Guest Post: “I Would’ve Played Third Base Left-Handed”: The Unexpected 1944 Home Run Champ

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who goes by Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Jerry Kenney, the Copacabana incident, Mark Koenig, Earle Combs, Urban Shocker, Michael Milosevich, and Snuffy Stirnweiss.

Etten. (AP)
Etten. (AP)

Being a New York Yankee in 1943 was an unsure time. Most players knew it was inevitable that players would be drafted into the United States Armed Forces and serve abroad. By the beginning of the 1944 season, most players knew they were being drafted. Teams spent most of 1943 preparing for such a thing. The Yankees acquired players to replace bodies such as Buddy Hassett, Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio. As a result, 1944 had a lot of players win awards that no one would have picked. Hal Newhouser and Buddy Marion won the MVPs in their respective league that year. An outcast from the Philadelphia Athletics was a 1943 Yankees world champion and he is the subject of the story.

The Prussian Warrior

Nicholas Raymond Thomas Etten was born on September 19, 1913 in Spring Grove, Illinois, just off the Chain O’Lakes in McHenry County. His parents were Joseph Bernard (1883-1940) and Gertrude Mary Scheusen Etten (1883-1966). While little is known about his father’s family, there is quite the history behind his mother’s. Gertrude Mary Scheusen Etten is the granddaughter of Karl Ernst Du Sartz de Vigneul, a former member of the Prussian nobility. While the Du Sartz de Vigneuil nobility heritage came out of the Lorraine section of France, Dr. Sharon Koelling of Iowa State University noted that the family history dates back to the 17th century. Karl Ernst was disowned by the Prussian nobility when they disapproved of his marriage to a commoner, Catherina Niederprum.

A member of the Prussian Uhlan Regiment, Karl Ernst du Sartz de Vigneul was a warrior for the German cavalry in their military. After his death in the Rhineland city of Seffern in 1872, the widow Niederpaum and their nine children immigrated to Chicago, Illinois. One of their daughters, Anna Margaretha Du Sartz de Vigneul Scheusen was Gertrude’s mother. Gertrude was one of eight kids belonging to Du Sartz de Vigneul and Heinrich Scheusen. Nick Etten was one of three children for Joseph and Gertrude, with elder brothers Joseph Etten (1906-2004) and Hubert Etten (1908-1982) preceding him in birth.

Nick Etten was a three-sport star at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, located at 7740 South Western Avenue. There, he specialized in baseball, basketball and football. At St. Rita’s, he was a guard in basketball, a first baseman in baseball and right end for the football squad. Graduating from St. Rita of Cascia in 1931, Etten took his talents to Villanova University. However, at Villanova, he took his football talent to another level. Despite that football talent, Etten joined the Duffy Florals, a semi-pro team in Chicago during the 1932 season until Cletus Dixon, the manager signed him to a contract with the Davenport Blue Sox, passing up a four-year athletic scholarship at Villanova.

At age 19, Etten succeeded with the Class-B team in the Mississippi Valley League. In 114 games, he got 162 hits, 35 doubles, 4 triples and 14 home runs on his way to a .357 average and .544 slugging percentage for the Blue Sox. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates came calling for the Davenport outfielder in August 1933. At 6’1”, 195, he was a skinny player, and the Pittsburgh Pirates scout that discovered him, Carleton Molesworth, a former pitcher who appeared in three games in 1895 for the Washington Senators, thought that Etten’s speed was below average, something he would gain with experience. Molesworth considered him the best player prospect in the Mississippi Valley League and bought him from the team for more than $2,000 in cold hard cash.

Molesworth ended any intent of the outfield experiment continuing on from Davenport. During his time with the Blue Sox, Etten managed 12 errors in the outfield. The Pirates decided that Etten would move back to his main position of first base. Molesworth stated to the press that all opportunities would be made to get him to work out at first base. Molesworth was confident that Etten would be ready for the big leagues in two years and farmed him out appropriately. As part of the deal, Etten would stay with the Blue Sox through the end of the season, and the Mayor of Davenport, IA, George Tank presented the 19-year old with a traveling bag for joining the Pirates at Islander Field on September 11. Etten arrived at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field on September 18, the day they announced the signing of shortstop Elmer Trappe.

During Spring Training in 1934 for the Pirates at Paso Robles, California, manager George Gibson worked with Etten every day to improve his work at first base. The Pirate team of 1934 was already loaded, with Floyd Young, Paul and Lloyd Waner and Freddy Lindstrom on the team. That Spring Training, Gibson worked with Etten specifically on how to go around first base without tripping on his legs in order to make plays. Gibson stated that his 6’1” inch frame made him perfect for first base and would be a good alternate if Gus Suhr had a slow start. On April 5, 1934, it was announced that Etten would be on his way to Little Rock, Arkansas to play for the A-team Travelers as a first baseman.

In 1934, the season with the Little Rock Travelers was the first sign of things going backwards. After a great season with Davenport in 1933, the Travelers got a player with only 120 hits, 22 doubles, 4 triples and 2 home runs in 113 games. His batting line fell to a .291 average and.379 slugging, and things only seemed to look worse in 1935. In 1935, he jumped from the Elmira Pioneers, Birmingham Barons and Oklahoma City Indians, he managed all of a .264/.379 line with 108 hits, 22 doubles, 2 triples and an uptick to seven home runs.

The 1936 season was the fix. Demoted to the B-league Savannah Indians, Etten hit .329 and got 162 hits, 28 doubles, 10 triples and 12 home runs. It was enough to re-promote him to the A-ball Wilkes-Barre Barons. However, the prospect glow was gone from Etten. He spent the entire 1937 season with Savannah, hitting .304/.518 with 156 hits, 27 doubles, 10 triples and then-career high 21 home runs. By now, Etten was playing in the outfield once again. In 1938, he started the season with the Jacksonville Tars of the South Atlantic (B) League after two years with Savannah. Out of the Pirates organization, Etten batted .370/.516 with 193 hits, 15 triples and 2 home runs (along with 40 doubles) in Jacksonville.

Damaged Goods

The Philadelphia Athletics came calling in 1938. On September 1, 1938, Connie Mack purchased his contract from the Sally League and he would join the team in the majors as a first baseman. Mack got Etten his first game on September 8 against the Washington Senators. It was an eventful debut as a brawl broke out that day between Billy Werber and Buddy Myer. After Myer performed a knockout slide of catcher Harold Wagner, Werber took it upon himself to tell Myer where he can put his slide. The two went to fisticuffs and the fight was on. Umpire Bill Grieve tossed both for the rest of the event.

The next day, Etten got his first hit against Jim Bagby and the Boston Red Sox in a 4-3 win at Fenway. With the A’s in 1938, he played in 22 games, going 21 for 81, getting 6 doubles, 2 triples and no home runs while batting .259/.333/.383. For 1939, he started the season with the Athletics, managing a .252/.322/.406 line in 43 games with 39 hits, 11 doubles, 2 triples and three home runs. His first home run was off Bump Hadley of the Yankees on April 25, 1939 at the Stadium. After the game on June 10, he was optioned back out to the AA Baltimore Orioles. With the Orioles, he played 105 games, getting 115 hits, 25 doubles, 3 triples and 14 home runs, batting .299/.490.

In 1940, the Baltimore Orioles fell under the guise of a Philadelphia Phillies affiliation. As a result, the Phillies acquired Etten. That year, Etten managed a .321/.530 batting line with 185 hits in 160 games with the Orioles. He also hit 4 triples and 40 doubles. The power was slowly being discovered by Etten. 1941 became the first season in which Etten did not have to join the minor league teams. As the starting first baseman for the Phils, Etten hit .311/.405/.454 with 14 home runs, 4 triples, 27 doubles and 168 hits in his first full season. That year he finished 28th in the MVP voting. Etten returned in 1942 with the Phillies, playing in 139 games, but showing a clear decline. Etten hit .271/.355/.420 with 121 hits, 21 doubles, 8 home runs and 3 triples.

First base for the New York Yankees had been a mess leading into the 1943 season. In 1941, the Yankees had a rookie first baseman named Johnny Sturm (#34) from St. Louis. Despite the World Series ring in 1941, Sturm enlisted in the United States Army and served in World War II. He never saw another MLB game. He managed to injure himself in a freak tractor accident trying to build an Army baseball field, damaging his right index finger. He tried for a comeback in 1946, but injured his wrist and finished in the minors the rest of his career. However, he was the man who first recommended the Yankees look at Mickey Mantle. In 1942, the Yankees replaced Sturm with Buddy Hassett, a former first baseman for the Dodgers and Braves. Hassett was a god complimentary piece in 1942, but he went to the war effort leading into the 1943 season. He never played another MLB game after serving in the minors until 1950.

With the need to replace Hassett, the Yankees acquired Nick Etten on January 22, 1943. In return, the Yankees sent the Phillies $10,000 along with pitcher Allan Gettel and first baseman Ed Whitner Levy. However, the trade was not without controversy. William Cox, the President of the Phillies, took issue with the fact that Levy and Gettel would not be with the Phillies in 1943. As a result, the Yankees took back Gettel and Levy and sent Tom Padden and Al Gerheauser instead to the Phillies on March 26.

From Last to First

Leaving the dumpster bin Phillies did wonders for Etten. In his first season with the Yankees, batting seventh in the lineup, Etten took Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio’s #5 to a .271/.355/.420 line. He played all 154 games at first, getting 158 hits, 35 doubles, 5 triples and 14 home runs. He drove in 107 RBIs. In his only postseason opportunity, Etten had a miserable postseason, batting .105/.150/.105 in 19 at bats against the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that, the Yankees won Etten his only ring in 1943. In 1943, he was one of four Yankees to finish in the top 10 of MVP voting. Spud Chandler won the award, Billy Johnson finished 3rd, Etten 7th and Bill Dickey 8th.

1944 was Etten’s time to shine. Coming into March, the Yankees expected that Etten would be the only member of the starting infield that would return for the 1944 season. However, in early March, during Spring Training, Etten, along with New York Giants star Mel Ott, were reclassified into Draft Class 1-A. Draft Class 1-A was the one that made people eligible for the draft. Manager Joe McCarthy noted that Etten was not expected to report until the summer for his examination.

However, the draft decimated the infield for McCarthy and the Yankees. Not only was Etten eligible, but Billy Johnson and Charlie Keller went to the Merchant Marines. During Spring Training, Bill Dickey was called to war and two days after Dickey, Joe Gordon went to war. Beat writers considered the race for the 1944 American League pennant as open as ever. McCarthy assembled a rag tag version of his infield to replace the ones fighting abroad: Etten at 1B, Snuffy Stirnweiss at 2B, Frank Crosetti and Mike Milosevich at SS, Oscar Grimes at 3B and a team of Mike Garbark and Rollie Hemsley at catcher.

Etten was on a torrid pace to start the 1944 season, heavily credited for keeping the rag-tag Yankees in the race for the pennant early on. By May 18, a month into the season, Etten hit a .354/.485/.494 line with 3 home runs and eight multiple hit games. By June 18, Etten had slowed to a crawl with his average falling below .300 on June 7. He also fell in the lineup. When the season started, McCarthy had Etten in the 3-hole. On April 30, when he was hitting well, McCarthy put him in the 4-hole. On June 11, McCarthy moved him to the 5-hole. He stayed there through the 4th of July, except for June 12 and June 13, when he was back in the 4-hole. For the four games after Independence Day, Etten went to the 6-hole. He never left 5th after that.

Late August and September 1944 were Etten’s best time for power. In a span of August 31 to September 16, the Yankees first baseman hit 6 home runs. From September 16 to September 27, Etten went on a 13-game hitting streak. However, Etten never saw .300 again, despite peaking on September 27 with a .297/.403/.474 batting line. After that, Etten’s bat went cold again, despite a 2 hit game on October 1. Etten’s final line: .293/.399/.466 in all 154 games.

The Yankees lost to the Browns and the Tigers in 1944 as the Browns went for the World Series and the Yankees went home. Despite that, Etten led the majors in home runs with 22. A feared power hitter, Etten led the league in walks (97) and intentional walks (18). He only had 4 triples and 25 doubles (numbers that went down from 1943). In day games (126), he hit .307/.420/.503; in night games (all of 28), he hit .236/.306/.309. Also a pure left-handed hitter, the splits were insane with a .308 average against righties and .235 against lefties. The 296 foot right field in Yankee Stadium benefited Etten enormously as he hit 15 of his home runs at home and 7 on the road. However, the splits between road and home in average were a lot more reasonable (.304 (home) and .283 (road)). Etten finished 23rd in MVP voting that season, tied with Rudy York.

1945 was a slightly backwards season, but not by much. His April and May 1945 were much the same as his April and May in 1944. Through May 18, Etten hit .321/.411/.500 as the starting first baseman. However, unlike 1944, the 1945 season did not fall off a cliff. Etten managed a .300 or higher batting average until July 1. During that streak, McCarthy put him back in the 4-hole. After a 4-hit game in Cleveland, Etten got his average back above .300, but it would not last. On August 25, Etten was put back in the 5-hole for good, and Etten finished the season with a .285/.387/.437 batting line in 152 games. However, in part due to his good season, he drove in a league-high 111 RBI with 18 home runs and 161 hits. Etten finished 1945 with a 15th place finish in the MVP race.

Statistically, 1945 was an unusual season for Etten, if compared to 1944. For a 1944 season where Etten looked bad against left-handed pitchers, his 1945 season is amazing. In 1945, he hit .333 against left-handed hitters versus .267 against right-handed hitters. At home versus away, he hit better away (.287) versus at home (.283). However, his power remained mostly at home (12-6). In another statistical flip, Etten hit .311 at night despite .281 at home (19-133 games ratio). It would be reasonable to say 1945 was his best overall season, despite the lowered power numbers. Either way, 1944 and 1945 were the best years of his career.

The End of Etten

1946 was another story. With the war effort over and Joe DiMaggio back, Etten switched to #9 and promptly hit like a 9-hitter. After beating out Buddy Hassett for the 1B job, Etten had a miserable April. By May 18, he had been demoted to 6th, re-promoted to 5th, and batting a clear .202/.291/.346 while playing 1B. On May 25, seeing Etten’s numbers start to fall, the Yankees promoted Stephen “Bud” Souchock from the minors to play 1st base. The next day, from the farm in Tonawanda, New York (where I live), McCarthy resigned his position as Yankee manager in a telegram.

His ugly season continued as McCarthy’s replacements had Etten pinch hit more than play 1B. Etten’s time in New York continued to dwindle with Souchock getting more playing time. In 108 games, Etten hit .232/.315/.365 with 49 RBI, 9 home runs and only 75 hits (drastic drops from one year ago). On April 14, 1947, the Yankees sent Etten back to the Phillies, but after having a miserable start to the 1947 season, they sent him back to the Yankees. With the Yankees, he played in the minors for the Newark Bears and Oakland Oaks of AAA. In AAA, he hit .256/.369/.439 in 93 games.

He had one AAA resurgence in 1948, playing for the Oaks, where he hit .313/.407/.587 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. There, Etten hit 43 home runs for the Oaks in 164 games, with 181 hits, 155 RBI and 27 doubles. That was a career minor league season for Etten. He never repeated it. In 1949, he joined the Braves minors, playing in Milwaukee for their AA franchise and hit .280/.408/.454 in 148 games. In 1950, aged 36, he joined the White Sox and their Memphis franchise. There, he hit .313/.487 in the South Atlantic League.

With his career over, Etten retired to his home in Chicago. In 1953, Etten became a player agent for a Beverly-Morgan Park pony league. Home with his kids and his wife Helen Patricia at 10214 Oakley Avenue, Etten eventually became a contractor and part-owner for the Carroll Construction Company in Oak Lawn. He moved to Hinsdale, the community he lived in until his death. His son Nick Jr. became a football star himself in the Cook County area. He was soon inducted into the Chicago Sports and Catholic League Hall of Fames for his time in baseball as well as his success at St. Rita’s.

In 1982, he told the Chicago Tribune about his time with the Yankees and about wearing the iconic #5 while DiMaggio was gone. He noted that he would’ve played third base left-handed if necessary to be on the team. He also told the paper that in 1933 he played for a pickup team at Portage Park in Chicago in which he played three innings with a clown outfit on. He kept the paint on after the game until 63rd Street and Kedzie on his way home.

On October 18, 1990, Etten passed away in his home at Hinsdale at the age of 77. His wife, Helen Patricia along with his daughter Patricia and three sons, Nick Jr, John and Thomas along with one of his elder brothers all survived him. He was buried in the Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. Helen Patricia Conway Etten died in August 1995 at the age of 79. His elder brother, Joseph Etten, died in 2004 at the age of 97.

Nick Etten’s career is another one, unfortunately, shrouded by the war era. However, much like Snuffy Stirnweiss, these guys were legitimate prospects with legitimate chances. Yes, both of their careers died after the war, but baseball is cruel. Etten will forever be the forgotten American League home run king.

Nippon Ham Fighters officially post Shohei Ohtani


Shohei Ohtani is officially on his way to the big leagues. MLB and the Nippon Ham Fighters announced today that Ohtani has indeed been posted, and now has 21 days to negotiate and sign with one of the 30 MLB clubs. Ohtani has been grandfathered in under the old posting agreement, so whichever team signs him will pay a $20M release fee to the (Ham) Fighters. MLB says the 21-day window closes at 11:59pm ET on December 22nd.

MLB, NPB, and the MLBPA agreed to a new posting system last week, and it was ratified today, paving the way for Ohtani to be posted. The union used Ohtani’s posting as leverage to get a more favorable deal for future Japanese players coming to MLB. Now more of the money goes to the player rather than his former team in Japan. Would’ve been cool if the MLBPA had fought harder for their future members during Collective Bargaining Agreement talks, but better late than never, I guess.

The 23-year-old Ohtani is pretty much the coolest baseball player in the world, a 100 mph throwing dinger hitting machine. Ankle and quad injuries limited him to 231 plate appearances (.332/.403/.540) and 25.1 innings (3.20 ERA) this season. Last season, when fully healthy, Ohtani hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers in 382 plate appearances, and struck out 174 with a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings.

Last week Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports, started the recruiting process by giving the 30 teams homework. They asked for a written report with all sorts of information, including evaluations of Ohtani as a player, their player development philosophies and facilities, available resources to help him transition to life in the United States, all sorts of things. I took a crack at putting together the Yankees’ report.

Because he is still only 23, Ohtani is subject to the international hard cap and can only sign a standard minor league contract. The Yankees reportedly have $3.5M in international bonus money available, slightly behind the Rangers ($3.535M) for the most in baseball. MLB will come down hard on any attempted hard cap circumvention, such as a handshake agreement on a contract extension. The Braves penalties announced last week were timed to be a warning shot. Do anything improper with Ohtani and you’ll get hit hard.

It should be noted Ohtani is currently in the United States. He was spotted in Los Angeles earlier this week. I have to think Ohtani and Balelo will meet face-to-face with several teams during his 21-day negotiating window, and possibly visit some cities as well. When Masahiro Tanaka was posted, he went to Los Angeles and had interested teams meet him there to make their in-person sales pitch. He didn’t visit any cities. I suppose Ohtani could do the same.

The Yankees will reportedly pursue Ohtani aggressively, which makes perfect sense. He’s very talented and also young, so he’d fight right in with their youth movement. Ohtani is five months younger than Luis Severino, for reference. The Yankees can slot Ohtani right into their rotation and let him serve as the DH between starts, and he’d join a strong young core that is ready to win right now. The consensus seems to be that the Yankees are the favorites to sign Ohtani, but who knows. All they can do is make their pitch and hope for the best.

Tommy Kahnle: The former Trenton Thunder reliever returns [2017 Season Review]

Even when it's not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Even when it’s not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Four years ago — when he was striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings with the Trenton Thunder — it was easy to imagine Tommy Kahnle being an impact reliever with the New York Yankees.

A year ago? That was tougher to imagine.

Kahnle’s 2017 season is a story of a reliever figuring things out and arriving in a place able to showcase his talents.

Before the trade

There’s a reason Kahnle wasn’t highly sought after prior to the 2017 trade deadline. The former Rule 5 Draft pick had long struggled with his command, walking north of a batter every other inning even in the minors. LaTroy Hawkins, former Yankee (and nearly every other team), called him “one of his worst teammates ever.” His high velocity, accompanied by top-notch strikeout rates, made him an interesting prospect, one on which both the Rockies and White Sox took a chance.

What changed in 2017 were the walks. In 36 innings with the White Sox, he walked just seven batters after walking 20 in nine fewer innings a year prior. Meanwhile, he actually upped his strikeouts, K’ing a shocking 42.6 percent of batters while more than halving his walk rate. Surely some of this was small sample size noise, but it looked like a legitimate turnaround.

And so on July 19, he was flipped with more well-known players Todd Frazier and David Robertson to the Yankees for Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo, Ian Clarkin and Tyler Clippard. Despite Frazier and Robertson’s respective reputations, Kahnle seemed to be the centerpiece of the deal. Under team control for 3.5 seasons and not even arbitration eligible, he was both cheap and effective. The two veterans had larger contracts with shorter terms.

An ugly August

Kahnle pitched in his first game after the trade and struck out two batters in an inning. He struck out eight batters over six outings before allowing a hit and didn’t walk anyone until his 11th game in New York. But beginning in late July, he gave up a fair number of hits.

From July 29 to Aug. 30, he gave up 17 hits and walked five in 12 1/3 innings. He continued to get strikeouts, 14 to be exact, but he allowed a .327/.383/.481 line. He essentially turned the opposition into 2009 Derek Jeter.

Kahnle’s worst stretch in pinstripes came in three outings from Aug. 18-23 against the Red Sox and Tigers. While recording just five outs, he gave up five runs on seven hits, one home run and two walks, striking out just one. Before that stretch, he’d allowed the go-ahead inherited runner to score in a crushing loss to Boston on Aug. 13 and hadn’t seemed like the surefire middle inning reliever the Yankees had acquired.

His fastball and slider velocity both trended down in August by about 0.8 mph, which may have been due to fatigue. He’d thrown in 20 games over his last 43 days by the end of the month. He was already at 57 total appearances after throwing in just 52 games between AAA and the majors in 2016 and 57 in 2015.

A return to form

After his slight downturn, Kahnle was removed from most high leverage innings in September and subsequently began to thrive. His velocity didn’t jump, but he cut down on the usage of his slider. He’d used it 25.3 percent of the time in July. But once he came to the Yankees, he cut it down to 15.2 percent in August and 5.8 percent in September. Meanwhile, he increased his reliance on his changeup in August and became fastball heavy in September.

For the final month of the year, he allowed just eight hits in 10 innings (though he walked five) and gave up just one run. He struck out 15 of 41 batters faced and didn’t give up a single extra-base hit. That was the Kahnle the Yankees were expecting in the trade.

It was perfect timing for the Bombers, who would need his arm in October.

Postseason excellence until the end

With Dellin Betances out of the mix, Kahnle moved up a spot in Joe Girardi‘s circle of trust in the postseason. He returned the favor by not giving up a run until the Yankees’ last game.

In the Wild Card Game, he recorded seven outs, his most of the season and highest total since his rookie season. While he struck out just one batter, he retired every batter he faced and provided the bridge from Robertson to Aroldis Chapman to secure the Yankees’ advancement. He also got a bit lucky on a peculiar grounder down the first-base line.

His shining moment was likely ALDS Game 4. Entering the game with two on and none out in the eighth inning, he proceeded to strike out five of the next six batters en route to his first (and only) save of the year. He was dominance personified and allowed the Yankees to save Robertson and Chapman for the crucial Game 5 two days later.

Kahnle pitched two scoreless innings in ALCS Game 2 before throwing three scoreless in the Bronx over Games 3 and 5. He allowed some hard contact in the last outing as he worked past his career-high in innings. He’d previous thrown 68 2/3 with the Rockies in 2014, but eclipsed that with 74 between the regular season and playoffs this year.

So that fatigued reared its ugly head in Game 7 against the Astros. He allowed three runs, tarnishing his unblemished postseason and turning a 1-0 game into a 4-0 game. With the way Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers were pitching, it may not have mattered, but it felt like the nail in the coffin for the Yankees.

2018 Outlook

Kahnle remains under Yankees control for a while and figures to keep his prominent spot in the bullpen, provided he can keep up his 2017 breakout. His walk rate certainly climbed post-trade and he’ll have to prove whether his turnaround in command was for real or a mere flash in the pan.

Still, even with an elevated walk rate, Kahnle was still an effective reliever for the Yankees and will continue to be a key cog in middle relief. His first full year in pinstripes is a big opportunity for the 28-year-old righty.

Mailbag: Abreu, Cobb, Judge, Hall of Fame, Ohtani, Kahnle

There are 13 questions in this week’s mailbag. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send your questions throughout the week.

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

Chase asks: What do you think of a Jose Abreu Trade? If you could buy down the contract to say $15 per year I could see it fit the salary cap. I feel like they could use a bat/DH. I think a lefty might fit better, but a big bat is always welcome. MTPS but Chance Adams, Tyler Wade, Domingo Acevedo, that seem fair?

There are too many first base/DH types in free agency to justify giving up a big prospect package for Abreu, in my opinion. Why trade prospects for Abreu when you could sign Carlos Santana, for example? MLBTR projects Abreu to get $17.9M through arbitration next season, which means he’ll probably be at $25M or so in 2019, his final year of team control. Santana very well might be cheaper in terms of average annual value (and thus luxury tax hit). The new Collective Bargaining Agreement says the Yankees would have to give up their second and fifth picks, and $1M in international bonus money next year, to sign a qualified free agent, and I would absolutely rather do that to sign Santana than trade near MLB ready pieces like Adams and Wade for Abreu. If you don’t want to sign Santana, then sign Lucas Duda or (ugh) Logan Morrison for much cheaper. The gap in production between Abreu and Duda/Morrison won’t be nearly as big as the gap in cost.

Brent asks: Kevin Maitan. He’s a highly touted prospect. Should MLB have waited for this Ohtani thing to get figured out before making him a FA? Ohtani and Maitan could be the biggest free agent targets ironically. I think Ohtani is definitely safer just because of level of play and age but you can probably only sign one right? What’s the chances the Yanks land at least one of them?and who should it be?

MLB timed the Braves/Maitan thing specifically so teams know not to screw around with Shohei Ohtani, and make him some under the table promises. Do that, and you’re going to get banned like John Coppolella, get taken out of the international market for a few years like the Braves, and lose Ohtani anyway. There is not a doubt in my mind the Braves penalties were intentionally announced right before Ohtani gets posted as a warning to teams. Don’t try any funny business.

I’ve said this before, and yes, Ohtani should be the priority over Maitan given their proximities to MLB. One thing I did not realize, however, is teams can use next year’s international bonus money to sign Maitan and the other Braves prospects. Anything you give them over $200,000 counts against the hard cap, but teams can choose to have that money count against next year’s cap. So it would be possible to sign both. Use all this year’s money on Ohtani and part of next year’s money on Maitan. The recent Maitan scouting reports are not good, but the Braves lost a lot of prospects, and some of the other guys are worth looking at. And on that note …

Alex asks: With the Braves having to relinquish 12 prospects, how many of them should we hypothetically be going after and what would they cost? Who are the most interesting ones?

Eric Longenhagen, who knows these guys much better than I do, says righty Juan Contreras is the top name after Maitan. Contreras signed for $1.2M and his numbers this year were terrible (5.95 ERA with 21 walks and 12 strikeouts in 19.2 rookie ball innings), but people love his arm. Ben Badler ranked Contreras the 41st best prospect in the 2016-17 international free agent class two years ago. A snippet of his scouting report:

Contreras projects as more of a power arm and already has one of the best fastballs in the class, ranging from 89-94 mph and delivering the pitch with downhill angle. With his arm speed and the projection to his body, Contreras should be able to reach the upper-90s within the next few years … The rest of his arsenal beyond his fastball is inconsistent, with scattered strike-throwing ability.

Shortstop Yunior Severino (No. 8), catcher Abraham Gutierrez (No. 15), shortstop Livan Soto (No. 16), righty Yefri del Rosario (No. 26), and third baseman Yenci Pena (No. 32) all ranked among Badler’s top 50 international prospects two years ago and are now free agents, so I guess they’re the guys to sign. Looking at the scouting reports, Severino (“quick wrists generate excellent bat speed”) and Soto (“high baseball IQ guy with a gamer mentality”) interest me the most.

Will asks: Do you think there is anything to the Alex Cobb rumors mentioned by Peter Gammons? Seems like it would be tough to stay under the LT with that type of move, plus he would cost a draft pick.

I didn’t expect the Yankees to spend relatively big on a starter (or free agent in general) no matter what this offseason given the luxury tax plan, and that really went out the window when Masahiro Tanaka didn’t opt out. And there is no Cobb rumor. This is all Gammons wrote:

Heading for Thanksgiving, the industry consensus is that the Alex Cobb showdown will come down to Cubs v. Yankees.

That has somehow turned into “the Yankees are interested in Alex Cobb” and “the Yankees and Cubs are the finalists for Alex Cobb” and all sorts of other things. It means nothing like that. All it means is people within baseball think the Yankees and Cubs will pursue him most aggressively. That’s all. Cobb is really good, but I think he’s going to end up with something like $18M to $20M a year, and I don’t see the Yankees going there.

Cobb. (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
Cobb. (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Tamir asks: Has a Mike Trout type ever been traded? If yes, how would it compare to a possible trade now? What kind of trade would the Angels accept? Top talent on the MLB Roster and multiple top 10 team prospects?

Alex Rodriguez! He hit .298/.396/.600 (151 wRC+) with 47 home runs and was the AL MVP in his final season with the Rangers. A-Rod was 28 years old and he’d hit .305/.395/.615 (156 wRC+) with 156 homers in his three years with Texas and was easily the best non-Barry Bonds player in baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. was still a star when he was traded from the Mariners to the Reds. Rickey Henderson was one of the very best players in the game when the Yankees got him from Oakland. Mike Piazza, Tom Seaver, Frank Robinson, Mark McGwire, Carlos Beltran, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Gary Carter, Joe Morgan … all star players traded in their primes.

Many of those trades (especially the A-Rod trade) were financially motivated, either because the player was making too much or was due to become a free agent soon. Neither applies to Trout. He’s three years from free agency and the Angels can afford his $34M salary the next three seasons. I feel like, if the Angels are going to trade Trout, they have to get MLB pieces back, not prospects, not matter how good they are. You need players who know will make an impact. Ask the Yankees for Aaron Judge. Ask the Red Sox for Mookie Betts. Ask the Blue Jays for, uh, nevermind. Can’t trade Trout for prospects and risk getting nothing out of it.

Michael asks: On a scale of 1-10, how worried should we be right now about Aaron Judge for next season after his shoulder surgery?

A two, maybe? Every surgery comes with some sort of risk, that’s the nature of the beast, but Judge’s surgery was a fairly routine arthroscopic procedure and he’ll be ready in time for Spring Training. I’d be much more worried if they had to cut his shoulder open to repair his labrum or rotator cuff or something like that. Scope out a loose body? Not a major procedure or overly invasive. There’s always some level of concern whenever a player has surgery. Given the nature of his procedure, my concern is pretty minimal. (As for why they waited until a month after the season ended to do the surgery, it’s very likely they were waiting for some inflammation to clear out.)

Adam asks: I was looking at other teams Rule 5 eligible catchers when I saw that the Blue Jays did not protect First round draft pick Max Pentecost. He didn’t play particularly well in the AFL this year and is often injured, but he got me thinking: what happens if a rule 5 player hits the disabled list and how does that effect their “sticking” in the majors. Also are there any other rule 5 eligible catchers who the Yankees might want to pop?

Players have to spend 90 days on the active roster to satisfy the Rule 5 Draft rules, and if they don’t, the Rule 5 Draft rules carry over to the next season. That’s what happened with Cesar Cabral. The Yankees got him in the 2011 Rule 5 Draft, he broke his elbow in Spring Training 2012 and missed the season, then the Rule 5 Draft rules carried over to 2013. Ninety days on the active roster, meaning not on the disabled list, is needed to satisfy the Rule 5 Draft rules.

Pentecost, a 2014 first rounder, played only 171 games from 2014-17 because he’s been hurt so much. He wasn’t much of a catcher to start with anyway. I wouldn’t take him in the Rule 5 Draft for any role. Jonathan Mayo put together a list of the top players available in the Rule 5 Draft this year and the only catcher is Rays prospect Nick Ciuffo, who hit .245/.319/.385 (102 wRC+) at Double-A this year. Meh. The Yankees don’t have enough 40-man roster space for their own prospects. They’re not going to take some other team’s fringe player in the Rule 5 Draft this year.

Michael asks: Hey Mike, who would be on your Hall Of Fame ballot this year if you had a vote?

This was my third season in the BBWAA, so I am still seven years away from a Hall of Fame vote. Still have to wait a while before I get my say. Anyway, here is the Hall of Fame ballot, which runs 33 players deep this year. I’d vote for ten players (listed alphabetically): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Vlad Guerrero, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Larry Walker.

If you’ve read RAB long enough you know I am pretty blasé about performance-enhancing drugs. As far as I’m concerned, Manny was punished in accordance with the Joint Drug Agreement and served his suspension. Why people feel it is necessary to punish him beyond that, I have no idea. Andruw had a nine-year run as one of the best players in baseball and he was one of the very best defensive outfielders in history. If he’d had his peak from, say, ages 25-33 instead of 21-29, no one would think twice about his candidacy. Everyone else is pretty self-explanatory, right? I think so.

Chris asks: If the Yankees aren’t going to sign any high priced free agents, how about Joe Smith for something like 2 years 8-10 million? Could add depth in the pen in case Betances doesn’t bounce back or Green winds up in the rotation.

I like it. Smith is boring and reliable. He’s good for 50-60 solid innings year in and year out, and this season he posted a career-high strikeout rate (by far) by throwing more elevated four-seam fastballs rather than simply continuing to pepper the bottom of the zone with sinkers. The Blue Jays got him to do that and it worked wonders.


Smith is a funky sidearmer who has generally pitched well against lefties, which is pretty rare for guys with his arm slot, and he’s done everything in his career. He’s been a setup man, a middle reliever, a part-time closer, you name it. He’s one of those “just use me whenever” guys. As I said in the Jake McGee post, I don’t think the Yankees are going to spend money on a reliever this winter because the bullpen is already stacked and the luxury tax plan looms. If they do decide to spend on a reliever, throwing $4M annually at Smith for a year or two would be a fine move.

Jeff asks: While I know its likely Ohtani eventually will be a full time SP or hitter, can you give us a little more insight on how MLB teams (or Japan in the past) would manage Ohtani’s workload when he first arrives? We know he pitches on 6 days’ rest instead of 4, and wants AB’s between starts. Would he keep this unorthodox pitching schedule, and have a day off after he starts, then DH/OF on rest days 3-6 or what?

Starters pitch once a week in Japan, not every five days like they do here. That’s always a big talking point whenever someone comes over. How will Daisuke Matsuzaka/Yu Darvish/Masahiro Tanaka handle starting every fifth day? Ohtani had a set schedule in Japan:

  • Sunday: Pitch
  • Monday: Rest day (most Mondays are off-days in Japan anyway)
  • Tuesday through Thursday: DH
  • Friday and Saturday: Rest days

Whichever team signs Ohtani is going to have to work with him to find a schedule that provides him enough rest. Pitching is inherently risky. Pitching while fatigued is even riskier. Could he rest the day before and after starts, then DH the other two days? That’d be ideal, but you need to see how he feels. I get the feeling whichever team signs him will go to a six-man rotation, allowing them to squeeze one more DH day (or rest day) in there. Figuring out a schedule for the whole two-way player thing will be a top priority, and Ohtani will need to have input.

Anonymous asks: Agents can have a big impact on steering players to certain clubs. What’s the Yanks relationship with CAA?

Nez Balelo, Ohtani’s agent and one of the top agents at CAA Sports, has experience representing other Japanese players (Nori Aoki, Junichi Tazawa) as well as big name stars (Adam Jones, Ryan Braun), so he knows what he’s doing. Ohtani is in good hands. According to the MLBTR Agency Database, no current Yankees are Balelo clients, and the only former Yankee represented by Balelo is Phil Hughes. That said, CAA Sports is freaking massive. Aaron Hicks, Todd Frazier, Dillon Tate, Chris Young, Boone Logan, and Sean Henn (!) are all CAA Sports clients. They have relationships with every team, including the Yanks.

Paul asks: If Ohtani end up being a slightly above average pitcher and a slightly above average hitter, would he be an MVP candidate?

I think so. He’d be an MVP candidate among statheads, no doubt. Would the actual MVP voters vote for a player who was merely good but not great on both sides of the ball? What if Ohtani hits, say, .250/.315/.440 with 16 homers in 300 plate appearances and throws 145 innings with a 3.60 ERA? That’s basically Kendrys Morales at the plate and Alex Cobb on the mound. Would voters really go with Ohtani over a typical Mike Trout or Jose Altuve (or Aaron Judge!) season? Maybe the narrative would be strong enough to get Ohtani the MVP.

Richard asks: In your Jake McGee scouting post, you noted that Tommy Kahnle has trouble with lefties. The numbers were much worse than I realized: In 2017, LHB hit .315/.360/.370 vs. Kahnle, but with a .475 BABIP in only 101 PA. In 2016, they managed a .143/.318/.257 line with a .148 BABIP in 44 PA. Do you think there was a reason (lefties making harder contact?) for the sky-high BABIP this season, or is it just small sample size noise?

I think it is small sample size noise more than anything. Kahnle prefers his split-changeup thing to his slider, and he did get beat on that pitch several times against the Red Sox, though we later found out the BoSox were dirty sign-stealing cheaters, so I’m not sure how much those outings really tell us. Kahnle was pretty damn great at getting lefties out with that split-change in the postseason.

The real Kahnle against lefties has to be somewhere between 2016 (.143/.318/.257) and 2017 (.315/.360/.370), right? Kahnle doesn’t have much of a track record. He’s only been this good for one year. The Yankees have such a deep bullpen that they can shelter Kahnle against lefties a bit early next season, see how he fares, then adjust accordingly. If he’s getting lefties out, great. If the postseason was a mirage and the split-change isn’t good enough to get lefties out consistently, then stay away from him against left-handers.

Thursday Night Open Thread

The hot stove is starting to heat up, people! Yusmeiro Petit, who was part of my master offseason plan, agreed to a two-year deal worth $10M with the Athletics last night, then today both Brad Boxberger (Rays to D’Backs) and Jim Johnson (Braves to Angels) were traded. I was thinking one year and $3M for Petit, not two years and $10M. Alas. As for Boxberger, remember the Slade Heathcott homer a few years ago? That was fun. Thanks for giving that up, Brad.

Here is tonight’s open thread. Redskins vs. Cowboys is the Thursday NFL game and there’s some college basketball on as well, and that’s pretty much it. Talk about those games or anything else here that isn’t politics or religion. Thanks in advance.

Jordan Montgomery and maximizing deception

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

A few years ago the Yankees had a clear preference for physically huge power pitchers. Peak CC Sabathia was basically the perfect Yankees pitcher. He’s enormous and he had a big fastball and a wipeout breaking ball, allowing him to rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Dellin Betances is another big power pitcher. Same with Michael Pineda, who the Yankees more or less hoped would develop into a right-handed version of peak Sabathia.

The Yankees have started to open their minds a bit and pursue different types of pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka is a master craftsman. Sonny Gray is a 5-foot-10 righty who will throw the kitchen sink at you. Jordan Montgomery is a big dude (6-foot-6) like Sabathia and Betances and Pineda, but he’s more of a command and control guy than a power pitcher. He uses his deep arsenal to change speeds, change eye levels, and keep hitters off balance.

Montgomery was the best rookie pitcher in baseball this season, at least according to fWAR, and much of his success was tied to deception. It started with that deep arsenal. Here is his pitch selection throughout the season:


Montgomery abandoned his slider a bit in June and July, otherwise he never threw any pitch less than 12% of the time in a single month. Five pitches used regularly. Not many veteran pitchers do that. Montgomery did it as a rookie, and he did it very effectively.

Using five different pitches regularly is not necessary to be considered a command and control pitcher, nor is having five pitches necessary to have deception, at least in the traditional baseball sense of the term. When we talk about deception, we’re referring to hiding the baseball and making it more difficult to pick up. Some pitchers turn their backs during their delivery. Others have a herky jerky delivery. Something like that usually qualifies as deception.

In Montgomery’s case, he creates deception with his sky high release point and the whole “tunneling” phenomenon, the idea that each pitch looks the same as it travels toward the plate, before breaking in different directions at the last moment. This old GIF by Drew Sheppard from back when Matt Harvey was still good is a personal favorite. It’s a fastball and a slider, and you can see how the pitches look the same until right before reaching the plate.


Pretty neat, huh? One of Montgomery’s strengths is tunneling his wide array of pitches similar to the Harvey GIF, at least according to the relatively new tunneling numbers at Baseball Prospectus. These stats measure the distance between sets of back-to-back pitches at various points along the pitch’s flight, and they do it thousands of times across the season, for every pitch the pitcher throws. Here is the 2017 release point differential leaderboard:

  1. Jon Lester: 1.61 inches
  2. Stephen Strasburg: 1.76 inches
  3. Kyle Hendricks: 1.77 inches
  4. Alex Cobb: 1.79 inches
  5. J.A. Happ: 1.80 inches
  6. Robert Gsellman: 1.88 inches
  7. Jordan Montgomery: 1.88 inches
    (MLB average: 2.4 inches)

Long story short, these numbers are telling us these pitchers release their pitches from nearly the same spot each time. They have tight and consistent release points. Everything comes out of their hand from the same place, so, for example, you can’t tell the pitcher is throwing a slider because he drops down a bit. Here is a plot of Montgomery’s release points, just to drive home the point:


Montgomery’s 1.88 inch release differential is easily the lowest among New York’s starters. Pineda was second at 2.11 inches. Tanaka was next at 2.26 inches. Severino had the rotation’s largest release differential at 3.13 inches this season. Here’s what his release points looked like, for reference:


That’s a much larger blob than Montgomery’s. Having a tight, consistent release point is a good thing, but having a more spread out release point isn’t automatically bad. I mean, Severino’s release differential was one of the largest in baseball this year, and he was a top ten starter. Clayton Kershaw’s release differential (3.22 inches) is even larger than Severino’s and he’s pretty good at this whole pitching thing.

The release point is only one piece of the tunneling equation though. Remember the Harvey GIF? The batter’s brain is reading fastball and telling his arms to start swinging before the slider really starts to slide. The more your pitches look the same as they approach the plate, the less time the hitter has to react. To measure this, Baseball Prospectus has a release/tunnel differential ratio stat. Here’s their explanation:

Release:Tunnel Ratio – This stat shows us the ratio of a pitcher’s release differential to their tunnel differential. Pitchers with smaller Release:Tunnel Ratios have smaller differentiation between pitches through the tunnel point, making it more difficult for opposing hitters to distinguish them in theory.

The tunnel point is set at 23.8 feet from home plate, which, according to Baseball Prospectus, is “the decision-making point based on 175 milliseconds and a league-average fastball.” Okie dokie. How tight is the pitcher’s release point? How close together are his pitches at the tunnel point? Compare those two and you get the release/tunnel ratio. The smaller the number, the better. Here’s the release/tunnel ratio leaderboard:

  1. Alex Cobb: 0.161
  2. Jon Lester: 0.170
  3. Jordan Montgomery: 0.175
  4. Kyle Hendricks: 0.182
  5. Derek Holland: 0.182

Montgomery releases everything close together and the pitches stay close together on their path to the plate. And when you’re throwing five different pitches regularly, the hitter has basically no idea what’s coming, at least when Montgomery executes properly. Mistake pitches happen. But, better than nearly every other starter out there, Montgomery tunnels his pitches consistently.

I know there’s a lot of scary jargon in here like release differential and tunnel points and all that. In plain English, this all means Montgomery creates deception with his ability to keep his pitches close together for as long as possible as they travel toward the plate. He’s throwing one of five pitches at you, and you don’t know whether you’re getting the four-seamer or sinker or curveball or slider or changeup until the pitch is more than halfway to the plate. Imagine how hard it is to hit like that?

There is definitely something to be said for having an overpowering fastball and a wicked breaking ball like Severino, tunnel points be damned. Montgomery doesn’t have the natural gifts to be that type of pitcher though. He’s 6-foot-6 and he releases the ball from way up here … *holds hand far above head* … and he uses his ability to make his five pitches look the same to deceive hitters. Big overpowering lefties like peak Sabathia are pretty great. Deception guys like Montgomery can be pretty good too.