Monday, April 29, 2019

1993 Topps All-Star Rookie Right Handed Pitcher Greg McMichael

Greg's big league career was nearly over before it started. In 1990 as a starter in the Cleveland minor league system, McMichael tore the meniscus in his knee, Cleveland would grant him his release and gave him some harsh advice - to retire.

Greg had other plans, and despite the injury to his knee, he was not looking long to find a new home. He joined the Durham Bulls in 1991, picking up where he left off. Atlanta's rotation already boasted Smoltz, Glavine, and Steve Avery when they added free agent Greg Maddux. McMichael's best path to the big leagues would have to be through the bullpen.

Greg was a non-roster invitee in 1993 for the Braves' spring training squad. He forced his way onto the roster by being the best pitcher all spring long. McMichael was used a middle reliever to start the season, but his ability to miss bats saw him move into higher and higher leverage situations, becoming the team's closer for the second half.

In his new role, McMichael shined. He would convert his first 15 save opportunities, and was the team's closer throughout the 1993 playoffs as well. His 2.06 ERA and 19 saves in the regular season earned him a 2nd place finish in the NL ROY balloting.

He would be the Braves' closer again to start 1994, saving 21 games to lead the team again. He'd pitch in a pair of World Series, in 1995 and 1996- and earned a save in the 1995 NLCS against the Reds. After the 1996 season, McMichael was traded to the Mets for Paul Byrd. In New York he'd have a few more solid seasons as a late innings reliever. He was traded to the Dodgers for a month in 1998 for Hideo Nomo, then traded back to the Mets for Brian Bohanon. Shoulder issues would plague the rest of his career, heading to Oakland in a trade in 1999. He'd have off-season surgery on the shoulder, then return for one last ride in Atlanta before a rotator cuff injury would force his retirement. In over 500 MLB innings, McMichael would strikeout 459 batters while surrendering just 42 homers. He retired with a 3.25 career ERA. He's now the Braves' alumni coordinator and coaches pitching at Emory.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Happy Birthday, Pedro Ramos!

Born on this date in 1935, Pedro Ramos is celebrating his birthday today! The right-hander from Cuba was the very first pitcher (and first winning pitcher!) in Minnesota Twins history, out-dueling Hall of Famer Whitey Ford in the Twins' first game in 1961.

From the time he came up in 1955 for the Washington Nationals/Senators, Ramos was among the best pitchers in the league. His win-loss record would never support that premise, as he would lose 10 or more games in 9 seasons, including every season he pitched in the Washington / Minnesota franchise.

Despite the ugly record, Ramos was an above average starter in 5 seasons, and would regularly be near the top of the AL in strikeouts, finishing as high as 2nd in 1960. He was prone to the homer, giving up a league leading number of homers 3 times and finishing in the top ten 8 times.

Nevertheless, Ramos anchored the Nationals/Senators rotation in the last half of the 50s, and was often the hard luck loser on a team that didn't score many runs for him. Ramos was also a very good fielder, finishing three full seasons without recording an error, while leading the league in Games Started.  He just had some unfortunate timing, coming up a few years ahead of the heavy hitters in MN, missing out on Tony Oliva and Rod Carew, and only getting a small taste of the hitting that Harmon Killebrew would bring in earnest in the 1960s and early 70s.

He'd spend just one season in Minnesota, leaving the franchise that originally signed him for Cleveland before the 1962 season. Ramos would find a second wind as a relief pitcher for New York in 1964 and 65. He came over mid season to the Bronx and saved 8 games in 13 appearances with a 1.25 ERA down the stretch to help the Yankees reach the 1964 World Series.

You can check out his SABR biography here. Ramos just turned 84! Happy Birthday!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

MLB's Avengers

The big movie of the summer is out now, a continuation of a very successful franchise of superhero films. For the uninterested or un-doctrinated, Marvel's latest film combines nearly all of the characters that have appeared in the last 10 years of movies, all joining forces to take on the big bad guy.

I thought it would be a fun frivolous Saturday afternoon thought exercise to look at some of the characters and who their MLB counterparts would be.

Iron Man - Cal and Lou of course had the nickname, and Steve Garvey also played in a long Iron Man Streak of his own. Albert Pujols, also known as "The Machine" is a Super Rich guy that may be getting older but can still get the job done in the clutch, just like Tony Stark / Iron Man

Captain America - Adam Jones' catch during the WBC with the mini American Flags waving in the background just seemed about as Captain America as you could get. Joe Mauer had the reputation of being an "aw shucks" clean cut golden boy for most of his career.

Also Captain America, because duh, America's Greatest Hero (in Baseball). Ted Williams would be another good example.

Captain Marvel - Mike Trout seems to have superhuman abilities well beyond the realm of possibility, and his domination of the rest of the league seems at times almost unfair as he does it with seeming ease. Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey, Jr, Carlos Beltran, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays were also considered.

Spider-Man - plenty of Wall crawlers to pick from - Torii Hunter of course had the nickname of Spider-Man for a good portion of his career.

Thor - Noah Syndegaard has the nickname, but Aaron and Murray know a thing or two about swinging a divine hammer, and Dutch-born Bert Blyleven had a thunderous curveball (aka Hammer) that would strikeout the 5th most batters in MLB history by the time he retired.

Ant Man and the Wasp - pesky, quick, resourceful - these guys can get under your skin in a hurry.

The Scarlet Witch - Reds veteran Joey Votto has supernatural bat control, which allows him to hit the ball with power to all fields, and has a kind of sixth sense for plate discipline and plate coverage.

Hawkeye - Few possess the accuracy and vision of Greg Maddux and Tony Gwynn.

The Incredible Hulk - You wouldn't like these guys when they are angry (unless they're on your side.). The madder they get, the bigger they get.

Black Widow - Uh, because Moe Berg was a spy and Black Widow is a spy?

The Guardians of the Galaxy - like the curse breaking World Champion Red Sox, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a ragtag group of misfits and oddball characters that win through unique talent and heart over traditional super powers.

Doctor Strange - A slightly bent view of the world coupled with a high level of self confidence, these hurlers are masters of their craft through study of the most arcane and novel techniques known to human history.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Willians Astudillo - Road to the Show

Willians Astudillo was signed by the Phillies as a amateur free agent in 2008. He debuted for the Phillies in the Venezuelan summer league at the tender age of 17 in 2009, and would play for the VSL Phillies for the first 3 seasons of his minor league career. He played for the short season rookie level Gulf Coast League Phillies in 2012.

The Bowman scouting report back in 2013 had all the hints of what was to come -- "Aggressive swinger who rarely whiffs" "Owns strong arm and quick release behind the plate." Astudillo would unfortunately be sidelined for the 2013 season with an injury.

In 2014, Astudillo would get his first taste in a full season league, playing for the Single A Lakewood Blue Claws in the South Atlantic League. He was an All-Star at Catcher, hitting .333 with 30 doubles and just 20 strikeouts.

Promoted again for 2015, Astudillo made strides in High A Clearwater. He hit .314 with just 10 strikeouts in 418 plate appearances, winning the Florida State League batting title. He drove in 49 runs for the Threshers, and would be moving up again in 2016.

Now in the Braves organization, the 24 year old Astudillo has moved up to AA Mississippi. Once again, Willians was an All-Star thanks to his skills behind the plate and his high rate of contact.

Despite hitting below .300 for the first time in his minor league career since his age 17 season, Astudillo still brought great defense (leading the league in caught stealing pct.) and struck out just 11 times on the season in 89 games.

The Braves foolishly let Willians test the market, and he went West to Arizona and the AAA Reno Aces for 2017. The Pacific Coast League was the right environment for Willians to bounce back, and he hit .342 for the Aces, striking out 5 times in his 128 plate appearances. The Aces also gave Astudillo his first pitching appearance, earning the win in a scoreless 2 inning stint.

The Twins finally got their man in 2018, adding Astudillo to the AAA Rochester Red Wings roster. He wasted no time making another All-Star squad, and was poised to make his MLB debut for the Twins in the fall of 2018. For the Red Wings, Willians found his power stroke and hit a career high 12 homers.

The road to the big leagues was 10 years and 638 games long. Astudillo is making it hard for manager Rocco Baldelli to keep him out of the lineup on the big league club now - he's taken all the contact skills and defensive flexibility learned over his minor league (and Venezuelan Winter League) career and put them to use.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

More Vintage Hoops from COMC

At the last monthly card show, I grabbed a few random basketball cards from a vintage table - they were actually dessert. I was on COMC earlier last month and decided that I hadn't paid any attention to the other sports besides baseball. I went over to the Basketball section and made some budget purchases.

Check out Dr. J with cameos by McHale and Bird!

Check out Rick Barry with the Granny Style Free Throw!

James Jones is bemused.

I went for some fun names - I think Corky Calhoun was a Christopher Guest character's name. Doesn't get any manlier than Butch Beard.

Big hair and big personalities. The ABA was almost entirely made up of teams I'd forgotten about or never heard of! The Harlem Globetrotters have had numerous sets over the years, this set was just the players messing around in a photography studio.

I should share at least one back - this was one of my favorites. Ollie Taylor of the San Diego Conquistadors. He jumped cars! He was a 6'1" center? / guard.

Before you say anything, just keep in mind that this man is seven feet tall.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Laser, Focused - 1993 Topps All-Star Rookie Third Baseman Mike Lansing

I learned something new today! Mike Lansing was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 9th Round of the 1989 draft, but opted to return to college at Wichita State for another year. Here comes the crazy part - in 1990, Lansing was drafted by the Miami Miracle in the 6th Round of the 1990 MLB draft. What? Was the Miami Miracle just a name being used by the Marlins before they started with their official MLB games? Nope. The Miracle were an independent Minor League team. Major league baseball's rules allowed minor league clubs to participate in the June amateur draft, for some reason. In 1990, it was the Erie Sailors of the NY-Penn League and the Miracle, both Class-A teams making selections out from under the noses of the MLB clubs. The Miracle actually made 16 selections in the 1990 Draft and signed 15 players- the best known was Mike Lansing.

In his 2nd season in Miami, Lansing stole 29 bases and hit close to .300. As the Miracle were winding down their operations (they later relocated to Ft. Myers and are the Twins' high A affiliate now) in 1991, they sold off as many of their players as they could. Lansing was the biggest prize, a slick fielding and speedy middle infield prospect with a little bit of pop in his bat. The Expos jumped at the chance to add Lansing, and he spent 1992 with AA Harrisburg.

Lansing would have a fantastic rookie campaign in 1993, hitting .287 and stealing 23 bases. He played all over the infield, Topps gave him the nod as the All-Star Rookie squad's 3rd Baseman. He had a slow first half in 1994, but starting in June of that year, Lansing tapped into his potential and started to spray the ball all over the field. Each season would bring a different milestone - career high in steals in 1995, career highs in runs scored (99) and hits (185) in '96. Then in his final season in Montreal, he put it all together.

Lansing smashed career highs of 45 doubles, 20 homers, and drove in 70 runs for the Expos, while hitting .281. Lansing was the right mold of player to help out in Colorado, and certainly the thought was that playing at altitude would only improve on those career numbers. The Rockies gave up Jake Westbrook and a pair of other minor league prospects to get him.

While he didn't hit 20 homers again in Colorado, he did have his share of highlights, including the very first Rockies hit at Coors Field.

A serious back injury in 1999 ended what was a promising start - he was hitting .310 after his first 35 games.

In 2000, Lansing would come back with a strong season, and even hit for the cycle:

He was traded again mid-season in 2000 to the Boston Red Sox, his name being the biggest of the seven player group with three Rockies heading to Beantown and two pairs of Sox coming back in the deal. He'd play a full season in Boston in 2001, a year with Cleveland's AAA team in 2002, and retire following another back injury. Originally from Casper, Wyoming, Lansing is still active in the Colorado area often providing interviews for the local Rockies coverage.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"THIS IS NEXT YEAR!" The Brooklyn Dodgers 1956 Topps Team Set

One of the fun things about a completed set is deciding how you want to organize it. I have the 1956 Topps set in a binder, sorted by team, in the same order that the teams finished in the 1955 Standings. In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the National League champions, with a 98-55 record. They would win the World Series in seven games. 

Without Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers were Bums. They had 3 championship teams in the 1800s, but they had little success in the 20th Century. Just 3 National League titles from 1900 to 1947. Once Jackie joined the club in 1947, the team became a perennial contender, going to the World Series in 6 of Jackie's 10 big league seasons. Ironically, the only World Series game that Jackie would miss in his career would be Game 7 in 1955, the first and only Brooklyn World Series Championship victory.

The 1955 Dodgers' team had the best record of any team in MLB, scoring the most runs while allowing the fewest. And yet, they still had to feel like underdogs against the Yankees, a team that had bested them in the championship 4 times in a row since 1947.  The Dodgers had finished with better records in 1941, 42, and '53, but no championship. In 1942, they didn't even reach the World Series, winning 104 games but finishing in 2nd place in the National League. "Wait 'Til Next Year" was the common refrain in Brooklyn (Cubs fans came to embrace it as well.), but in 1955, it finally was next year.

The Dodgers' best hitter in 1955 was the Duke of Flatbush himself, Duke Snider. He was the team leader in hits, doubles, runs scored, walks, homers, RBI, OBP, SLG, etc. Snider would also provide power and clutch hitting during the World Series, adding 4 more homers to the 42 he hit in the regular season.

Snider was the NL leader in runs scored in 1953, '54 and '55. He was in the midst of a run of 7 straight All-Star appearances and would make it 8 overall by the end of his career. He slugged 40 or more homers every year from 1953 through 1957, and had 407 for his career. He'd score over 100 runs in a season 6 times, and drive in 100 or more runs 6 times. It took 11 years on the ballot, but he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

The best pitcher for the Dodgers in 1955 was their ace for the majority of the decade, Don Newcombe. Newk won 20 games during the regular season, but only pitched in game 1 of the World Series. During the regular season he led the NL in WHIP, with the lowest walk rate (1.5 per nine innings) and the highest rate of strikeouts to walks. He pitched complete games in 17 of his 31 starts, and registered 1 shutout on the season. If he had more plate appearances, you could argue that he was also the team's best hitter- he had 7 homers and a triple slash of .359 / .395 / .632(!) in 1955, which is not too shabby for a pitcher.

Newcombe would have an even better season in 1956, going 27 - 7 and winning both the Cy Young award and the NL MVP award as the Dodgers returned to the World Series. For his career, Newcombe had impeccable control and was able to convert from a power to finesse pitcher later on. Battling personal issues and some career setbacks, Newcombe found success again on the field in Cincinnati and also re-claimed his path in life by dedicating himself to the service of others post retirement. As a recovering alcoholic, he mentored others on their own path towards sobriety.

Jackie Robinson was not in the lineup for Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, and didn't appear in the game as a defensive replacement, pinch hitter, or pinch runner. One teammate (Newcombe) later stated that it was an injured Achilles tendon, while another offered that knee injuries sidelined Jackie. For his own part, Robinson did not mention it in his autobiography. He only talks about the great pitching performance of Johnny Podres, Sandy Amoros making an incredible catch to preserve the lead, and how it was one the greatest thrills of his life to be on a World Series winning team.

The truth was that life for Jackie with the Dodgers hadn't been the same since Walter O'Malley assumed control of the team. The cool relationship between Manager Walter Alston and Robinson didn't help either. Alston benched Jackie about 1/3 of the time in 1955, and roughly the same in 1956. Robinson was not bitter about being benched, he too was aware that his skills had declined due to age and injury. But he would note in his book that Alston and O'Malley seemed to think there was mutual resentment. O'Malley for replacing (forcing out) Branch Rickey, and Alston for taking Chuck Dressen's job as Dodgers manager. I haven't read any O'Malley biographies, but if I extrapolate from Jackie Robinson's and Bill Veeck's books, I have a consistent picture of O'Malley as a powerful man that is suspicious of anyone that might challenge that power. If there's any bitterness, it certainly wasn't on Jackie's side. He stated in no uncertain terms that he benefited from Baseball, and was glad that Baseball had benefited from him. He had been looking for his post career landing spot since the end of the 1954 season, so the timing of his trade to the Giants after the 1956 World Series and the announcement of his retirement / new role with coffee house chain Chock Full 'O Nuts was (mostly) a coincidence. He was genuinely considering the Giants' offer before Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi told the press that Robinson was trying to leverage a higher salary. That was enough for Robinson to just retire like he had been planning.

The 1955 NL MVP was actually Roy Campanella, who edged out Snider in the voting by 5 points. There was a small controversy about this as there was a single ballot from a Philadelphia writer that listed Campanella 1st and also 5th. The assumption was that one vote was meant for Snider. The writer was ill at the time the votes were being counted, so they decided to go with Campanella as written as #1, and made #5 blank. Both players received 8 first place votes, and in terms of total points, Campanella won by 5 points. Another fifth place vote for Snider would have made him the points leader in the MVP race, making him the winner. But in the end, both players made compelling cases. Campy joined Yogi Berra as league MVPs, which they had done previously in 1951. 1955 and 1951 are the only two seasons in which both MVP awards were given to Catchers.

Johnny Podres was known as a humble guy in the clubhouse, a Brooklyn kid that was thrilled to be playing for the team he grew up cheering for. So when he saw the tension on his teammates faces (or maybe just felt the tension himself), he piped up before Game 7 - "Just get me one today, boys and I'll take it from there!" This immediately loosened the mood among the team, and Podres pitched a masterful game to back up his rare boast. He later revealed that he got a great deal of confidence when Walter Alston told him after his Game 3 victory that if the series went the distance, he'd be starting Game 7.
The bullpen was led by Clem Labine, who won 13 games and saved 11 in relief, and Ed Roebuck who led the team with 12 saves.

Don Bessent and Roger Craig both sported ERAs under 3.00, and youngster Sandy Koufax led the team with 2 shutouts despite only being asked to start 5 games. Don Zimmer provided some pop off the bench, contributing 15 homers to the squad in '55. It was Walter Alston's second year as manager, but he was already establishing his style as a close to the vest tactician. He did not show the outward passion of Dodgers managers of the past like Leo Durocher, or the future like Tommy LaSorda, but he would certainly find a way to succeed, winning 7 NL Pennants, 4 World Series titles, and over 2,000 regular season games.