Monday, October 7, 2019

1994 Topps All-Star Rookie Catcher Javy Lopez

The 1994 Topps All-Star squad picked a great catcher for their squad, even though he played about half a season his rookie year. In 80 games for the Braves, Lopez platooned with veteran receiver Charlie O'Brien. Lopez did get the lion's share of opportunities and did not waste them.

Javy was still learning on the job behind the plate - leading the NL with 10 passed balls and allowing 66 stolen bases, catching just 23% of the runners that tried to take an extra base. But his offense was already major league ready, crushing 13 homers in those 80 games. 

Javy celebrated his 17th birthday in Ponce, Puerto Rico, then signed a contract with the Braves the next day in November 1987. He would spend 2 years in short season rookie ball, then start his steady ascent to the big leagues in 1990 with a full season at single A Burlington. By 1992, he was hitting in the mid .300s with power in AA. He would make his MLB debut in September of 1992, and after another season in the minors, his bat forced the Braves to call up the promising youngster. 

His Braves tenure included 3 All-Star appearances, and prodigious power. He would become the Braves' all-time leader for homers by a catcher with 214 round trippers. He was an MVP candidate in 2003, when he hit .328/.378/.687 with 43 homers and 109 RBI. In the Braves' World Series winning 1995 season, Lopez came up big in the NLCS, hitting .357 with a homer against Cincinnati. His 1996 NLCS was even better, hitting .542/.600/1.000 (!) 13 hits, a pair of homers, and earning MVP honors.

Following his Braves career, Lopez moved to the AL East, and took on catching duties for the Baltimore Orioles in a chaotic time for the franchise. Lopez would cite the heavy involvement of Orioles team owner Peter Angelos as contributing to the disjointed atmosphere. In his 2.5 seasons in Baltimore, Lopez had 46 homers and a .293 batting average, actually slightly higher than his Braves career average. The team did not have the same success, however, and he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox in an August deal for a player to be named later. Lopez had a brief 18 game tenure in Boston and did not play in the post season. in 2007 Lopez tried to continue his career with the Rockies, but was released in March and retired.

Let's hear your favorite (or I guess least favorite if you didn't root for Atlanta or Baltimore) memories about Javy Lopez! Thanks for reading and I'd love to read your comments below.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

It Ain't Over til It's Over

I'm not going to sugarcoat it - things look bad right now for the Minnesota Twins, facing an 0-2 deficit to the New York Yankees in the ALDS. The first two games could hardly have been much worse, thankfully none of the Twins were injured, save for their pride. HOWEVER! The Yankees haven't won that 3rd game yet, and the series turns to Minnesota tomorrow. It might be unlikely, but why don't we take a look at what unlikely looks like? Why not take a look at some ways that a series can turn around? It might make me feel better, OK? Rays fans, I see you too - hope this helps a bit.

1981 NLDS - Dodgers come back against the Houston Astros

1981 included a Divisional Series because of the strike that split the season into two parts. The Dodgers actually had the home-field advantage, though they lost games 1 and 2 on the road. Not much of an advantage when Houston only had to win one in LA.

But the Dodgers were up to the task, thanks to stalwart starting pitching, including a complete game from Fernando Valenzuela in Game 4, leading to a duel between Jerry Reuss and Nolan Ryan, who was working on regular rest and was Nolan freakin' Ryan. Reuss tossed a shutout, and the Dodgers bats had just enough to win 4-0. Garvey would hit .368 in the series including a game 3 homer that sparked the comeback. The Dodgers did it without Ron Cey, though he would be back in time for the World Series, where he was the MVP.

1982 ALCS - Brewers defeat the California Angels

Don Sutton tossed 7 scoreless innings in Game 3, Ben Oglivie blasted a homer and Cecil Cooper hit a 2-run single in Game 5 to power "Harvey's Wallbangers" to a series victory. The series was so close that the ALCS MVP ended up being Angels OF Fred Lynn in a losing cause. Robin Yount struggled for the Brew Crew in the series, with a .250 average and no extra base hits.

1984 ALCS - Padres defeat the Cubs

Game 4 - Postseason vet with ice in veins, Steve Garvey, blasts a 2 run walkoff homer, setting up a winner-takes-all finale.

Game 5- Carmelo Martinez draws a 4 pitch walk, a bunt moves him to 2nd, then Tim Flannery gets a key hit right through the wickets of Leon Durham. Goose Gossage locks down the win by pitching the last two innings.

1995 ALDS - Seattle Mariners defeat the New York Yankees

Now in the Divisional Series era, the ALCS and NLCS is stretched to 7 games, but the new Division series remains best of five. The Yankees jumped out to an early 2-0 lead against a Seattle team that had already tested their mettle in a tie-breaker game over the Angels.

Back in the Kingdome, the Mariners leaned on Randy Johnson for a gutsy seven innings. He struck out 10, and the Mariners won 6-4. Game 4 was a seesaw game until Edgar Martinez crushed a grand slam in the 8th off John Wetteland.

The Game 5 finale was one of the best games in playoff history. The lead would change hands 6 times, David Cone threw 140 pitches for the Yankees, Randy Johnson came in to relieve in extra innings, but the final rally came in the bottom of the 11th. Joey Cora singles, backed by a Griffey single, and Edgar Martinez was back again to be the hero, lacing a liner down the left field line, scoring both runners in an epic finish.

1999 ALDS - Red Sox defeat Cleveland

The format of the 5 game series was now the current 2-2-1 version by the time this series was played.

Both teams won their home games in decisive fashion, including a ridiculous 23-7 rout in game 4 by the Red Sox, in which John Valentin drove in 7 runs. Nomar hit over .400 for the series.

Game 5 included quite a lot of early offense, including 2 homers by Jim Thome. Troy O'Leary matched Valentin's 7 RBI in the game, but the real story was the relief appearance of Pedro Martinez. Martinez was coming off 4 scoreless innings in Game 1 before leaving due to injury. In Game 5, Martinez came in to an 8-8 tie game, and no-hit Cleveland for 6 relief innings, pitching on fumes but still striking out 8 batters.

2001 ALDS - Yankees beat A's

oh. The Yankees are on this list, too? Do I have to? Fine.

People remember "The Flip" by Derek Jeter, but Mike Mussina out-dueled Barry Zito (When Zito was Zito!) in that game, and the only run came on Jorge Posada's Solo homer.

Mariano Rivera was at his best, closing out a pair of the final three games in his usual dominant fashion.

2003 ALDS - Red Sox over the A's

The Red Sox are free to share some mojo with the Twins this year, I'm sure they won't mind if it means beating the Yankees.

In 2003, it was Jason Varitek with a key block of the plate that started a chain reaction of base running blunders that swung momentum back to the Red Sox in Game 3. David Ortiz had a clutch 2 run double in Game 4, and Pedro dominated in Game 5, with Manny Ramirez providing the offensive production to give the Sox the series win.

2012 NLDS - Giants defeat Reds

Ryan Vogelsong gave the Giants a boost with a gutty performance in Game 3, with the win ultimately going to Sergio Romo in relief. Game 4 had a Pedro-like relief appearance by started Tim Lincecum, and Buster Posey crushed a grand slam in Game 5 that proved to be deciding runs, with Romo coming back to get the save.

The Giants would go on to win the whole thing, taking the World Series crown, just like the Dodgers did in 1981. Twins, take notes, and ask Romo for tips.

2015 ALDS - Toronto defeats the Rangers

At this point the pattern becomes familiar - Marco Estrada comes up big in game 3, with Troy Tulowitski providing a key hit. Game 4 included big offense from the Jays winning 8-4 behind an R.A. Dickey start (and in spite of a disastrous David Price Relief appearance.). Game 5 is remember for Bautista and the bat flip heard round the world, but Marcus Stroman provided 6 strong innings for the Jays to keep the game close.

So! That's encouraging. Never mind that the team going up 2-0 will win the series about 90% of the time. Just need to get something started for Game 3 - a strong start, some timely hitting, and then worry about game 4 after that.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

A Tale of Two Champions - Part Three

The 2019 Minnesota Twins are A.L. Central Division Champions! Their last Division Title came all the way back in 2010, the inaugural season at Target Field in Minneapolis. Let's compare and contrast the reserves, shall we?

Where would they be without these guys?

Michael Cuddyer played in 157 games in 2010, so it is hard to call him a reserve, but it was not the team's plan to have Justin Morneau take the second half of the season off. Cuddyer played 84 games at first base, 66 in RF, 14 at third base, 2 in CF, and 1 game at 2B. He hit .271 with 14 homers, 37 doubles, and 81 RBI. Without a guy like Cuddyer filling in where needed, the 2010 Twins would have had their depth seriously tested.

Jake Cave was patient. The Twins outfield is stacked with plus defenders and plus hitters at all three spots with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. Marwin Gonzalez was brought in to handle the corner spots on off days, leaving Jake Cave to prove his mettle at AAA again. Injuries were inevitable, as they strike every team, and it was Cave filling in for all four of those players. An early slump at the major league level obscured the blistering pace he set in Rochester, but by the end of the regular season, Cave had his average up to .258 in 72 games. He added 8 homers, and was known as always for running hard out of the box on every ball in play.

Nick Punto was always ready to suit up and get dirty. In 88 games, Punto played all over the infield and providing much-needed energy off the bench. He swiped 6 bases and crushed his usual annual home run in June in Philly against his old team. He wasn't on the Twins' ALDS roster, but he would get post season glory the following season playing for the World Champion Cardinals.

Luis Arraez has been a revelation for the 2019 Twins. Drawing comparisons to Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew, Arraez has shown both positional flexibility and superhuman bat to ball skills. In 366 plate appearances this year, Arraez hit .334 with 20 doubles. He came up to fill in for an injured Johnathan Schoop, but ended up as the regular 2B and occasional LF for the balance of the season. The ankle injury Arraez suffered in the final game of the season may prove to have a major impact on the post season.

"Backup" Catchers and "The Ones Who Got Away"

Drew Butera has had some very good gigs in his career. Backing up Joe Mauer in 2010, Salvador Perez in KC, and is still kicking in 2019 as reserve for the Colorado Rockies. In 2010, Butera played in 44 games, giving Mauer a breather every once in a while. His defense was his main appeal in those days as well, as his .197 average can attest. Butera would be pressed into service much more often in 2011 following the concussion to Mauer that ended the perennial All-Star's career behind the plate.

Jason Castro could hardly be called a back up, but for the opposite reason of Butera. Castro played 79 games for the Twins, as the team employed a de facto platoon between him and Mitch Garver. There was only one instance all season in which the same catcher started 3 consecutive games, and even then there was an off-day in the middle. Keeping both Garver and Castro fresh goes a long way - so long the pair set a record for most homers by catchers in a season. Castro contributed 13 homers, and was the perfect lefty compliment to Garver's right handed attack.

Tyler Austin was a big time power prospect and the Twins were lucky to have him ready to take the place of the retired Joe Mauer at first base. But the Twins signed both Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron in the off-season, leaving Austin as the odd man out. He was traded to San Francisco after just 2 games played. After 70 games with the Giants, Austin was on the move again and landed with the Milwaukee Brewers for their pennant push. It's too early to tell if the Twins will regret letting Austin go when they did. This spot could have been filled by minor leaguers Jaylin Davis or Lewin Diaz, both players were parts of deadline deals to bring back bullpen arms Sam Dyson and Sergio Romo.

Wilson Ramos can tell you that hindsight is 20/20, and had the Twins known in 2010 that Joe Mauer would only play one more season as a catcher, they may have thought twice about including Ramos in any trade offers. Ramos has had to deal with his own litany of injuries in his career, but he would have been an upgrade in offensive production on the 2011 team that suddenly found themselves badly needing it.

It takes a village to fill a roster . . . 

Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, and Brendan Harris all chipped in on the 2010 squad with similar tools but as a group they solidified any missing pieces in the Twins' infield. Casilla primarily handled 2nd and short, Tolbert at third and short, and Harris at both corners with the odd fill-in up the middle. Casilla was the best hitter of the bunch, with a .276 / .331 / .395 slash line, also contributing 6 stolen bases. Tolbert was the only one to appear in the ALDS, playing one game as a defensive replacement.

Willians Astudillo, Ehire Adrianza, and Marwin Gonzalez were varying degrees of thrilling, maddening, and comforting during the 2019 season. Astudillo was a one-man highlight film, playing in the outfield, the infield, and behind the plate. He came prepared to swing the bat- in 204 plate appearances, he would draw just 5 walks, and strike out just 8 times. Ehire Adrianza played all over the infield, and my only criticism is that he gets used by manager Rocco Baldelli as if he is a faster runner than he actually is. Adrianza's lone appearance on the mound caused me to walk out of a game for the only time this season, as I could no longer bear to watch the Twins get embarrassed by the Mets.  But Adrianza was a very good player in every other way, contributing on defense and at the plate. His homer off Justin Verlander was the only tally in a 1-0 victory over the future Hall-of-Famer. Marwin probably deserves to be in the first group of reserves, as he played in over 100 games this year. He was Rocco's security blanket, filling in all over the infield and in the outfield corners. He was a regular contributor to the Twins' power supply, hitting 15 homers. An oblique injury has ended the regular season prematurely for Gonzalez, but the hope is that his season is not over completely.

Very much excited and anxious for the 2019 ALDS to begin tomorrow night! Tell me how much you also want the Twins to win! Yankees fans, I wish you the best of luck (in 2020).

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A New Kennys Vargas Card!

Kennys Vargas spent 2019 in Japan, playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines... and their minor league affiliate. Despite a disappointing season, Vargas has been featured on at least three cards in the 2019 BBM set.

Here's the back of the card, featuring the MLB stats of Vargas, along with his AAA numbers from 2018. I haven't been able to snag his series 2 card from the BBM set yet, the only listing on eBay is a lot of 8 copies of the card. I just need one!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Tale of Two Champions- Part Two

The 2019 Minnesota Twins are A.L. Central Division Champions! Their last Division Title came all the way back in 2010, the inaugural season at Target Field in Minneapolis.  Let's compare and contrast those teams, shall we?

Starting Pitchers:

Jose Berrios is the 2019 team's ace- despite some struggles in the second half, he surpassed 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career, and nearly matched that number in strikeouts with 195. Berrios was named to his 2nd straight All-Star team, and will be looking to add some post season heroics to his resume.

Jake Odorizzi has been the most consistent starter for the Twins, with highs not quite as high as Berrios, but lows not nearly as low either. Odo made his first career All-Star squad, thanks to the refinement of his high fastball that stymied the new uppercut style of swing developed for optimal launch angles. He struck out 178 batters in 159 innings, and led the Twins in ERA and victories.

Michael Pineda was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance that can be used to mask performance enhancing drugs. His story was that he was taking a diuretic to lose weight, and stopped taking it once he learned it contained a banned ingredient. Don't know if I buy that story. Either way, it was a disappointing end to pretty good comeback story. Pineda missed all of last year recovering from injury, and was slowly eased into the rotation. By his final start, he was consistently churning out quality starts, and seemed to be getting stronger and more effective with his slider as the year progressed. He finished with a 5/1 strikeout to walk ratio. What a bummer!

Martin Perez was not expected to have any success at all, coming off a disappointing season in Texas. Thad Levine was familiar with Perez from his time with the Rangers, and convinced Perez to work with Twins' pitching coach Wes Johnson to re-tool his delivery. Perez saw his fastball velocity spike to 94-95 with movement. He had several streaks of great starts, but as the year wore on, the league started to catch up to his new repertoire of 2-seamer / change-up. He led the Twins starters in some of the uglier stats like homers and runs allowed, but he also provided valuable innings throughout the season. He may be used as an additional lefty out of the pen in the post season.

Carl Pavano had been maligned by the New York media following a rough tenure in pinstripes, but turned in one of the best seasons of his career for the 2010 Twins. He had a 17-7 record, and led the AL in Complete Games (7) and Shutouts (2). He led the Twins staff in innings by a healthy margin, yet he only walked 35 batters in 221 frames. He was a prototypical pitch to contact pitcher- lots of hits, but lots of stranded runners as well to go with his excellent control. In a career defined by injury, his durability in 2010 was a key reason the team won the division.

Francisco Liriano was a few years removed from his transcendent 2006 campaign, in which served as a perfect clone of Cy Young winner Johan Santana. His 2010 season was easily his best in a Twins uniform since that debut. He topped 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career, and led the AL with a very stingy home run rate of .4 homers per 9 innings. He was the Game 1 starter against the Yankees in the ALDS, and despite 7 strikeouts in 5.2 innings, a win was not in the cards for the lefty.

Scott Baker earned the nickname "Big Spot Scott" for his ability to come up with his best starts in the clutch. In 2010, he had a 12-9 record and had a 4.49 ERA. As a third starter, that wasn't too bad. He would appear in relief in Game 3 of the ALDS (Ron Gardenhire tried starting two lefties in the series), giving up a solo homer to Nick Swisher in the 7th inning when the Twins were already down 5-0. He did pitch a pair of scoreless innings before that hit, the only hit he allowed in the series.

Kevin Slowey  had a reputation for being a brainy, cerebral pitcher. More importantly, he was good! Slowey went 13-6 with a respectable 4.45 ERA. He struck out 116 batters while walking just 29 (actually a career high).

Bullpen Aces:

Jon Rauch was a big, bad presence on the mound. He pitched in 59 games in 2010, notching 21 saves and striking out 46 batters in 58 innings. He was used first as a closer, then as a set up man in the pen.

Taylor Rodgers has followed in the same mold as lefty relievers like Andrew Miller, and Josh Hader. Whatever the role, Rodgers relished the big stage in 2019. He moved into the closer role part way through the season and locked up 30 saves for the Twins, striking out 90 batters in 69 innings.

Brian Duensing  was the Twins' Swiss Army knife. He not only excelled as a lefty option out of the pen, but he also was a spot starter, tossing the only shutout for the Twins not thrown by Carl Pavano. He was also the Game 3 starter for the ALDS, a game that was played more or less as a bullpen game, though Gardy was probably hoping for a little more from the Duenslinger, who would later transition to the bullpen full-time as a situational lefty.

Tyler Duffey also made the move from the rotation to the bullpen, and the results have been very impressive in 2019. Similar to Martin Perez, a small change to mechanics and his 2-Seam grip have unlocked higher velocity and movement. Duffey reeled off 26 consecutive scoreless appearances heading into the final game of 2019. He finished the year with a 2.52 ERA and struck out 82 batters in 57.2 innings.

Deadline deals:

Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson were added to the Twins' pen ahead of the July trade deadline, and the two were poised to solidify a group still trying to gel. Romo did his part, flipping his signature slider over for 27 Ks in 22 innings with a 3.18 ERA. Sam Dyson was bit hard by the injury bug and despite appearing in 12 games for the Twins, he never looked quite right. He had shoulder surgery and is expected to be out for 11-12 months.

Matt Capps was added at the July deadline as *proven closer to help propel the Twins to the post season. He would slide immediately to the back end of the bullpen and locked down 16 saves in 18 opportunities. He sported an even 2.00 ERA over his 27 appearances, striking out 21 batters. In game 1 of the ALDS, he allowed a run and two hits, making the score 6-4 in the 9th.

Brian Fuentes came to the Twins in August, and had a sparkling Twins career, allowing 0 runs and just 3 hits in his 9 appearances in the regular season. He made 2 more appearances in the ALDS, again allowing 0 runs over 2.2 innings pitched.

All hands on Deck:
Trevor May made his move to the bullpen a while back, and this year he has grown into the role, striking out 79 batters in his 64.1 innings pitched. He picked up a pair of saves as well, and has brought a powerful arm to blow past the competition.
Kyle Gibson was the team's #3 Starter for the majority of the season, however a battle with ulcerative colitis placed him on the IL towards the end of the year, and he's tried to make an impact coming out of the bullpen. It is still a work in progress. He does bring veteran leadership to the staff.
Lewis Thorpe may very well be a starter in the future, for now the Aussie has been serving as a lefty option out of the pen for first year manager Rocco Baldelli.

Matt Guerrier led the Twins in 2010 with 74 games, as Ron Gardenhire's first choice out of the pen. He had good control and rarely allowed homers, giving up just 7 homers over 71 innings. He had 2.1 scoreless innings of relief in the ALDS.
Jesse Crain was even better in 71 games, only surrendering 5 homers. Crain and Guerrier were solid pen options for the Twins, though Crain had a tough outing in the post season, giving up 3 hits and a pair of runs in Game 1, earning the Loss.
Jose Mijares was the go to lefty for the Twins in 2010, appearing in 47 games while pitching just 32.2 innings all season. Like the rest of the pen, he had good control and rarely allowed home runs.