SSTN Mailbag: The Ball, A Bullpen Arm, And The Opening Day Shortstop!
The brain is a beautiful and terrible thing. This week, I've marveled at how the brain interconnects complicated strands of data in a way that I'm not even sure the most complex database queries can manage. As most of you likely read this week, the Yankees filled their Assistant Hitting Coach position with former MLB player Brad Wilkerson. If you're like me, you remember Wilkerson as a solid ballplayer with the Expos who floated around for years after. I remember Wilkerson as someone who would have once been deemed a "professional hitter." He never gave at-bats away, and while he struck out a fair amount, he also saw a ton of pitches, walked enough to make up for the strikeouts, and hit with a gap-to-gap style that was pleasing to watch. Thinking about Brad Wilkerson led me down a strange rabbit hole in my brain.
See, there was clearly a Yankee connection to Wilkerson, but I just wasn't sure where my brain was taking me. At first, I was sure Wilkerson came to Spring Training with the Yanks at some point as a non-roster invitee, but that wasn't it. Finally, it dawned on me yesterday: Brad Wilkerson was, at one time, traded as part of a package for Alfonso Soriano when the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington. I loved watching Alfonso Soriano play ball. In his second full season in the big leagues, I rooted so hard for him to become a member of the exclusive "40-40" club, and while he got the stolen base figure, he finished the regular season one homer shy of the mark. Soriano had a very rare combination of power and speed that played despite the fact that he was the very definition of a "free-swinger." His talent was such that he could still barrel balls all over the strike zone and still produce high enough batting averages to boost his on-base percentage enough to be a madman on the bases. As excited as I was to see A-Rod come to the Yankees, I was very sad to see Soriano go. Likewise, I remember feeling bad that Soriano was going to a barren wasteland in Washington with a team that could easily set the record for fewest wins in a full season. There were news reports of Soriano's discontent, but it never showed on the field. Soriano's defense in LF was solid and he finally became a member of the 40-40 club.
So, from Brad Wilkerson, my brain took me to one of my favorite players, Alfonso Soriano, all because of a long-since forgotten trade. The brain is truly a marvel. As an aside, I hope the new rules encourage players like Soriano to shine again. Much as I love digging into modern analytics and statistics, I had so much fun rooting for Soriano to get to 40-40, and I'd love to do that for a player again (preferably a Yankee, of course). I sincerely thank my brain for the trip down memory lane.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about the baseball, a bullpen arm, and the Opening Day Shortstop! Let's get at it:
Mark asks: There has been a lot of talk the last couple of years about the baseball itself. Have there been any reports or rumblings about what the ball will be like this year?
This is an essential question to ask. At the same time, I can't begin to tell you how maddening it is to have to answer a question like this. Since this question came into the Mailbag, I have been trying to find the best way to explain the constant tinkering with the ball from a pitcher's perspective, and I think I have a good anecdote to properly give you that perspective.
Years ago, in a land and time far, far away, I was pitching in a highly competitive amateur summer baseball league (one where a surprising percentage of players were ex-college and minor league players). One of the interesting factors in this league was that there were two separate balls approved for league play. It was up to the home team to provide the balls for play, and it was also up to the home team to determine what the mix of balls would be (in a non-pro game, running out of one type of ball was a real issue, particularly during a double-header). As one of the core three pitchers on the team, our team usually left it up to the three of us to decide the game ball mix prior to first game. Both balls were low-seam, pro-style balls, but the cover and core of the balls were very different (sound familiar yet?). One ball had a less active core (meaning hard hits might not fly quite as far), but had a slicker cover. The other ball was definitely more active off of the bat, but the cover definitely had more grip. Generally, by a 2/3 vote, we chose the latter ball (unless the one squeaky wheel was starting in game 1).
This is going to sound crazy, but throwing the two balls was very different. The more active ball might fly faster when it was struck by a batter, but I definitely felt that it was easier to find a consistent release of my pitches such that any well-struck ball by the batter felt like it was well-earned. I could mix and match my pitches and felt some modicum of confidence throwing my best pitch, a knuckle-curve. When the deader ball was used, it felt almost impossible to grip without a little help from dirt and some sunscreen. Even then, pitching with that ball changed my strategy drastically. With the slicker, deader ball, I defaulted to high four-seam fastballs as my primary pitch (definitely not my usual game plan), and just crossed my fingers that in pitcher's counts I could get on top of a knuckle-curve well enough to bury it low.
No matter the scenario though, I knew what I was dealing with. The balls were two different brands, and from the moment the ball was tossed to me by the ump or the catcher, I knew what my strategy was going to be. In this instance there was transparency. Even if I personally had preference for one ball over the other, I knew what I was dealing with the moment I had the ball on the mound.
MLB pitchers haven't had that luxury. There has been a terrible mix of balls used throughout each season, with multiple types of balls sometimes in-play in the same game. All of the balls bear the same Rawlings logo, so it can be difficult to feel the difference until the ball is thrown. It hasn't been fair to pitchers or hitters (but particularly pitchers). I was ready to explain how it must feel from a player's perspective, but longtime MLB pitcher, Rich Hill, did that for me earlier this week. Everything he says in the interview is so right on. Among the paraphrased highlights of his points:
MLB's ownership of Rawlings is likely a conflict of interest. It makes it difficult for MLB to be an unbiased arbiter of the rules and manufacturing processes.
The constant tinkering with the baseball is messing with people's careers.
There has been no transparency or communication from MLB. Rich Hill expressed a desire to at least be told what was happening with the ball.
Hill expressed a desire for one baseball for the whole year, regardless of what it's characteristics are, so that pitchers can game plan based on the ball being used.
The money quote though? Here it is: “I just don’t see why a hockey puck is a hockey puck, a football is a football, a basketball is a basketball, a baseball could be anything. Why do we do this?”
I couldn't have said it any better. MLB's inability to manage this issue once and for all, and its intentional deception and lack of transparency is disgusting.
All of this is to say: I have no idea what the ball will look like in 2023. It does change projections and evaluations of players on both sides of the playing field, but without real knowledge about what ball will be in play, I haven't the faintest idea of what effect the ball will have on the game this year.
Brian asks: If you had to pick one bullpen arm out of the current group for the best year, who will it be?
I like the Yankee bullpen more than most, and I think this offseason's acquisition will prove to be incredibly impactful: Tommy Kahnle. Kahnle only pitched a bit coming off of multiple lost seasons to injuries, but his stuff looked largely intact, particularly his plus-plus change-up. I think Kahnle has the stuff to be among the best relievers in the sport, and I think he's coming to camp energized and ready to prove people he's back. I think Tommy Kahnle will be the Yankees' best reliever in 2023.
David asks: Gut call - who is the Yankees' starting shortstop on opening day in 2023?
I'm going out on a limb. I think Jeremy Pena's success shows that there really are players who don't need a ton of AAA at-bats to be productive big leaguers. I think Anthony Volpe will come to camp on a mission, and will grab onto the starting shortstop job and never let go. Anthony Volpe will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day for the New York Yankees in 2023.