Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.
1. Ohtani faces the expectation monster
Part of the fun of spring training is seeing young or new players show off their talents for the first time against major leaguers. Even if the young or new player gets two innings of work with the big club before being assigned to minor league camp, there’s enough anticipation to make even casual fans scramble to find a feed for that one game.
Shohei Ohtani will not get just two innings. The Japanese import who signed with the Angels over the offseason is slated to start 2018 in the team’s starting rotation, and when he’s not pitching, he’ll probably get turns as a designated hitter, maybe play a bit in the field.
On Saturday, Ohtani received his first taste of the majors, starting at pitcher for the Angels against the Brewers. He faced Jonathan Villar, who doubled to lead off the game. Then he struck out Nate Orf on three pitches before walking Ji-Man Choi on four pitches. He threw a wild pitch but got Manny Pina to pop out, then struck out Brett Phillips, again on three pitches. Finally, he surrendered a home run to Keon Broxton before getting Nick Franklin to fly out. The line: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K. He was green, he was electric, he was wild, he was fascinating. Everything you’d expect with a little fun thrown in.
But if you followed the media that reported on the story, you would’ve thought Ohtani was already a so-called “bust.” Bill Plaschke at the Los Angeles Times wrote he was “pretty lousy,” but much later in his column added “To judge Ohtani so soon is not fair.” A headline called his outing “troubling.”
This is going to happen because it always happens. We have high expectations for an athlete, and if he doesn’t immediately show that he can meet or exceed them, we begin to create narratives that we hope will build as the player crumbles. Plaschke seemed to sneer at how Ohtani is trying to have fun in the moment, and you can just see writers preparing to use that happy-go-lucky nature as a trait that helps undo the two-way player.
Ohtani has pitched just 1.1 innings of spring training. He may struggle throughout the spring. He may continue to struggle in the regular season. That doesn’t mean he’s a bust, or that our narratives are correct, or that there should be a narrative at all. It just means he’s a 23-year-old who left his home country for a new country. He’s recovering from an injury, while last year he had to recover from an entirely different injury that kept him away from playing for a while. He’s probably rusty. It’s not crazy that he was erratic.
But his fastball was in the high 90s. His splitter looked good. He was able to get out of trouble. Also, he hasn’t hit yet.
People will try to label Ohtani, and some are undoubtedly trying to do this in an effort to defeat him, as he begins a career defined by many by the extensive courting process that involved a survey and an expensive posting fee. Some people probably don’t like all of that. Some just make careers out of shooting down others. Many of us harbor expectations for others, and in Los Angeles, people won’t deny their high hopes for Ohtani. But is it possible that, at least for a few months, we attempt to check ourselves when there’s a wild pitch or a home run?
2. Revere goes to the Reds, which could really help Hamilton
Ben Revere. The smiling, fun-loving outfielder with breakneck speed and an absolutely atrocious throwing arm has turned up at Reds spring training after Cincinnati signed him to a minor league deal.
Four years ago news of Revere in the same outfield with Billy Hamilton would’ve caused a convulsion throughout baseball. Back then, in 626 wild plate appearances with the Phillies, Revere hit .306 with a staggering .361 slugging percentage. He also stole 49 bags. Hamilton, meanwhile, accrued 611 plate appearances with the Reds, hitting .250 and slugging .355. That’s bad. He did, however, steal 56 bases (also he was caught 23 times).
Hamilton tries too hard to be something he’s not, as in a power hitter. He has an absurd career fly-ball percentage of 33.8%, generating just 17 career home runs and a 19.4% strikeout rate. That’s dumb. He should be more like Revere, who for his career has a fly-ball mark of an unbelievable 17% with seven home runs and a 9.2% strikeout rate.
Last season with the Angels, Revere hit .275 with a .296 BABIP. His grounder rate was 55.8%, a bit lower than his career norm but fourth in baseball last year, if qualified. He has such a rate because he doesn’t swing at pitches high in the strike zone. Imagine the strike zone is a six-by-six grid; Revere last year swung at 53 and 56 percent of pitches in the middle of the grid’s second row, but everywhere else on the first two rows, he swung at fewer than 43 percent of pitches. If the pitch is in a top corner, he’s probably letting it go.
Revere’s swing percentages go way up in the lower part of the zone – across the bottom row he swings at at least 53 percent of pitches all the way across, while he even swings at 62-70% of pitches one row below the strike zone. In essence Revere’s entire strategy is to swing at low pitches in order to maximize the number of grounders he hits, so that he can use his speed – his greatest skill – as much as possible.
Hamilton is a free swinger, going after 69 and 71 percent of pitches above the strike zone but over the plate. Of the six rows across the plate, the bottom row is his less preferred – he’ll swing at anywhere from 53-61% of pitches there (that’s low for him).
If Hamilton cut out the upper part of the zone entirely and instead focus on the Revere zone, he’d instantly cut down on that 33.8% fly rate, allowing him to use his speed much more and beat out grounders.
The Reds have a great defensive outfielder with blazing speed in Hamilton. With a better plate approach he’s a true contributor to a contending team. Maybe by bringing Revere into camp the Reds realize this, hoping the two speedsters start talking about plate approaches. It could prove extremely valuable.
3. Casey gets another shot with San Francisco
The Giants made a minor move over the weekend, signing pitcher Casey Kelly to a minor league contract on Sunday.
This signing doesn’t mean much, just one of several dozen transactions made Sunday across baseball. And Kelly doesn’t necessarily move the needle for the Giants; last season in the Giants and Cubs organizations, Kelly pitched in 19 triple-A games, earning a 4.46 ERA with 82 strikeouts and 38 walks. Pitching a total of 63 major league innings since 2012, Kelly is a definition of a quad-A type. He’s roster filler, the No. 8 starter on the depth chart, and the guy you hope turns in his best possible performance when you have him under contract.
What’s interesting is that the Giants are bringing him back after having him for the second half of 2017. Then, with Sacramento, he put up a 4.17 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 15 walks. Early in his career he was known as a ground-ball pitcher with a plus curveball, and the early development of his pitches earned him a lot of strikeouts. But once Kelly established himself the fastball was found to be garden variety low-90s stuff that’s susceptible to being smacked. Kelly has toyed with a cutter that in 2016 was hit at a .400 slugging percentage, but the fastball remains a killer for the right-hander (2016: .333 BAA, .485 SLG).
What’s the point of all of this? It’s that the Giants have plenty of questions regarding pitching depth. Madison Bumgarner is supposed to be great but wasn’t exactly great when he returned from his injury last season. Johnny Cueto is fine. Jeff Samardzija should also be fine. Beyond that is an alphabet soup of issues: Ty Blach, Chris Stratton, Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez present more questions than answers, but two of them will likely start the season as the No. 4 and 5 starters. Beyond them are a grab bag of non-roster invitees and young pitchers who weren’t protected from the Rule 5 Draft.
So Kelly will be lumped in with guys like Derek Holland, Joan Gregorio and Jose Flores. There are so many pitchers in the age-25-to-32 range who aren’t good enough to start the year in the majors that Kelly might not even make it to Sacramento in 2018. But that the Giants brought him back says something about Kelly: You can count on him.
Kelly has one good pitch, a few other things, the ability to throw some ground balls and a penchant for going five. Between Iowa and Sacramento Kelly went five innings in 16 of his 18 starts. Sure he isn’t dazzling anymore (only one start of seven innings, and just five starts of fewer than two runs allowed), but he arguably is more a sure thing than Stratton, who only finished five in eight of his 15 starts with Sacramento in 2017. Beede arguably wasn’t as effective as Kelly in his 19 Sacramento starts, putting up a 4.79 ERA with nearly identical strikeouts and walks (83 and 39 to Kelly’s 82 and 38). Gregorio, meanwhile, lost the second half to a PED suspension while being much more wild than Kelly.
The Giants are likely to cycle out a bunch of pitchers in 2018, and while Kelly may never get a shot in San Francisco, he’s likely to be what he is: an unspectacular starter who can fill in for a couple starts, maybe have one great outing, and keep the ball on the ground. For a team with solid infield defense playing in a pitcher’s park, a guy like Kelly might actually be worth the extremely small gamble.