a 1.00 WHIP and .212 BAA but aside from the fact that it was at the AA level, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Guerrero’s career has been a roller coaster that has seen him go from showing the make up of a good closer only to regress back to him barely being worthy of a spot in AAA. That trend reared its ugly head again this past year. After the aforementioned solid start with the Suns, he went to the Dominican Winter League and allowed eight runs in 3.2 IP.
The reason why Guerrero makes this list despite his struggles is that when he has been on, he has resembled Carter Capps, whom, along with slugger Josh Naylor, the Marlins gave up in the trade that brought Guerrero and Cashner to Miami. With a short distance to go to the plate, a downhill delivery, some of the hottest heat in the league and a great slider that he tilts and commands well to the corners when he’s going good, if Guerrero finds his consistency, he could become a mainstay at the back of the bullpen and could at least partially Band-Aid another woeful Marlins trade that saw one of their bullpen anchors as well as a budding young power hitter go away in favor of 11 rental starts worth of a 5.98 ERA, provided by Cashner before he himself left town for Texas this offseason.
Even if Guerrero has a lights out spring, he likely won’t make the club out of camp, but by making a positive impact and getting off to a steady start in AAA, Guerrero could be a candidate to join what is shaping up to be an eight man Marlins bullpen later this year. At 25, it is pretty much make it or break it time for Guerrero. Despite not being able to find his groove on the mound on a regular basis, Guerrero has always been a fierce competitor. So, struggles aside, I wouldn’t count him out to finally put it all together and break through this season.
5 – Jarlin Garcia, LHP
Garcia is a 24-year-old 6’3″, 215 pound lefty in his seventh year in the Marlins’ organization. He came to the Fish as an international signee out of the Dominican in 2011 and impressed early in his pro career, tossing 52.0 3.29 ERA innings in his native country then coming to the US and adjusting to stateside ball very quickly and easily, tossing a very similar 40.0 innings worth of 3.60 ERA ball. He continued to fly through the minors in 2013, posting a 3.10 ERA in 69.2 innings with Batavia, by way of a 1.09 WHIP. His 74 strikeouts that year were fifth most in the New York Penn League and his K/BB% of 19.7% was second best. Garcia took a step back in adjusting to full season ball but was still a fairly decent 4.38 ERA in by far the most extensive season of his baseball career and more than double the innings he pitched the year previous. However, by being the best control pitcher in the Sally proven by the fact that he struck out the league’s tenth most batters, 111, and walked its fewest hitters, 21 thereby posting its best overall K/BB of 5.29%, Garcia was able to erase a high .280 BAA by posting a 1.29 WHIP, 12th lowest in the Sally. Because of the amazing authority he had over his arsenal, Garcia’s heightened .332 BABIP and even more decent than his ERA, 3.77 FIP as well as being honored with a Futures’ Game selection that season tells us he once again pitching like a top prospect worthy of a call to the next level. Garcia got that call at the beginning of the year in 2015 and got off to a 3.06, 1.227 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB% start in 97 innings with the Hammerheads before receving yet another callup to AA. Making the tough jump and pitching against competition an average of three years older than him, Garcia struggled in seven Suns’ starts. However, stats aside, backed by the fact that the Marlins added him to the 40-man at the time of his Jacksonville call-up, Garcia had successfully put himself on the radar to make his MLB debut sometime in the very near future, perhaps as early as 2016.
However, that season, Garcia’s progression would take a very unfortunate step back. After getting a peak in spirng training and after 35.2 innings of 4.04 ERA ball with 25/9 K/BB, the Marlins called Garcia, a starter, up to the bigs in order for him to apparently help an injury-riddled bullpen only to leave him sitting on the bench for the next eight days. Upon his return to the minors, Garcia’s first start lasted two innings. The control-first pitcher only threw 29 of his 45 pitches for strikes. In his second start, he was removed in the third inning after allowing four runs. Five days later, it was revealed that Garcia had a triceps injury and he was placed on the DL retroactive to his first outing back with the Suns.
After missing nearly three full months, Garcia returned to the mound on a rehab stint in the Gulf Coast League preceding him ending his season with the Hammerheads. In those 10 innings against talent below his level, he allowed just one run and held down an 11/1 K/BB. Following the MiLB season’s end, Garcia continued his rehab first in the Arizona Fall League then in the Dominican League where he posted a combined 3.56 ERA in 20.2 IP with a 14/5 K/BB and a 1.18 WHIP. He enters spring training this season as a guy who is still on the Marlins’ radar by way of him being their number three prospect and one of the best control arms in the entire organization but at 24 on his way back from a serious arm injury, he may be destined for the bullpen which is a bit depressing considering Garcia’s ceiling when he came into the professional ranks.
Still, even if Garcia doesn’t start, he can provide great value to a bullpen by way of his four quality above-average pitches and the control he has over all of them. Throwing from a delivery incredibly smooth from a guy of his 6’3″, 215 pound build. Where he deceives hitters best is on his follow-through which he explodes into after the aforementioned slow methodical windup which itself comes after a slow methodical look-in to his catcher and pace of play as he owns the mound and gets inside the mind of his opposition. His snappy follow-through and size allow him to generate easy low-mid 90s velo which at times can go higher. Garcia’s best breaking pitch is his changeup which is shows a good velo drop off of at least 10 MPH from his heat. Usually sitting in the 80-82 MPH range and shows good fade and depth. Garcia’s third pitch curve is a more average pitch which he struggles with the release point of because of his aforementioned ramped up follow-through but which he has shown the ability to throw with good downward bite. The fourth pitch slider is Garcia’s least developed pitch. He doesn’t have a great feel for it but he does run it well away from hitters at times giving it good mix-in value.
While Garcia’s future as a rotation piece is in doubt due the fact that he needs to develop a lot more command in a short period of time, he is still a guy that, based on his control alone, could provide solid innings eating relief help out of the bullpen. It’s doubtful he makes the squad in any capacity out of camp, but he is a guy to watch this spring and in the minors thereafter as he tries to get back on track after being bitten by the injury bug last year. A fierce competitor as shown by the fact that he played as much as he could at two different levels basically all offseason long trying to put the missed time behind him, I wouldn’t put it past Garcia to return with a fire lit under him this year.
A few months back at the winter meetings, the Marlins passed on a multitude of offers they had on the table offering proven MLB pitching help for their top pitching prospect above A, Luis Castillo. They passed on all of them. This week, the Marlins dealt Castillo along with swing man Austin Brice and raw but talented outfielder Isaiah White, three of their top 16 prospects, for first-year Reds’ starter last year, Dan Straily whom they claimed off of waivers last April.
Straily is a 24th round draft pick by the Oakland Athletics from 2008. He had an average to mediocre start to his minor league career, posting a 4.09 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP before breaking out in AA and AAA in 2012. In 152 IP that year, he had a 3.02 ERA and an even 1.000 WHIP before getting his first major league cup of coffee in August. In two combined short stints with the A’s that equaled 39 IP at the end of that season, he held down an ERA just shy of 4 (3.89) and a 1.322 WHIP. Despite the fairly solid year, Straily was left off the A’s 2013 Opening Day roster and began a second year in AAA. But after holding down a 1.14 ERA in his first five starts, he was called up to begin his first full year in the majors. Pitching in 27 starts and 152.1 IP, the 24-year-old rookie was moderately impressive. He negated a pretty high walk rate of 3.4 by allowing just 132 hits, spelling out a 1.241 WHIP and a 3.96 ERA Five years younger than the average major leaguer, it looked as though Straily, with a solid enough for a back-end starter rookie year in his pocket even though he had a very limited arsenal of just two plus WAR pitches, good heat and a nasty slider and was very susceptible to the homer (2.5 HR/9), had plenty of room to grow.
However, in 2014, Straily faded back into mediocrity. He made his first Opening Day roster and despite one start in which he allowed six runs, was his usual self, posting a 3.5 walk rate and a 2.1 HR/9 but again negated them by allowing a total of 33 hits, leading him to another solid WHIP of 1.252. On the forefront his 4.93 ERA beginning to his second MLB season was hideous but erase the aforementioned one bad start and his ERA was 3.54 with four quality starts. However, the A’s apparently couldn’t look past that one unfortunate outing. They sent Straily back to AAA on May 8th. For the next two seasons, Straily would remain mired in the minor league systems of three different organizations, unable to return to the form he flashed in 2013 and 2014. From a 4.71 ERA, 1.270 WHIP first half of 2014 with the Sacramento Bees of Oakland’s system to a 4.09, 1.436 second half with the Iowa Cubs whom he joined as part of the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija trade to a 4.77, 1.402 full season with the Fresno Grizzlies, Houston’s AAA affiliate whom he joined after the trade that sent Dexter Fowler to the Cubs in 2015 with a few equally unimpressive MLB spot starts sprinkled in, Straily was in serious danger of putting a label on himself that no baseball player wants: AAAA player.
This past year, the Reds gave Straily perhaps his final chance to prove he can make it in the majors. After joining the Padres in a minor trade only to be DFA’d by them before ever appearing in a game for their organization, the Reds, Straily’s fifth club in four seasons, claimed him off waivers. In a do-or-die year in reference to his career in Major League Baseball, it would appear on the forefront that Straily was able to return to to form. In the most hitter friendly park in the league, he posted a 3.76 ERA by way of a 1.19 WHIP. However, if we delve deeper into Straily’s stats, it is revealed that he seems to have been a very fortunate beneficiary of circumstance.
First, let’s take a look at Straily’s BABIP. Where the major league average is .298 and Straily’s career MLB average is .255, he put up a .239. Unsustainable. Also unsustainable is Straily’s LOB%. Where that MLB average was 72.9% and Straily’s career average is 74.3%, he stranded runners at a ridiculous 81.2% rate. Unless you believe Straily has suddenly become comparable to guys like Jon Lester, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks (all of whom had higher BABIPs than Straily), he will not be capable of posting metrics like that again. The numbers from Straily’s good full season with the Astros are astronomically different. That year, his BABIP was a much more realistic .266 and his LOB% a much more regulated 70.3%. So again, Straily didn’t return to that form last year; he was just lucky. What aided him in his good fortune was a good Reds’ defense. Even though it committed the seventh most errors in baseball, the Cincinnati D only lost a total of 6.5 runs to them. In nearly every other one of their advanced fielding metrics including their 17.1 range runs above average which ranked ninth in baseball, their 6.0 ultimate zone rating which ranked 13th, their 10 runs above average good fielding plays which ranked third and their overall 11.0 Def rating, the Reds’ defense was one of the better manned fields in the league.
The luck Straily had and the aid he got from his defense is further proven by the 5.02 xFIP, the rate at which Straily could’ve been expected to give up runs independent of fielders. It was the highest xFIP among NL starters. Straily’s good fortune is also proven by the rate at which he gave up hard contact, 32.2%, 11th highest among NL starters. Straily induced ground balls at the absolute lowest rate in the NL among starters, 32% which is fine for a pure fly ball pitcher. But he also allowed the most homers in baseball, 31, by way of the 15th highest HR/FB ratio among NL starters. Great American Ballpark which had the fourth highest park factor in baseball is to blame, right? Well, no. In almost the exact same amount of innings on the road (92) versus at home (99), Straily gave up 18 homers. His total surrendered at Great American was 13. Looking at those same home/road splits a bit further will just baffle you even more and points to just how much of a ridiculous anomaly Straily’s 2016 campaign was. He was overall better — a lot better — at the his hitters’ haven band box of a home park as opposed on the road. Again, in nearly the same amount of innings at home versus on the road, he held hitters to a .193 BA and posted a 2.90 ERA. On the road? .242 BAA and a 4.70 ERA. His home and road BABIPs? A virtually unheard of (especially considering where he was pitching and a mark which very well may be the lowest ever posted at that park) .213 versus a much more regulated .266 on the road.
So here we have in Straily, a guy which had one decent full season in the majors before spending most of the rest of his career in the minors, a guy the Reds threw a bone by giving him quite possibly his final chance to succeed in the majors, and a guy who did so by having one of the luckiest seasons imaginable. It is only fair to mention that Straily’s 2016 season shouldn’t be completely written off as nothing but good fortune. He appeared to make some adjustments for the second half which brought an 8.3 K/BB% all the way up to 11.2% and he had one of the best sliders in baseball, value wise at 13.9 wins above replacement. It is on those hopes and the move to pitcher friendly NL East that the Fish are basing their hopes on Straily continuing to “rediscover” himself. If he can’t, at least he won’t be costing Miami much money. He is under club control until 2020.
While that all would be well and good to confide a couple B-C type prospects in, the Marlins parted with Luis Castillo (for the second time in a year, no less which raises questions about what the Marlins thought of his ability despite great on-field performance) their best minor league pitching prospect above single A, a guy who has the ability hit triple digits with his great sinking fastball and who has a fantastic changeup as well as great control over both of them and who is very close to making a major league debut, especially if he can continue to improve his command. They also lost a very solid hurler in Austin Brice, a guy who can pitch either from the back of the rotation or out of the bullpen thanks to a free and easy repeatable delivery despite his large size. Pitching in a swing man role this past year, he appeared to iron out the rest of his control issues on his way to a 2.74 ERA via a 1.098 WHIP between AA and AAA on his way to making his MLB debut. Brice has a debilitating curveball and, getting his 6’4″ 235 pound frame behind his pitches, a fastball that consistently sits mid 90s and has the ability to go even higher. He shortens the distance to the plate by throwing from a full circle arm angle in which he hides the ball well. Whether it be as a back end starter or a reliever, he definitely has a future in the majors that, like Castillo, isn’t far away.
The Marlins could have simply given their final rotation spot to Jeff Locke, a guy who has struggled last year but, with his return to the tutelage of the famous “pitcher whisperer”, Jim Benedict, the guy who made him an All-Star in 2013 and a 3.69 ERA, 1.365 WHIP, 4.02 xFIP contributor from 2013-15 in Pittsburgh, had as good a chance if not a better one as Straily did to return to his former “glory”. If Locke didn’t, Castillo, with continued success in AA/AAA, would be waiting in the wings to join the rotation and/or Brice, who already made his MLB debut last year, would be waiting to join either the rotation or the bullpen in long relief, allowing the Marlins to move David Phelps back to the rotation. Instead, the Fish lose both of those young prospects for a 27-year-old former journeyman with very little self-made major league success in his pocket.
All things considered, what can we expect from Straily? If he does manage to win the final rotation spot out of spring training, something the Marlins have yet to commit to him in favor of saying they will still run an open competition, home league aside, there is no way he will post another BABIP as low as he did in 2016. That said, even though the Marlins have a better defense than the Reds did last year, his ERA, unless he’s on the same level a two-time lottery winner, should be closer to his xFIP. With Straily turning 28, making an educated guess, I would credit him with no better than a 4.50 ERA via a 1.3 WHIP and 20+ homers allowed. That is what not one, not two but three of our top 16 prospects will have cost us.
Bravo, Mr. Hill. Bravo.
Who was the best #Marlins number 7? Winner joins the All-Fish Team!
— Fish On The Farm (@marlinsminors) December 29, 2016
When you’re only a member of a franchise for one full season, it’s tough to warrant being named one of it’s best players of all time. That is unless you accomplish what Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez did in 2003. That season, Pudge called some of the biggest games and made some of the team’s biggest plays, making him an integral part of the leadership that brought the Marlins back atop the mountain and gave them their second World Series title in six years and thereby making him the greatest Marlin to ever wear the number seven.
Rodriguez got his start in baseball as a child in Puerto Rico as a little league pitcher. However, he was too good at it. So good that his father received complaints from other parents in the league that his arm was scaring other children and making them not want to go to games on days they knew Rodriguez was throwing. As a means of mercy, Rodriguez’s dad moved him to catcher. Little did he know later in life his presence behind the plate would strike similar fear in potential base stealers.
At age 16, Rodriguez was noticed by scout Luis Rosa, the same scout that discovered the likes of Sandy and Roberto Alomar and Pudge’s little league rival, Juan Gonzalez. Even in his teenage years, Rosa said he saw things in Pudge he had rarely seen in many others, including his ability to captain his team both tangibly and intangibly.
“Pudge was hard-nosed, even then,” Rosa has said. “He showed leadership at 16 that I’d seen in few kids. He knew where he was going.”
After signing with the Texas Rangers in 1988, Rodriguez made his minor league debut as a 17-year-old. In two full seasons and a small part of a third in MiLB, he hit .265/.296/.370 with 125 RBI on 68 XBH. Even though the numbers were decent enough for a teenager adjusting to life in both the United States and in the professional baseball ranks, a major league call-up after just 969 ABs, only 50 of which came in the upper minors and none of which came in AAA seemed a bit premature. However, upon making his MLB debut in June of 1991 at age 19, nine and a half years younger than the average big leaguer and the second youngest player in baseball, second only to Todd Van Poppel by 12 days, Pudge debunked that belief by hitting .264/.276/.354 in his first 80 MLB games. He also threw out 36 of 70 or 49% of potential base stealers making him the best behind-the-plate gun slinger in the league. At season’s end, Rodriguez placed fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Pudge spent the next ten years with the Rangers placing the building blocks of a legacy that has a lot of people today calling him one of the best catchers of all time. From 1992-2002, Rodriguez slashed .307/.345/.496 with a BA and SLG that ranked second among all of baseball’s backstops. Over that same span, he gunned down 424 of 842, or an even 50% of potential base swipers which blew away the rest of the competition in baseball (among qualifiers with 1,000+ innings played). Accordingly, in that 1,391 game span, Rodriguez posted a 499.2 RAR and a 48.9 WAR, making him the 15th most valuable player in the league and the second most valuable catcher. Those marks were made possible by a 89.4 Off rating (calculated, in short, by adding park adjusted RAA with weighted stolen base and double play runs RAA and ultimate baserunning rating and determines how good a player’s all-around offensive game (as opposed to only what he does with the bat or, in other words, his weighted OBP or runs created) is compared to a replacement level player), which ranked fifth among backstops as well as a ridiculous 209.7 Def rating (or positional adjusted runs above average) a mark that was 71.5 runs better than his next closest competitor. In each of those ten seasons, Rodriguez was selected as an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner. In six of them, he won the Silver Slugger award. His best single season over the course of his first 11 seasons (and arguably the best season of his career) came in 1999. That year, Rodriguez hit .332/.356/.558 with the seventh best AL BA and its 9th best SLG. His 35 homers were the 11th most in the AL and set a new league record for long balls by a catcher, his 113 RBI ranked 14th, and his 116 runs scored ranked seventh. Never really known as much of a base stealer, Pudge somewhat surprisingly swiped 25 bags, making him the first catcher in the then 98 year history of the American League to steal at least 20 bags and hit at least 20 homers in a single season. All of this spelled out a 20.9 Off rating, 22nd in his league and second among all catchers. Behind the plate, Pudge was his usual spectacular self that year, once again leading baseball in caught stealing percentage this time with a 55% (41/75). His 28.2 Def rating not only once again led all catchers by a wide margin, he was actually the seventh best defensive player in all of baseball. Altogether, by way of a 71.4 RAR and a 6.8 WAR, Rodriguez was the eighth most valuable position player baseball and the fourth most valuable position player in the AL. In a very close race with Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and others, Pudge won the AL MVP Award. At just 27, with his career not even half over, Rodriguez had people, including opposing managers, calling him one of, if not the single greatest catcher of all time and advising Cooperstown to get a jump-start on the carving of his Hall Of Fame plaque.
“He might be the best catcher I’ve ever seen,” Blue Jays skipper Jim Fregosi said. “He could retire right now and go into the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench had more power, but Bench never had this guy’s quickness.”
Even though he suffered a season ending injury on a freak play at the beginning of the second half of the 2000 season, Pudge still managed to hit .322/.357/.579 with the seventh best BA and SLG in baseball in his final three years with Texas. His 50% CS% and 37.5 Def rating over that span put him in very familiar territory as the best backstop in the AL. He went to two more All-Star games and won two more Gold Gloves. He should have won another Silver Slugger in 2002 when he was again the best offensive AL catcher but was somehow beaten out by Jorge Posada who hit .268/.370/.468 to his .314/.353/.542.
Following the 2002 season, after 11 professional seasons, Pudge waved goodbye to the Texas Rangers, leaving a legacy in his wake that will forever have him labeled one of the best players in their franchise history. In those 11 years, Pudge was a 49.2 WAR player, the seventh best all-around player in the AL and the best all-around player in Rangers history, a title that Pudge still holds today. He is also still the best defensive WAR player in Rangers history and appears on many of the franchise’s career leaderboards including BA (.304, 7th), SLG (.488, 9th), OPS (.828, 10th), runs scored (866, 4th), hits (1,747, 2nd), doubles (352, 2nd), triples (28, 5th), homers (217, 4th), RBIs (842, 4th) and runs created (900, 4th).
In 2003, Rodriguez brought that legacy to Miami. As one of the signings that got the season-long spending spree started that year and saw the Marlins’ payroll go from $40 million a year previous to $63 million (only to go back to $42 million on Opening Day 2004) the Marlins inked Pudge to a one year, $10 million deal, one of the higher single season price tags in team history, especially at the time. Rodriguez wound up being worth every penny. Along with contributing a .297 batting average, a mark which was fifth among NL catchers 16 homers (3rd among NL catchers) and 85 RBIs (2nd) to the lineup, Pudge served as the veteran anchor to a rotation with the average age of 25. He mentored and led that child-like rotation to a regular season 58% quality start percentage (94 QS in 162 games), tied for fourth best in baseball and an average game score of 53, third best in the game. Pudge himself didn’t make the All-Star Game that year (even though he was hit .300/.375/.515 to backup selection Paul Lo Duca’s .307/.374/.438) the work he did with rookie Dontrelle Willis got D-Train into an NL All-Star uniform.
In the 2003 playoffs, Rodriguez was not-so-arguably the Marlins’ best player in every round. In the division series, he slashed .353/.450/.588 and provided some of the most crucial clutch hits. In game three, Pudge staked the Fish to an early 2-0 lead with the first postseason homer of his career. Ten innings later in the bottom of the 11th, he strode to the plate with the Marlins’ win expectancy down to 27%, an out away from going down 2-1 in the five game series. With the bases loaded, Rodriguez singled down the right field line, scoring Alex Gonzalez from third and the speedy Juan Pierre from second, giving the Marlins a huge 4-3 win.
The very next game, Rodriguez would once again be involved in the game deciding play, this time on the other side of the ball. After the Marlins took a 5-1 lead early, the Giants clawed back with a four run 6th inning and going into the 9th, trailed by just two runs, 7-5. After a leadoff double, JT Snow plated the Giants’ sixth run with an RBI single. Closer Ugeth Urbina battled back to strike out Pedro Feliz and get Benito Santiago on a popout but then hit Rod Durham with a pitch putting the tying run in scoring position for Jeffrey Hammonds. On the first pitch of the at bat, Hammonds struck a slow sinking fly ball into left field that fell just in front of a hard charging Jeff Conine. At that point, as Snow neared third with third base coach Gene Glynn waving him home against the arm of a 37-year-old, it looked as though the Giants were going to return the favor that Rodriguez presented them with two nights earlier. However, somehow, Conine, who had made the full-time switch to the infield four years earlier and was playing in just his 75th game in the outfield over a 662 game span, somehow came up with a perfect one-hop throw to the outside of the baseline just outside of the right handed batter’s box to a waiting Rodriguez. Pudge adjusted slightly and and braced for a huge railroad hit by Snow that sent his catcher’s mask flying high in the air and his body flying across the plate into the grass behind the plate. The ball though stayed put snug in Rodriguez’s glove and the Marlins remained in the race for their second World Series title in six years. It is a play that has become synonymous with the Marlins’ title run that year and the play that Marlins fans automatically reminisce to when they hear the name Ivan Rodriguez.
But Pudge wasn’t done there. In the next round, the seven game NL Championship Series against the Cubs, he hit .321/.424/.607 with two homers and 10 RBI on his way to becoming the NLCS MVP. The first of Rodriguez’s homers of that series came in the third inning of game one, a three run bomb that helped erase a Cubs’ 4-0 lead that they built in the bottom of the 1st and sparked a Marlins’ 9-8 11 inning win. After hitting a second homer in game five, Rodriguez was a key contributor to the Marlins’ miraculous game seven come-from-behind win. After falling behind 5-3 in the third inning, the Fish led off the 5th inning with two walks, a flyout sandwiched in between. With one out, Rodriguez took the first Kerry Wood pitch he saw to deep left field, scoring pinch runner Brian Banks, drawing Florida to within two and moving Luis Castillo to third. Two batters later after a fourth Marlins’ run scored on a Miguel Cabrera fielder’s choice groundout and moved him to third, Pudge scored the tying run on a Derek Lee line drive single. Successfully jump-started by Rodriguez, the Marlins would go on to complete the rally by scoring three more unanswered runs and eventually winning 9-6 to move on to their second World Series in 2,190 days.
Again though, Rodriguez wasn’t done providing huge moments for the Marlins that year. In the World Series, he hit .273/.292/.364 and caught a pitching staff that held the New York Yankees, a team which scored the fourth most runs in baseball by way of its fourth most homers and third best OPS, to 3.21 runs per game. His game calling and the same leadership skills his scout, Rosa noticed in him as a teenager helped produce series MVP Josh Beckett who held down a 1.10 ERA in two starts and 16.1 IP. All in all in those playoffs, Rodriguez hit .313/.389/.522. After them, his Marlins tenure would come to an end but in just 155 games, Rodriguez accomplishments were enough to establish him as arguably the greatest Marlins catcher in franchise history. Among catchers who played at least 100 games, his .297 BA in ’03 was a Marlins’ single-season record as were his .474 slugging percentage, 36 doubles, 85 RBI and 10 stolen bases. His 16 homers are the third most ever in a single Marlins backstop’s season. Value wise, Pudge’s 4.4 WAR is another of his Marlins’ single season catcher records. It also ranks as the fourth best single campaign in franchise history among all position players.
Following his short but sweet Marlins’ career, Pudge moved on to a third city where he would for the third time, become a franchise MVP. For the 2004-2007 Detroit Tigers, he hit .298/.326/.453 with 114 doubles, 14 triples, 57 homers and 268 RBI. He was an All-Star selection in each of those years, won Gold Gloves in three, and a Silver Slugger in one. Defensively, he contributed a 41% CS% while leading the league in that stat in both 2005 and 2006, and a 49.5 Def rating, third among all of baseball’s catchers over that span. After a .295/.338/.417 start to 2008, Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees. His Detroit legacy is firmly cemented by way of a .298 BA, a .449 SLG, 62 homers, 300 RBI and 30 SB, marks that rank third, fourth, fifth, sixth and first in the 116 year history of Tigers catchers. WAR wise, Rodriguez is the fifth best catcher in Detroit franchise history, behind the likes of Freehan, Parrish and Tettleton, each of which have a Hall Of Fame case.
After moving from New York to Houston then back to Texas and finally to Washington in the twilight of his career, Pudge retired in 2011. In his 21 year career, Rodriguez hit .296/.334/.464. He owns the all-time MLB record for games played at catcher 2,427 and accordingly, ABs by a catcher at 10,270. His 572 doubles are also most all-time among backstops. With 311, his homer total ranks seventh most all-time among those to man the #2 position and his 1,332 RBI rank fifth. Pudge is the third most valuable catcher in baseball history (68.4 WAR) trailing only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. He is one of just five players in all of baseball lore to hit at least .290 with 2,500+ hits, 550 doubles, 300 HR and 1,300 RBI. The others are some guys named Ruth, Aaron, Brett and Bonds.
With some of baseball’s best accolades at the catcher position over a storied 21 year career, Pudge could make the National Baseball Hall Of Fame on his first nomination this coming week. However, he placed himself in the Marlins’ Hall Of Fame long ago by having one of the best seasons in franchise history behind the plate. Even though his time with the Fish was short, fans remain grateful for the time they got with Pudge and what he gave them in leading the franchise to a title. It is for those reasons that Ivan Rodriguez makes the All-Fish Team as the best all-time wearer of the number seven.
Cast your votes on Twitter (@marlinsminors) and check back next week when I will reveal whom you selected as the Marlins’ greatest donner of the number eight.
Armando Gallaraga had done it. He had made history. On June 2, 2010 with two outs in the ninth, he got Cleveland Indians infielder Jason Donald to ground out to third base thereby sealing the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. 17,738 fans in attendance at Comerica Park saw it that way. All of the players on the field saw it that way. Both benches saw it that way. Thousands watching on television saw it that way. The broadcasters saw it that way. The ice cream vendor trying to make a last minute sale in section 302 saw it that way. However, there was one man who saw it differently: first base umpire Jim Joyce. Upon the throw hitting the back of Gallaraga’s glove and his foot hitting the first base bag seemingly a step ahead of hitter Jason Donald, Joyce, to the surprise of everyone else watching, called the runner safe. As a result, history was altered and Gallaraga and the Tigers were denied an entry in Cooperstown. This call by Joyce sent the baseball world into a frenzy. Knee-jerk reactors began calling for Joyce to be axed or forced to retire, others were calling for a formal apology (which Joyce did give), others called for baseball to award Gallaraga the perfect game regardless of the outcome. Meanwhile, the most sensible and fair minded baseball fans questioned what could be done to prevent this from happening again. Up until this point, baseball had a form of instant replay. However, under that system, only umpires could initiate a challenge of a previously made call and only another umpire could overturn it. The only type of play that could be challenged was a home run boundary call. It took MLB four more years to finally find a solution to the call that kept Gallaraga from his perfect game and oodles of other controversial calls which led to a non-transparency of umpires in both years previous and in the three seasons to come since that fateful day in Detroit but in 2014, that solution finally came. Baseball expanded instant replay, making many more calls reviewable including safe/out calls and force play calls which would have saved Gallaraga’s history. Other reviewable situations included trap plays, tags on the basepaths, ground-rule doubles, fan interference, timing plays, scorekeeping issues and virtually everything while the ball is in the field of play.
As great as instant replay has been for the integrity of the game and the putting in place of umpires as game officials rather than game deciders, another big question still stands: what about the no-hitters that are taken away by a third strike being called a ball and that batter going on to single? What about the perfect games nullified by a strike being ruled a ball and that batter going on to walk? And as importantly if not more importantly, what about the ball and strike calls that tip the scales in favor of one team or the other sometimes multiple times a game that lead to a win for one team and a loss for the other? From 2013-2016, Major League Baseball claimed its home plate umpires called balls and strikes with 97% accuracy. However, this October, Dr. Toby Moskowitz, a Yale professor with more time on his hands and more patience than a patron saint, cooked that goose. By going back and looking at the PITCHf/x results of every single pitch recorded in MLB over that three year time frame, almost a million in total, he calculated that umpires only make the correct call 88% of the time. That means plate umpires are making incorrect calls 30,000 times a year. Even more baffling, it means they are making an incorrect call once every eight pitches. Looking at pitches that were within two inches of one of the corners of the plate, the results are even more terrifying. In those situations, umps got the call wrong 31% of the time or once in every three pitches. That’s right; one in every three corner painting pitches called inaccurately. These numbers prove that the fully human home plate umpire system isn’t only ruining the integrity of baseball, it is demolishing it at an alarming rate in every game played. If baseball hopes to make its umpires and officials truly transparent, something has to be done about balls and strikes. Over the years, many things have been suggested: fully robotic umpires, fully computerized strike zones, etc. However, whether it be because of fear of backlash from the umpires’ union due to the loss of umpiring jobs, fear of imperfect technology or fear of the next SkyNet takeover in the wake of a humanless behind-the-plate umpire environment, none of those ideas have gotten that far past the drawing board.
So what is the solution to calling more accurate balls and strikes? I bring you to a few weeks back while I was out holiday shopping. While at an electronics expo last month, I may have found the answer to this seemingly age old question. I present for your consideration augmented reality balls and strikes.
The technology I propose be introduced to baseball is called augmented reality. As opposed to virtual reality which completely replaces your real world surroundings with a simulated one, augmented reality preserves your natural environment but modifies it. Since the technology was perfected and the devices burst onto the consumer scene in 2013, they have proved plenty useful in a variety of fields. Along with the obvious embrace of augmented reality by the video game industry, it has also been adopted by the tourism industry where they act as tour guides pointing out famous historical landmarks when the wearer does nothing more than look at them and suggesting places of interest based on the region the wearer is in, it has been used in the print media by magazine companies who display digital content on top of their printed work and it aids in the translation of text in a foreign language, automatically deciphering it to the wearer’s native tongue when viewed. Augmented reality technology and devices have been most widely used in the education field, making lessons much more interactive than simply reading out of a textbook or sitting through a lengthy lecture. Thanks to AR, students who use it in the classroom retain information much more advantageously and are scoring better on exams. Augmented reality has also been used in the medical education replacing textbook photos with visuals of the real thing on a real life human being, in the automotive and manufacturing education system where a lot of complex instruction is better illustrated than simply stated and in the education of architects where blueprints are laid over actual structures.
Most of these fields use either a cell phone or tablet to take advantage of AR technology. However, for our case, neither one of these devices will do the trick. So I come to my inspiration for this suggestion, a device I got to play around with and sample at a live in-store seminar, an augmented reality headset. These devices which are available through a variety of manufacturers, look a lot like the virtual reality headsets which are increasing in popularity among kids and look like the next generation of video games in that they fit over your eyes in the same goggle-like fashion but as stated, the technology is a bit different in that it doesn’t attempt to bring you to a new world but to enhance the one you’re already in. Without having to touch, press or perform any sort of third party action, the device transplants data and holographic images on top of the wearer’s field of view. It also comes complete with full head motion adaptability meaning as you turn your head, the device reacts. In this way, umpires wouldn’t have to worry about a strike zone overlay being in the way of them viewing a play in the field or a close play at the plate. The headsets, including the model I tried out, are third party friendly and thousands of apps and games already exist for them. Accordingly, MLB already owns and maintains working copies of their MLB At Bat app on different software platforms. The app already houses the Gameday feature and one of its main commodities, a PITCHf/x-based ball/strike system. My proposition is that balls and strikes be decided solely on these metrics with the umpire there only as a middle man between the undisputed truth behind the location of a pitch and reality. Since PITCHf/x cameras and WiFi are already installed in every stadium and AR headsets are WiFi compatible, making augmented reality balls and strikes an actual reality from a technological standpoint should be a pretty smooth process. In the same way that current video replay system created jobs because requires a field timing official in each park to manage inning breaks, a replay coordinator on each team to decide when to challenge a call and a group of third party replay officials to decide the calls in the event of a challenge, each park would likely need to hire someone to oversee the PITCHf/x system and a team to maintain it as well as educate umpires on how to use it. So not only would this suggestion help the game from a competition standpoint, it would aid the league economically by creating more employment opportunities.
The inescapable nature of humanity is that human beings make mistakes. For the home plate umpire who is tasked with making split second decisions about where an object travelling between 80-100 miles an hour over 400 times a night, that room for error is very wide. In the past and up until recently, those errors were understood and written off as part of the game. While they are still understandable and condoned on behalf of the umpire making them, a mortal whose occupation is not one of envy, now that something can be done to fix those mistakes and save the competition and integrity of the game, not only should it be done, it must be done. The players and coaches who give this game their lives deserve it, the fans who give it their hearts deserve it and the employees, including the umpires who are expected to fulfill a nearly inhuman standard while working under a very fine microscope thus making them the subject of tons of scrutiny deserve it.
Of course even though the technology is present, this isn’t an overnight venture. Many things would need to be done to institute it into the game. For example, the headsets would have to be fitted to sit over a home plate umpire’s mask and they would have to be outfitted to withstand the impact of a foul ball. It would also need the approval of both the players union and the umpires’ union. However, despite all of the obstacles, if baseball made this a concentrated effort, fool-proof balls and strikes called with near 100% accuracy could make their debut in baseball within the next few seasons, just in time for the commercial release of the Microsoft HoloLens, the device which is expected to dominate the AR market. Partnering with a tech giant like Microsoft has had fantastic results for the NFL who use their Microsoft Surface Pro laptop/tablet along the sidelines and could have similar inter-promotional outcomes for MLB. How amazing does “Cowboy Joe West’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Real Life Umpire Simulator: the only game that allows you to umpire along with the pros!” sound?
One of the founding principles of the office of the Commissioner of Baseball is to act within the best interest of the league and to maintain and strengthen the league’s integrity. With everything needed in order to make competition much fairer as well as the opportunity to create jobs and create a business relationship with one of the world’s biggest technological giants within grasp, Robert Manfred has an opportunity and a responsibility to do just that. It is a proverbial fastball headed straight down the heart of the plate. Manfred is staring right at it. Let’s just hope he doesn’t miss the call.
Who represented the number 6 best for the #Marlins? Winner joins the All-Fish Team!
— Fish On The Farm (@marlinsminors) December 8, 2016
Occurring at the very end of the baseball Winter Meetings after all the hum and haw of the convention has already come and gone, the Rule 5 draft was often overlooked as merely a going through of motions necessary to satisfy the collective bargaining agreement. For the Marlins, t team which always looked for the thrifty option in years past, this seemed like the perfect place for them to go seeking a diamond in the rough. And in 2005, they found one. In that year’s draft, they selected the man who would go on to become one of the best players in franchise history and the man who makes our All-Fish Team as the best wearer of the number six, Dan Uggla.
Before being selected in the aforementioned ’05 Rule 5 draft, Uggla was initially drafted by the Diamondbacks in 2001 out of the University of Memphis where, in that same season, his junior year, he hit a ridiculous .379/.498/.790 and put his name near the top of most Conference USA leaderboards. That season in the tenth most games played and among the eighth most at bats conference wide, Uggla was second in doubles (28), homers (18), walks (42) and batting average. He lead C-USA in OBP, slugging and OPS. Naturally, he made the All-Coference Team and barely lost Player of the Year honors to Jake Gautreau. His collegiate exports had some scouts posting his draft stock as high as the eighth round.
Uggla fell a bit further than that but was still taken at a respectable position, the 11th round, by the Arizona Diamondbacks. However, unlike his fairly easy adjustment to life at the college level, things were a bit tougher for Uggla as he attempted to acclimate to proffesional ball. In his first two years as a big leaguer, Uggla hit just .241/.318/.355 with a 137/64 K/BB all below the AA level.
Uggla’s coming of age season finally came a bit late as in 2003, as one of single A advanced’s more elderly players (23), he hit .290/.355/.504. His 23 homers were second in his league, his 100 RBIs ranked fourth, and his .859 OPS was amongst the top 20. Despite the impressive season, the D-Backs still sent Uggla back to A+ to begin 2004. Finally, after a .336/.422/.600 start there that season, Uggla cracked AA as a 24-year-old. Making the toughest jump there is to make in the minors proved to be just as hard for Uggla. He hit just .258/.301/.353 with a 55/15 K/BB in his first 83 games there and though for a moment it looked as though he could place himself back on a timely track to the majors, Uggla, now 25 headed in to his second season in AA, was again in do-or-die territory.
That was when Uggla flipped his switch. After refining his craft by putting in some hard work hours in his first appearance in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .304/.390/.598 with it’s fourth most homers (7), 14th best SLG and 18th best OPS (.988) in 29 games while battling against the likes of Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew, Uggla returned to AA, this time even more an elder of the average player in his league. He spent that season slashing .297/.378/.502 slash line, the SLG of which ranked 12th, by way of the Southern League’s third most homers (21) and fourth most doubles (33). His 87 RBI were good for second most in the league. After that season, Uggla peaked the interest of the Marlins, a team which traditionally allowed its top prospects to skip AAA and come straight to the majors. For both Uggla, whose prospect status was in its expiry year and the Fish who were in need of a second baseman after the trade of mainstay Luis Castillo, putting Uggla in teal and black looked rto be mutually advantageous. As he was not a member of the D-Backs’ 40-man roster in 2005, and therefore eligible for the virtually overlooked (until now) Rule 5 draft, that offseason, the sneaky Marlins swiped him as part of the major league portion of the draft and made that a reality.
On paper, beginning his major league career in a brand new place for the first time in his career, it would appear Uggla had some adversity to overcome. He responded to the situation by having an All-Star worthy and Rookie of the Year worthy inaugural campaign. For the 2006 Marlins, Uggla hit .282/.339/.480 with an SLG that ranked ninth among rookies by way of 27 homers, second on the rookie list only to Prince Fielder. Backed by solid defense including the seventh best UZR amongst 2Bs (5.3), the fourth best double play runs saved (1.6), and sixth best Def rating (7.6) Uggla posted a 4.2 WAR, second best among rookies and only trumped by his teammate Hanley Ramirez, the same guy (along with Ryan Zimmerman) that edged him out for the Rookie of the Year award. After nearly falling off the map just a few seasons earlier, here Uggla was in the majors going to All-Star showcases and earning six votes for best first year player. Indeed his tenacious attitude and tremendous work ethic as well as some good fortune thrown his way by a team in need were to thank. In any event, Uggla had finally come full circle. And he had the Marlins’ front office looking like geniuses. Accordingly, with just one year under his belt, he had already endeared himself to the Miami faithful as a fan favorite.
Over the course of the next four years, Uggla furthered that endearment by becoming one of the best power hitters and most valuable players in the entire franchise’s history as well as one of the best offensive second basemen in the game. From 2007-2010, Uggla hit .259/.352/.490. That slugging percentage, made possible by 127 homers, most by a 2B over that span, and 144 doubles, fourth most, ranked second among men who regularly manned the number four position. His 13.9 WAR during that four year time period made Uggla the eighth most valuable 2B in the game. In each of those four seasons, Uggla hit at least 30 homers and at least 27 doubles and drove in at least 88 runs. In what would prove to be his swan song season with the Marlins in 2010, Uggla finally beat out his arch nemesis and most frequent NL competition, Chase Utley for the Silver Slugger by way of a career best .287/.369/.508 slash line and 105 RBIs. His 33 homers that year were his most in a single season as a Marlin.
Uggla went on to hit a career high 36 homers for the Braves and make another All-Star Game in 2012 but he never again posted an OPS over .800. Thus he will best be remembered for his days in Miami where he started in obscurity and became one of baseball’s top home run threats. He appears on Marlins’ career leaderboards in many major categories including WAR (6th, 15.6), slugging percentage (7th, .488), OPS (7th, .837), games played (8th, 776), runs scored (3rd, 499), hits (8th, 771), total bases (7th, 1,427) and doubles (6th, 170). With 154 long balls, he is the second best home run hitter in franchise history. He has also accounted for the fourth most extra base hits, 336, in Marlins’ lore. His 49 doubles in 2007 stand as the second most in a regular season by a Marlin and his aforementioned 33 homers in 2010 remain tied for sixth most in a single campaign by a Fish.
Though you wouldn’t guess it if you were looking at him stride to the plate for the first time, the 5’11”, 210 pounder was a threat to go yard every time he stepped to the plate. He became that version of himself by procuring a never-say-die attitude during his late years in the minors and working for everything he would become. A very easy guy to root for and a great baseball story, Dan Uggla makes our All-Fish Team as the best wearer of the number six.
Be sure to cast your vote on Twitter and join me here in the coming week where I will reveal who you decide was the best donner of the number seven and who becomes the next memeber of the All-Fish Team!