Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 25, 2021.

Just needed a year away: Mariners pitcher Chris Flexen disappointed with the Mets from 2017 to 2019, going 3-11 with an 8.07 ERA. In 68 innings, he allowed 91 hits and 54 walks, while striking out just 49 batters. After a year in Korea in which he went 8-4 with a 3.01 ERA and 10.2 K/9 IP in 21 starts, he returned to the majors this year and is a whole new man. With Seattle, he is 11-5 with a 3.54 mark in 24 starts. (I’m also aware I could have worked a “Flexen/Flexin’” pun in there somewhere).

Baseball America ranked Jorge Alfaro the 41st-best prospect going into 2017. (Wikipedia).

Take what you can get: Marlins fans have little to celebrate this year; catcher Jorge Alfaro included. Until recently. Over the past month, he’s hitting .284 with 7 doubles and 10  RBI, bringing his season average up over 20 points from .214 on July 23. It’s about time he starts paying off—the Marlins traded All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies for him.

Name checks out: Rays reliever Shawn Armstrong hasn’t had much to brag about this year, posting an 8.55 ERA during his time with the Orioles and a 7.20 ERA overall. Since being purchased by Tampa Bay, however, his fortunes have changed: In 3 appearances this past week—his first since early June—the hurler has tossed 5 innings, Ked 8 batters and posted a 1.80 ERA. Through mid-May, he had a season ERA over 10.

Garcia’s got it: Cardinals relief pitcher Luis Garcia, who is one of those guys you don’t realize has been around nearly a decade, is pitching just as well now as he ever did. Like Armstrong, his campaign started off poorly—not making his season debut until July 9, he had an ERA over 10 through his first 5 games. Since July 28, he hasn’t allowed a single run in 15 1/3 innings, surrendering just 1 walk and 7 hits. Hitters have batted an anemic .135/.151/.173 during that stretch. He had an All-Star quality campaign in 2017, when he posted a 2.66 ERA and 163 ERA+ in 66 appearances for Philadelphia.

Rookie of the Week? Over the past seven days, Royals rookie third baseman Emmanuel Rivera has slashed .353/.450/.588 with 5 runs. It’s a tidy line for the 25-year-old, who also slugged his first career home run, a solo shot off Cubs pitcher Zach Davies. Rivera was drafted by Kansas City in 2015 and had a good year with Single A Lexington in 2017, hitting 12 home runs, 27 doubles and driving 72 runs home.

Bernie Williams lasted two years on the Hall of Fame ballot. (Wikipedia).

Bernie better than we thought: For seven years, Bernie Williams was incredible. From 1995 to 2002, he slashed .321/.406/.531, while averaging 24 home runs, 102 RBI and 105 runs scored per campaign. From 1993 to 2006, he averaged 156 hits, 20 home runs and 92 runs scored per season, while batting an even .300; he had double digit home runs each year and reached 100 runs and RBI eight and five times, respectively. He was no slouch in the postseason, hitting 22 home runs with 80 RBI in 465 at-bats; he batted .321 in 162 ALCS ABs, winning the Series MVP in 1996. It’s unlikely he’ll be elected any time soon, but Williams wouldn’t hurt the Hall of Fame if he got in.

Off to a great start: Relief pitcher Indigo Diaz was drafted by the Braves in the 27th round in 2019 and is in his first full professional season this year. He’s already making a name for himself. In 40 innings over 29 appearances, he has allowed just 16 hits and struck out 77 batters—that’s 17.3 per nine innings. He averaged exactly 2 per frame at Single A; in 11 games at Double A, he has a 0.00 ERA. His mark is 0.68 overall.

Give him a call: With Rhode Island College this year, pitcher Shaun Gamelin struck out 42 batters in 18 2/3 innings—that’s more than 20 per nine frames — then he went to play summer ball with the New England Collegiate League’s Ocean State Waves … and had 32 Ks in 15 innings. In case you’re counting, that’s 74 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings overall, or 19.8 per nine frames, or more than two per inning, on average. In 2020, he had 7 strikeouts in 3 innings and in 2019, 64 strikeouts in 37 innings between two teams. The 5’ 9” hurler never played for baseball powerhouses—his schools, Rhode Island College and Fitchburg State University have produced just one major leaguer (Jim Siwy) between them—and he went undrafted, but a big league club better give him a call. I think they’re missing out.

Welcome to the century club: George Elder, an outfielder who spent 41 games with the St. Louis Browns in 1949, turned 100 on March 10. He’s not even the oldest living former big leaguer—Eddie Robinson, who played from 1942 to 1957, was born a few months earlier and will be turning 101 in December.

The fading ‘40s: Just ten men who played in the 1940s are still alive: Eddie Robinson (debuted in 1942), Chris Haughey (1943), Eddie Basinski (1944), Tommy Brown (1944), Curt Simmons (1947), Carl Erskine (1948), Larry Miggins (1948), Cloyd Boyer (1949), George Elder (1949) and Bobby Shantz (1949). Some are so obscure, they might have already passed away and the news just never reached the public.

Just four remain: The St. Louis Browns, the precursors to the Baltimore Orioles, have just four living representatives: George Elder, Billy Hunter, Ed Mickelson and Frank Saucier. The youngest, Hunter, was born in 1928.

Let’s just call him by his nickname, Salty. (Wikipedia).

Saltala—what? Ever wonder what former catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s last name actually means? It’s Italian for “jump over” (salta) “the thicket” (la macchia). La macchia also translates to “the spot.” At 14 characters, his surname is the longest ever; fifteen men had surnames of 13 characters—relatively modern names like Todd Hollandsworth, Tim Spooneybarger and John Van Benschoten among them.

Noe what that means: There’s been two Noes in big league history, pitcher Noe Ramirez and catcher Noe Munoz. It’s not a common name, but it derives from one. Its root is noach—whence Noah arises—which is Hebrew and means rest or comfort.

Not a one at-bat wonder: Speaking of Noe Munoz—he spent just two years in affiliated baseball, playing in the Dodgers system in 1994 and 1995, and had just one big league at-bat. He went hitless. Returning to the Mexican League, he played another 19 years there, giving him a career total of 25 seasons. He played until he was 46.

You got the wrong guy: Joe Torre played professionally on-and-off from 2012 to 2020. Oh, not that one. This Joe Torre, an infielder, played 28 games over four seasons in some obscure independent leagues—the Pacific Association, the Pecos League and the one-off Yinzer Baseball Academy—and hit just .152 … just a bit short of his namesake. And who can forget reliever Mike Piazza, no relation to the Hall of Fame catcher, who played in the minors from 2009 to 2014.

Desperate times: With coronavirus upending the baseball world in 2020—seasons were shortened and, frequently, cancelled—a bunch of new independent circuits cropped up to give guys a place to play and leagues for established teams to join. Among them were the Liberation League (which featured teams like the California Dogecoin), the City of Champions Cup (with teams like the Nerd Herd), the All-American Baseball Challenge, the Constellation Energy League and the aforementioned Yinzer Baseball Academy.

He hit better than three Hall of Famers—and lasted a year.

Harlin Pool batted .303 in his brief big league career. (Wikipedia).

Harlin Pool had a name that could’ve fit just about anything. He could have been the main protagonist of a gritty detective novel, a comic book character, a movie star.

But more than anything, he had the perfect baseball name. Harlin Pool—that just rolls off the tongue. It’s the name of a guy who might’ve been discovered playing ball on some dusty sandlot amongst fields of corn in Iowa somewhere.

In reality, he was born, died and is buried in California. The truth always gets in the way of a good story.

No matter. Pool was a real man and he did play baseball—even spending a couple years with the Reds in the mid-1930s.

Though the leftfielder started in Arizona, hitting .409 in the dry air of the desert his first campaign, the formulative years of his career were spent with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.

After a couple middling seasons in 1931 and 1932, he had a solid year in 1933, batting .328 with 219 hits, 48 doubles and 10 triples. It’s a stunning line by today’s standards, but he didn’t even top his own team in hits—Frenchy Uhalt did, with 221—and he finished nearly one hundred behind the league leader, Ox Eckhardt. In 189 games (the PCL played loooong seasons), Eckhardt had 315 knocks and a .414 batting average.

On May 22, 1934, the Reds shipped outfielder Art Ruble* to the Oaks in exchange for Pool, who had been batting .329 in 170 at-bats through 50 games. Though Pool could hit the ball well, he couldn’t hit far—he hadn’t hit a home run all season and had just five in 630 at-bats the year before.

*Ruble, for his part, was also a minor league star. He batted .350 and .385 his first two seasons, respectively, then had a .376 average in 1932. He hit just .207 in 145 big league at-bats.

Instantly, Pool found success in the big leagues. In his first ten at-bats, he had six hits including three for extra bases; he had hits in six of his first seven games and in 10 of his first 13.

On July 8, in his 79th game of the year, he hit his first home run—a grand slam!—off of 21-year-old Cardinals wunderkind Paul Dean, brother of Hall of Famer Dizzy. Just a few days later, on July 12, he slugged his second dinger of the season … and, as it turns out, the final one of his career.

As slow-footed as he was powerless, Pool didn’t steal his first base until July 18. He stole another on September 2 and a third on September 25, then no more in his time in the major leagues.

The home runs couldn’t have come at a better time. After his hot start, his production dipped, with his average falling into the low .200s during one particularly rough patch. It was a stretch that would last more than a month—from June 14 to game one of a July 25 doubleheader, he batted just .267.

But it was a stretch that would be quickly forgotten. Starting in the second game of that two-game set, he began an eight-game hitting streak in which he went 19-for-33—that’s a .576 batting mark—and had no fewer than two hits each game. His season average rose 50 points in just over a week. Though he hit .277 through the first 25 days of July, he finished with a .395 mark for the month as a whole.

The hot hitting continued. In August, he batted .326, rattling off one 12-game hitting streak in which he batted .354 and another six game streak in which his mark was .440.

He cooled off with the September temperatures, but still hit .306 for the month and worked another pair of hitting streaks. The first was for six games, but in it he didn’t even bat .300. To finish his season, he put together a nine-game run in which he batted .455.

From the first game of his resurgence in July to the end of the year, Pool had 78 hits in 222 at-bats for a .351 average. He walked only 10 times, but he whiffed just nine times, as well.

On the year, the 26-year-old rookie hit .327 with 117 hits in 99 games. Sure, he had issues in the field—his 10 errors in the outfielder were among the most in the league—but his hitting acumen could not be denied. He led the Reds in batting average and on-base percentage, outperforming Hall of Fame teammates Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey and Ernie Lombardi.

But his big league run would last just a couple months more. Within that short span, he would play in the first night game in history, against the Phillies, on May 24, 1935. It was the last notable moment of his career.

Despite his hot hitting the year before, Pool was relegated to bench duty to begin the next season, not playing a complete game until May 1. After an 0-for-4 showing on May 5, his batting average fell to .176; even a 3-for-6, three run game on May 8 couldn’t save him.

After hitting .222 in limited action in April, he batted just .172 in May with his season average slipping below .200 for good on May 29.

On June 2, against Pittsburgh, Pool appeared as a pinch hitter for Reds starter Paul Derringer in the bottom of the fifth. He grounded out weakly to pitcher Jim Weaver to end his career.

From his beginnings in some desert league in Arizona to that last weak dribbler to finish his career in an Ohio city an entire country away, Pool carried a stick that rarely missed the ball, swung by arms that barely propelled it or legs that hardly propelled him.

Whether it was because of a lack of power or speed or some other factor, Pool’s career at the highest level of baseball ended almost exactly one full year after it began.

But for that first go-round in 1934, that run of not even 100 games in which he rose so quickly, then tumbled, then rose even higher, Pool made a name for himself.

And boy, Harlin Pool … what a name it was.

***

After he left the major leagues, he returned to the farm and played in cities like Toronto, Dallas, Seattle, and really where it all started, Oakland. His average never dropped below .329 again. In 1939, he appeared in three games with the San Francisco Seals, collecting four hits in seven at-bats to conclude his career.

Random autograph of the day: Ray Aguilar

Pitcher Ray Aguilar started off with such incredible promise, moving up the low- and mid-minors with ease.

Between his first three professional seasons, he went 16-7 with a 1.99 ERA in 81 games (21 starts). In 248 2/3 innings, he allowed just 191 hits, 61 walks and 11 home runs, while striking out 268 batters. He even won his first Triple A appearance. Granted, he was usually pitching at levels below his age group, however the numbers speak for themselves.

During his first extended stay at Triple A, in 2004, things began to go south — he had a 6.21 ERA in 9 starts, with diminished strikeout totals. Like many studs-turned-duds before him, he couldn’t recover, and though he went 12-7 in his final pro season, he never reached the major leagues. 

Five times, never signed: Matt Harrington, Greg Van Gaver redux

Earlier, I mentioned Greg Van Gaver, who was drafted five times in the early 1970s only to spent a few games in the low minors. Here’s a brief rundown on Matt Harrington, who was once a first round pick … and a second round pick … and a 13th round pick … and …

Regarded as one of the game’s top amateur prospects out of Palmdale High School in Palmdale, Calif., pitcher Matt Harrington was selected by the Rockies 7th overall in the 2000 amateur draft, ahead of future stars Chase Utley, Yadier Molina and Edwin Encarnacion. Unable to come to terms with Colorado—he demanded a huge signing bonus—he declined to sign a contract and chose to played independent baseball instead.

Not a good career move—he struggled to a 9.47 ERA in 19 innings with the St. Paul Saints in 2001 … but big league teams wanted him, nevertheless. With his stock still pretty high, he was taken in the second round by the Padres that year.

Still, no dice on a contract, back to indy ball, back to struggling.

In 2002, his ERA was 6.75 between two clubs in two different leagues. The Devil Rays took him in the 13th round that year. He was still just 20 years old—why not. No contract.

He improved to a 3.64 ERA for the Fort Worth Cats in ’03. As his game was elevating his draft prospects were plummeting; the Reds chose him in the 24th round. No deal.

He had a 2.77 ERA in 2004. Major league teams had had enough. The Yankees gave him one last chance, selecting him in the 36th round. Still, he didn’t sign.

He remained in indy ball through 2007, with the Cats through 2006. Having been taken in five drafts without one game in the affiliated ranks to show for it, he is the only player ever chosen that many times without signing a deal with a big league club.

He retired with a 4.49 ERA and a losing record.

Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 23, 2021.

Of course it was a (former) Met: More often than not, it seems, singular events involving the Mets evoke feelings of cringe and consternation. Carlos Beltran struck out looking to end the 2006 NLCS; Wilmer Flores did the same to end the 2015 World Series; Vince Coleman threw firecrackers at fans. Add another inglorious moment to the Mets’ log: Former starter Steven Matz, who played for New York from 2015 to 2020, will be known forever and always as the hurler who surrendered Miguel Cabrera’s 500th home run. At least he’s not alone: Former Met Dennis Springer surrendered Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run in 2001 and Mike Bacsik, who played for New York in 2002 and 2003, gave up Bonds’ record-breaking 756th dinger in 2007.

Blake Treinen’s ERA is 1.72 points lower than last year. (Wikipedia).

Riley rising: Keep an eye on Blue Jays rookie catcher Riley Adams. In his past 14 at-bats, he has 7 hits—including a home run and 3 doubles—as well as 5 runs and 4 RBI. Though he’s batting just .230 on the year, his trade to Toronto was a godsend—in 14 games with them, he’s batting .333.

The good Treinen’s back: There’s two Blake Treinens: The good one and the bad one. In 2021, we’ve seen the good one. In 54 games with the Dodgers this season, he has a 2.14 ERA while averaging 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings; in the past week, he’s averaged nearly two strikeouts per frame. But the hurler can be an inconsistent headache. After posting a 2.28 ERA in 2016, his mark jumped to 3.93 the next year. After posting a 0.78 ERA in an All-Star 2018, his number leapt to 4.91 in 2019.

Head-ing south: Through August 12, Rays reliever Louis Head had a 1.29 ERA. Less than two weeks later, that mark is up to 3.16 after a few rough outings—over his last 4 appearances, he has a 14.73 ERA. Nevertheless, there is always a silver lining: He has 19 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings over the past month.

Rookie Rooker rockin’: He’s not yet lived up to his first round billing, but Twins rookie outfielder Brent Rooker is hitting the cover off the ball over the past month, to the tune of 5 home runs and 6 doubles in 91 at-bats. It’s a pretty impressive showing for a kid who’s season began 3-for-33, and who, through July 25, was batting .122. Since August 14, he’s hit .444, including  a 4-for-5 game on August 13. He batted .316 in his seven-game cup of coffee last year.

Slower than molasses: Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers has played 275 games over four professional seasons. He’s never stolen a base.

Kings of futility: In 2019, nine teams finished at least 30 games out of first place and three—Baltimore, Detroit and Miami—at least 40 games. Detroit was 53 1/2 games back. But that’s not as bad as the 1995 American League Central, when four clubs finished at least 30 games out—all behind the 100-win, pennant-winning Indians.

George Kell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983.

It’s your birthday, by George: Two Hall of Fame Georges were born on this day. George Kell, a ten-time All-Star from the 1940s and 1950s, joined this earth in 1922. George Davis, who starred in the 1890s and 1900s, was born in 1870. He was elected to Cooperstown almost a century after he retired, in 1998.

Greatness isn’t a game: Victor Mateo tossed two no-hitters in his professional career—the first in 2011 and the next in 2013. Despite those two stellar games, he was pretty ho-hum overall and spent less than 50 innings at Triple A, posting a 7.11 ERA at that level. He played from 2007 to 2017 and went 62-67 in his career.

No hits? No problem: Two other pitchers in the affiliated minors tossed two no-hitters in the 2010s. Former Diamondbacks prospect Kyle Schepel did it twice in one year, 2014, while current Reds hurler Tyler Mahle did it in 2016 and 2017. In indy ball, the Frontier League’s Travis Tingle did it twice in 2014, as well—though one game was just 5 innings, the other 7—and Matt Sergey did it in 2014 and 2017. In case you’re wondering, 29 no-nos were tossed in the minor and independent leagues in 2014 alone.

Too short a career: Rick Short might not be a name you remember, but he had a big impact in his 11-game big league stay. In 15-at-bats with the Nationals in 2005, the 32-year-old career minor leaguer went 6-for-15 with 2 home runs, 2 doubles, 4 runs and 4 RBI, slashing .400/.471/.933. It came as no surprise, really. He hit .383 at Triple A that year, as well as .353 in 1995, .324 in 2000 and .356 in 2002. Signing with Rakuten in Japan for 2006, he rattled off three-straight campaigns of .314 or better.

Michael Brady spent 9 years in pro ball. (Wikipedia).

The choice got him to the bigs: Reliever Michael Brady made the right career move. He began as a third baseman, but hit just .086 in 35 at-bats between two clubs his first professional season, 2009; with the GCL Marlins, he had only one hit in 29 at-bats. He converted to pitching following that disastrous campaign and never looked back—through his first five seasons on the mound, he had a 2.16 ERA and 66 saves. The move culminated in him reaching the majors with the Athletics as a 30-year-old rookie in 2017. He had a 5.68 mark in 16 appearances.

Bobby Doerr had over 2,000 hits in his career. (Wikipedia).

Overestimating his value: Pitcher Greg Van Gaver was drafted five times in the early 1970s. In that era of multiple drafts per year, he was taken once in 1970, once in 1971 and three times in 1972—twice by the Yankees alone (the Yankees also took him in ’71) … and he never signed a contract. Perhaps he thought he could do better; it was a terrible lapse in judgement if so. He finally joined the Expos organization—as a free agent—in 1972, but played just one season in rookie ball before calling it quits. Hey, at least he went 5-0.

Autograph reminiscing: As a through-the-mail autograph collector, nothing pleases me more than when I receive a Hall of Famer’s signature back—and I didn’t even have to pay for it. In 2011, Bobby Doerr returned my card signed—for free—in less than ten days. Doerr was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986; he played for the Red Sox from 1937 to 1951 (missing 1945 to service in World War II) and made nine All-Star teams.  

Random autograph of the day: Brett Caradonna

Brett Caradonna is one of those guys you forgot was drafted in the first round. He was the White Sox 1997 compensation pick for losing pitcher Kevin Tapani to free agency … but he wasn’t much compensation. While Tapani went on to win 19 games for his new team, the Cubs, in 1998, Caradonna totaled just two games at Triple A. He managed slugging percentages under .300 two seasons in a row, 2000 and 2001. That’s very difficult to accomplish, and not in a good way.

Article from the archives—Former top prospect Chris Lubanski: Forgotten first rounder now toiling in indy ball

Chris Lubanski hasn’t played professionally since 2011. This piece is from that year.

***

Eight years ago, in 2003, the Kansas City Royals drafted a highly-touted outfielder out of Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic High School in Norristown, Pennsylvania named Chris Lubanski.

Nearly a decade later, that once top-prospect is still toiling in the minor leagues, though he is no longer on any affiliated team—rather, he is exhibiting his craft with the Chico Outlaws of the independent North American League.

It would be unfair to say that Lubanski fizzled in the minors like so many prospects do. In his first professional season, 2003, he hit .326 and in 2005, he slugged 28 home runs while driving 116 runners home. As recently as 2007, he was named the fourth-best prospect in the Royals farm system by Baseball America.

In 2007, he hit .259 with 15 home runs for two teams—not awful as a whole, but he hit just .208 in 49 games for the Royals Triple-A club in Omaha.

The following season, his struggles continued at the highest level of minor league baseball, as he hit only .242. In 2009, he hit .272 overall … but only .227 at Omaha.

But you said he didn’t fizzle, you’re thinking. Well, he really didn’t.

In fact, in 2010 he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and spent the entire season with their Triple-A team, the Las Vegas 51s. That year, he hit .293 with 17 home runs and 57 RBI in only 100 games. He finished third on the team in home runs, behind Brett Wallace’s 18 and J.P. Arencibia’s 32.

2010 was a career renaissance for Lubanski, who had, from 2007 to 2009, seemingly lost his way. But, unfortunately, bad news and bad luck followed Lubanski after his comeback year.

He became a free agent following the season, was signed to a minor league contract by the Florida Marlins and—despite his resurgent 2010—was released before the 2011 season began. And no new major league team came knocking.

Lubanski was never a bad player. He showed plus speed and plus power at all minor league levels and, as proven by his 2010 season, showed that he could bounce back well from extended struggles.

And yet, that call from the big league club never came. He fell victim to a curse that befalls too many minor leaguers: Though he performed well at the lower levels, he faded when it really, really counted. And when he got his career back on track, it was too little, too late.

So today, Lubanski no longer plays in any major league organization. Today, he plays for an independent team, the Chico Outlaws, with whom he is hitting .284 with two home runs in 24 games.

And that call to the majors that this former top prospect was sure to receive at some point, eventually, one year, becomes more and more distant, and more and more of just a dream.

***

Lubanski was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in August 2011 and spent 19 games with their Double-A club. He hit .189 to end his professional career.

Random autograph of the day: Dan DeMent

Though he went undrafted, Dan DeMent had a productive professional career. He spent 8 seasons in the minors, reaching as high as Triple A. His best season was 2005, when he hit .324 with 14 home runs and 52 RBI. I think we’ll be seeing a Dan DeMent big league debut yet—as a coach. He’s worked his way up the Rays’ ranks and spent 2018 and 2019 at Triple A. Now the club’s minor league hitting coordinator, Dement isn’t too many steps away from being part of Tampa Bay’s field staff.