Yulieski Gurriel is the right player at maybe not the right time for the Yankees

(Icon Sportswire)
(Icon Sportswire)

Yesterday morning, Jesse Sanchez reported Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel has been declared a free agent by MLB and is now able to sign with any team. Yulieski and his younger brother Lourdes Jr. defected back in December. Sanchez says Lourdes is still waiting to be declared a free agent, though he’s going to wait until his 23rd birthday in October to sign anyway. That way he won’t be eligible for the international spending restrictions.

Gurriel, 32, is a longtime Cuban star who is widely considered the best position player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. His numbers in Cuba last season are straight out of a video game: .500/.589/.874 with 20 doubles, 15 homers, 38 walks, and three strikeouts in 49 games and 224 plate appearances. Gurriel played the 2014 season in Japan, during which he hit .305/.349/.536 with eleven homers in 62 games. He’s been a monster his entire career.

Last year we heard Gurriel wants to play for the Yankees, partly because his favorite player is Alex Rodriguez. How about that? Gurriel is also close friends with Aroldis Chapman dating back to their time on the Cuban National Team, and Gurriel recent told Chapman he would be “super happy” to sign with the Yankees. Now that Yulieski is free to actually sign with a team, I have some thoughts on this.

1. Where would the Yankees play him? Gurriel has primarily been a second and third baseman in his career, and while the Yankees are contractually locked into Starlin Castro and Chase Headley at those positions, they shouldn’t stand in the way of signing him. The Yankees would be able to carve out regular playing time for Yulieski at both positions, and he could even fill-in some in the outfield. He has experience there.

Also, the Yankees have a need at first base, both immediate and long-term. They could try Gurriel at first, and if that doesn’t work, they could always fall back on playing him at third and Headley at first. It’s not ideal, but it could work. Point is, the Yankees can find ways to get Gurriel into the lineup rather easily. It’s not like he’s a catcher who would have to share time with Brian McCann or something. The Yankees have a collectively below-average infield and Gurriel would help correct that.

2. Forget about his position, they need his bat. Whoever signs Gurriel is not buying his glove (not that he’s a bad defender). He’s a legitimate middle of the order hitter. Here’s a piece of Baseball America’s latest scouting report, which does not seem to be behind the paywall:

Gourriel has all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player. He has plus bat speed and squares up all types of pitches with good hand-eye coordination and barrel control. He wraps his barrel behind his head, angling the bat toward the pitcher, but he gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly and has good plate coverage. He stays within the strike zone and uses the whole field, and with plus raw power on the 20-80 scale, he offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power.

The scouting report goes on to compare Gurriel to Hanley Ramirez and David Wright, and while that doesn’t sound too exciting these days, it was referring to peak Hanley and Wright. Yulieski is not someone you bring in to hit seventh or eighth. He has the ability to be a third or fourth place hitter.

The Yankees need offense. Very desperately, in fact. Both right now and going forward. They’re 24th in runs per game this season (3.92) and their best hitter is a 39-year-old impending free agent. Even if the Yankees were to re-sign Carlos Beltran — I think the odds of that are extremely small — how could you expect him to hit like this next year? And who knows what the young replacements (Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Ben Gamel, etc.) can do?

Ken Rosenthal says Gurriel is going to need a few weeks in the minors to get ready, but he should be able to help a team in the second half. It’s not like he’s going to sign and be in the lineup tomorrow. He needs a Spring Training, basically. Gurriel can still help this year though. Simply put, he’s someone you can build their lineup around going forward. The Yankees don’t have another player like that right now.

3. What will it cost to sign him? This is the big question. I assume Gurriel won’t come cheap. These are the last three big name Cuban position players to sign with MLB clubs:

  • 3B Hector Olivera, Dodgers: Six years, $62.5M.
  • OF Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks: Six years, $68.5M
  • OF Rusney Castillo, Red Sox: Six years, $72M.

Gurriel is better than every one of those guys, and in the case of Olivera, he doesn’t have the same scary injury history either. Between general inflation and the fact he’s a better player than that trio, I can’t help but wonder if Gurriel is going to push for a $100M deal. Why not ask? It’s not like this upcoming free agent class is loaded with good hitters.

I suppose an opt-out could be a factor here. There seems to be some evidence opt-out clauses save teams a little bit of money. Perhaps Gurriel could sign for, say, Castillo money ($12M per season) with an opt-out after the second year. If he’s an impact hitter, that’s a bargain. With so much money coming off the books the next two years, the Yankees could afford Gurriel at $12M per year without blowing up their plan to get under the luxury tax.

For what it’s worth, Joel Sherman says Yankees international scouting director Donny Rowland has long held Gurriel in high regard, so if nothing else, Rowland figures to give his bosses the hard sell. The Yankees bid for Cuban players like Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Yoan Moncada, Jorge Soler, and Aledmys Diaz in recent years and fell short each time, and surely there is some level of regret. They don’t want to fall short again.

4. Is his age a problem? This is an interesting question and it makes me wonder if Gurriel is the right player at the wrong time for the Yankees. He’s 32 — he just turned 32 last week — which means he fits best for a team ready to win right now. You don’t sign Gurriel if you’re a rebuilding team looking ahead to the future. You sign him because you’re a contender looking for the final piece to put you over the top this year and next year and the year after.

The Yankees say they’re trying to win and that’s all well and good, but the team on the field suggests it might not be in the cards this year. They’re not a game under .500 in mid-June by accident, you know? Does it make sense to add Gurriel when winning this season is a long shot? He’s already at the age where his game might begin to slip as it is. So you’re talking about adding a player nearing the end of his prime to a team that might not be a true contender until he’s 33 or 34. That is sort of tricky.

At the same time, you could argue the Yankees shouldn’t need two or three years to turn things around because of their resources. They have a bunch of prospects at Double-A and Triple-A and all that money is coming off the books. The 2003 Tigers were the worst team I’ve ever seen and the 2006 Tigers won the pennant, so it’s certainly possible for the Yankees to turn things around in a hurry, while Gurriel is still producing big time.

There’s also the contract length angle. He’s 32 now, so a six-year deal takes him to age 38, and signing a guy deep into his 30s is always risky. Sometimes it works out, like the Beltran deal. Most of the time it doesn’t though. It’s impossible to project how Gurriel will age, so in addition to the question of whether the Yankees will be ready to win during whatever is left of his prime years, there’s also the risk of signing him beyond the age of 35.

5. Don’t forget, Lourdes Jr. is the real prize. Yulieski is unquestionably the better player right now and that figures to be the case for the next few years, but Lourdes is the Gurriel brother teams are going to fall all over themselves to sign. He’s another potential middle of the diamond impact hitter, except he’ll be only 23 when he signs, so you’re getting him for his entire prime. That’s pretty huge.

I’ve seen folks talk about the possibility of a package deal, though who knows if that’s possible. Both Gurriels may take the highest offer no matter what. Assuming Lourdes is declared a free agent soon, he could work out a deal and simply hold off on signing until October. That would allow teams to negotiate with Yulieski and Lourdes at the same time, which is certainly better than trying to work out a package deal when you have to negotiate weeks or months apart.

* * *

I’m of the belief that impact bats are very hard to find, especially those capable of playing the middle infield. Because of that, I think the Yankees should be in on Gurriel even though he is 32 and even though he might cost them $12M+ a year. The future of the offense is very much a question and this is a chance to add a cornerstone type hitter for nothing but money. No draft pick. Nothing. There’s never a “wrong” time to add good players.

Of course, it’s easy to say that when it’s not my money. I wouldn’t be assuming the risk. I definitely understand why someone would be hesitant to sign Gurriel deep into his 30s, especially with no MLB track record. Pretty much everyone agrees this guy can be an offensive force though, including the Yankees’ international scouting director. If Gurriel is as good as advertised, or is even 75% of what is advertised, he could end up a real bargain.

Thoughts following the Monday’s long-awaited off-day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Wasn’t it nice to have that off-day yesterday? The Yankees have been playing an awful lot of baseball of late, and it was good to get a little breather. Forty games in 41 days is one heck of a grind, even when you’re sitting at home watching from the couch. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. I didn’t realize this until I looked at the schedule yesterday, but the Yankees play their next eleven games against the Rockies and Twins. They play two in Colorado and four in Minnesota, then come home to play two more against the Rockies and three more against the Twins. The Yankees have off-days next Monday and Thursday too, so everyone should be well-rested for those games. If the team is ever going to get above .500 and stay there, it has to happen during these eleven games. The Twins have by far the worst record in the AL, and while the Rockies aren’t a total pushover (they’re 30-33), they’re a team you have to beat if you want to contend. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Yankees need to win at least eight of those eleven games to have a realistic shot at the postseason. The Yankees haven’t had much luck against good teams this year but they sure do beat up on bad teams. Time to make a real move up the standings.

2. The middle relief is becoming a very big problem. The three guys at the end of the game have generally been very awesome, even with a few hiccups here and there. (No one’s perfect.) The rest of the bullpen is a headache. The team’s non-big three relievers have a 4.61 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 113.1 innings this year. Kirby Yates was solid for the first two months or so but has crashed of late. Chasen Shreve and Johnny Barbato both had a few good weeks before falling off. I’d rather not see the Yankees stick Chad Green and Luis Cessa in the bullpen full-time — Green hit 98.7 mph during his inning Sunday, you know — but they very well might be their best middle relief options right now. This is something that will have to be fixed at some point for the Yankees to stay in the race. Bryan Mitchell hopefully returning in August won’t be enough.

3. I do love the way Joe Girardi has been using Aroldis Chapman. Girardi has already used Chapman on back-to-back-to-back days, something he never does with his other relievers, and he even ran him out there five times in the span of nine days last month. Last week there was a stretch where Chapman pitched four times in six days and warmed up on the two days he didn’t pitch. Girardi is very much treating Aroldis like a pitcher who won’t be around long-term, because he almost certainly won’t. (I imagine the front office has given Joe some indication that will be the case, hence the heavy usage.) The Yankees don’t want to work Chapman so hard that he gets hurt, they’re not heartless, but they do want to get their money’s worth out of him. I’m glad Girardi isn’t treating Aroldis with kid gloves like he does some of his other relievers at times.

4. Without question, the feel good story of the season is CC Sabathia‘s renaissance. These last few years weren’t easy for Sabathia both on and off the field based on everything we know now, yet he’s been pitching like an ace thanks in part to his new cutter, a cutter that he actually throws (via Brooks Baseball):

CC Sabathia pitch selection

This is sort of an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but I can’t help but wonder much of a factor Sabathia’s sobriety is in his resurgence. Alcoholism consumes your entire life and it’s not always easy to understand that if it’s never impacted your life. Sabathia is presumably feeling much better mentally and physically these days. How could something like that not have an effect on the field? The new cut fastball — and the new knee brace, remember — definitely helps explain Sabathia’s sudden effectiveness. I don’t think it’s the only thing though. His sobriety helps as well.

5. The Yankees basically had no choice but to sign Ike Davis over the weekend. They’re down to their fifth string first baseman due to injuries, and that fifth string first baseman is a converted second baseman with about two weeks worth of experience at the position. No, I don’t consider Tyler Austin a legitimate first base candidate after one great week in Triple-A. No, I don’t consider Nick Swisher a legitimate first base candidate either because he hasn’t done much to earn the benefit of the doubt the last two years and two months. Swisher’s last season as an effective big leaguer was Mariano Rivera‘s and Andy Pettitte‘s final season. Yeah. Davis is a sound defender at first and he gives the Yankees a lefty platoon bat who can take aim at the short porch for the time being. When the top four players on your first base depth chart are out hurt, you can’t afford to be picky when digging up a replacement. Davis was available, so they signed him. Simple as that.

6. Fun fact about the Davis signing: he is the first Major League free agent the Yankees have signed in 18 months. The last before him was … drum rollStephen Drew in January 2015. They famously did not sign a single big league free agent these past offseason, and given the way things have turned out, that was probably a good thing. A frickin’ ton of free agent deals from this past winter already look regrettable — isn’t that always the case? — and the Yankees aren’t exactly one free agent away from contention. Even Juan Uribe, who was dirt cheap and wanted by pretty much everyone, has been awful. I’m not saying the Yankees should never sign free agents. That is hardly the case. I’m just saying that given their current situation, staying away from the free agent market was probably a smart idea. They need unload some of their veterans to make way for young players, not add more veterans.

7. When the Yankees activated Luis Severino and optioned him to Triple-A few weeks ago, Girardi compared it to the Roy Halladay situation back in the day, which is quite a stretch for me. Halladay had a 5.77 ERA (5.58 FIP) in 231 big league innings from ages 21-23 before the Blue Jays sent him to Extended Spring Training and had pitching guru Mel Queen basically rebuild his mechanics. One year later Halladay was one of the best pitchers in baseball and two years after that he won his first Cy Young. That was a 90th percentile outcome, basically. Severino is not in need of a total overhaul. His stuff is fine. He’s been dogged by command and location issues, issues that existed before he was called up last year. A better comparison may be Max Scherzer, who was sent to Triple-A in 2010 with a 7.29 ERA (5.58 FIP) because his command of his secondary pitches was so bad. He was out there with a fastball and nothing else. Scherzer ironed some things out in the minors, then returned to the big leagues a few weeks later and pitched well. That’s what the Yankees want to happen with Severino. Tweaks, not an overhaul.

DotF: Severino strong again in Scranton’s win

Got some notes to pass along:

  • RHP Chance Adams and RHP Domingo Acevedo has both been promoted, according to Matt Kardos. Adams goes from High-A to Double-A while Acevedo goes from Low-A to High-A. A well-deserved promotion for both.
  • LHP Neat Cotts has been released, so says Shane Hennigan. The Yankees must not have liked what they saw out of the veteran southpaw. The move clears a roster spot for RHP Chad Green, who was sent back down to clear a big league roster spot for Ike Davis.
  • Bunch of award winners this week: C Kyle Higashioka was named the Triple-A International League Offensive Player of the Week while RHP Chance Adams and RHP Christian Morris were named the Pitcher of the Week in the High-A Florida State League and the Low-A South Atlanta League, respectively. Congrats to all.

Triple-A Scranton (8-4 win over Toledo)

  • RF Ben Gamel: 3-5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 CS — 19-for-44 (.432) in his last eleven games
  • 1B Nick Swisher: 3-5, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — 12-for-28 (.429) in his last seven games
  • DH Gary Sanchez: 1-5, 1 K
  • C Kyle Higashioka: 1-3, 1 R, 2 BB, 1 K — still in the lineup even with Sanchez back
  • LF Cesar Puello: 2-4, 1 R, 1 HBP — a total of 5,646 players have at least one plate plate appearances in the minors this year, and he ranks eighth with nine hit-by-pitches
  • CF Jake Cave: 1-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 K
  • RHP Luis Severino: 7 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 8 K, 1 WP, 11/3 GB/FB — 60 of 88 pitches were strikes (68%) … too bad the box score can’t tell us how well he located his slider and changeup
  • RHP Conor Mullee: 1.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 28 of 45 pitches were strikes (62%)
  • RHP Johnny Barbato: 0.1 IP, zeroes, 0/1 GB/FB — three pitches, two strikes

[Read more…]

Update: Yankees sign Ike Davis to Major League deal

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Monday, 8:30pm: The Yankees have announced the Davis signing, so it’s official. He will wear No. 24. Chad Green was sent to Triple-A Scranton to clear a 25-man roster spot and Layne Somsen was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot.

Sunday, 2:46pm: Jon Heyman says it’s a done deal. It’s a Major League contract and Davis will be joining the team soon. The Yankees are carrying eight relievers and three-bench players at the moment, so they figure to go back to a normal seven-man bullpen and four-man bench soon.

2:00pm: The Yankees are on the verge of signing Ike Davis, reports Mark Feinsand. Davis opted out of his minor league contract with the Rangers earlier today. New York tried to sign him over the winter, but he went to Texas instead. It’s entirely possible Davis will join the Yankees right away. This might not be a minor league deal.

Davis, 29, hit .268/.350/.437 (111 wRC+) with four homers in 39 Triple-A games this season. Last year he put up a .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) batting line with three homers in 74 games with the Athletics. Davis is a dead pull left-handed hitter with one of those Yankee Stadium swings. He’s hit as many as 32 homers in a season.

The Yankees have lost Mark Teixeira (knee), Greg Bird (shoulder), Dustin Ackley (shoulder), and Chris Parmelee (hamstring) to injury, so they’re down to their fifth string first baseman, converted second baseman Rob Refsnyder. They have Nick Swisher in Triple-A, but still needed more first base depth, especially since Swisher can opt-out of his deal this month.

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees finally had an off-day today, their first since May 23rd and only their second since May 2nd. They’ve played an awful lot of baseball this last month. Hopefully they were able to recharge the batteries a bit today. I know I needed to. Anyway, check out Billy Witz’s article on the Yankees’ new team friendly but not always fan friendly ticketing policy. Good stuff.

Here is tonight’s open thread. ESPN is showing the Cubs and Nationals tonight, and Game Five of the NBA Finals is on as well. So talk about those games or anything else here. Just not religion or politics or anything like that. Take it elsewhere.

Guest Post: Constructing the 1927 Team: The Spitballer With The 80 Name Tool

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who you know as 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, and Earle Combs.

(Getty)
(Getty)

It must have been a dream came true on October 8, 1927 for a 5-foot-10, 170 lb. right-handed pitcher from Cleveland, Ohio named Urban Shocker. In front of 57,909 people at Yankee Stadium, the team that history would consider the most dominant ever, won the World Series on a Game 4 walk-off wild pitch by Johnny Miljus. Urban never threw a pitch in that 1927 World Series despite having won 18 games in 200 innings for the World Champion Yankees. The 1927 season had started out in drama for the Yankees front office and the right-hander, yet, he still provided Miller Huggins what was expected. The man who had been a Yankee long before the rest of the champions was at a crossroads in his 12 year career. The 1928 season would be the last anyone would see from the lanky pitcher.

The Shockcor of Cleveland

The fifth child of a machinist, Urbain Jacques Shockcor came into the world on September 22, 1890 in the city of Cleveland, Ohio. His father, William H. Shockcor (born 1852), worked as the foreman of the Ship Owners’ Dry Dock Company on Old River Street, which did dry docking and general repair work on ships in the Cleveland area. The company had been created by Irishman Andrew Miller, and after Miller died in 1881, his sons ran the company. In 1900, the company was sold to the newly-formed Ship Owners’ Dry Dock Company.

The reason I am covering the history of this company is because in 1907, it was sold to the Chicago Ship Building Company, which sold it to the American Ship Building Company’s Chicago subsidiary. If the name American Ship Building sounds familiar to the Yankee fans, it should. George M. Steinbrenner III’s company (Kinsman Marine Transit) was bought out by American Ship Building in the early 1960s, and as a result, Steinbrenner got a controlling interest in the company, a decade before buying the Yankees.

Enough corporate history for one post; Shockcor’s mother, Anne Katherine (nee Spies) was born in 1858 and made her living as a local dressmaker. Their newborn son in September 1890 was their third son of five children. (The Shockcors would eventually have eight children in total, including another son, Clarence A.J., in 1892.) The Shockcors would soon move to Detroit, with their father becoming a member of the Woodmen of the World, an Omaha-based fraternity of woodmen.

The time in Michigan would be the place where young Urbain would make baseball his life. In 1912, at age 21, the young Shockcor would make his professional debut for the Windsor club of the Level D Border League, which had teams at Wyandotte, Pontiac (nicknamed the Indians), Ypsilanti, Mount Clemens (Bathers), and Port Huron in Michigan, along with the lone Ontario team. During his time at the Class-D Ontario team, Shockcor went between the positions of pitching and catching in 1913. In what historical record we have, he appeared in at least 27 games for the Windsor club, hitting a paltry .149 (.264 slugging). This included 13 hits: 3 doubles, 2 triples and a single home run.

His time as a catcher would be short lived, however, due to a freak accident during the 1913 season. When catching, he stopped a ball with his middle finger on his pitching hand and though the injury healed, it caused a hook at the end of the last joint. Though it ended his catching career, Shockcor found out that the pitching in his right hand was much improved with the injury. The hooked finger gave him a stronger grip on the ball and caused a ball to act like a spitball. In 16 games, the young Shockcor threw 131 innings, allowing 114 hits and 66 runs. His 1.122 WHIP and 2.75 led the team to a 6-7 record with him pitching.

In 1914, the 23-year old Shockcor went to the Class B Canadian League’s Ottawa Senators. This league, mostly within the province of Ontario, had 8 teams (Brantford Red Sox, Erie Yankees, Hamilton Hams, London Tecumsehs, Peterborough Petes, St. Thomas Saints and Toronto Beavers). Playing under player/manger Shag Shaughnessy, the young Shockcor hit in 55 games, with a .223 batting average (22 singles, 1 double) and threw a 2.17 ERA in 236.2 innings, with a 20-8 record.

In 1915, the young pitcher netted 38 singles, with 4 doubles and 3 triples (hitting .277/.350 in 137 AB). As a pitcher, he threw a minor league career high 303.0 innings, pitching to a 1.99 ERA and a 19-10 win-loss record. He struck out 185 players and walked only 40, which he thanked to his slow ball (spitball really) as the Senators won the Canadian League championship in 1915. (They also won the championship in 1912, 1913 and 1914.)

$750 and a Dream

In September 1915, the Yankees selected Shockcor (it’s unclear when he changed his name from Shockcor to Shocker) from the Guleph, Ontario team for $750. The Yankees wasted no time bringing him to Spring Training in 1916. He had a rough start to his Yankee career, because on an intrasquad game of March 16, 1916, he was spiked by Tim Hendryx on a grounder down the first base line. The stubborn Shocker was supposed to be out several weeks, but he managed to return on March 21.

Shocker made two appearances in the early parts of the 1916 season, once against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, throwing three innings of two-run ball in relief of Bob Shawkey and Nick Cullop. The second was on May 3 against the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park. This time, Shocker gave up 2 runs in 1 inning in relief of Ray Keating. The Yankees put him on waivers and sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League on May 15. Bill Donovan and the front office had to choose between Shocker and Dan Tipple. Where Shocker only cost the Yankees $750, Tipple had cost the team $9,000! The fight to keep Shocker could be considered bloody, as the Yankees had $1,500 offers for him to play elsewhere.

The decision to send Shocker to Toronto paid off. Shocker went to Toronto and became an immediate ace. In 24 games (20 starts), he won 15 and only lost 3. The .833 winning percentage led the International League, but his 1.31 ERA did not. He only gave up 115 hits and 27 earned runs along with 73 walks and 152 strikeouts. This amazing season in the IL included an 11 and a 13-inning no-hitter for the 25 year old Shocker. Shocker threw 58 straight scoreless innings in Toronto at one point in time, and there was predictions by then that Shocker would be back in a Yankee uniform before the season of the IL was over. This was indeed the case.

On August 12 at the Polo Grounds, Shocker turned an 8-inning performance of 2 hits, 1 run, 1 walk and 7 strikeouts. He would be replaced in the 9th by Shawkey, but lost because Bullet Joe Bush threw a shutout and second baseman Joe Gedeon made a costly error. Shocker’s pitches were reported by The New York Times as “darting around like a Mexican jumping bean.” At the end of the season, Shocker accounted for 12 games, including 9 starts. Of those 9 starts, 4 were complete games, and 1 was a shutout. His W-L record finished at 4-3 and he only gave up 2 home runs in 82 IP. He struck out 43 batters, and walked only 32. Offensively, Shocker had 21 at bats, recording 4 hits, 1 RBI, 5 walks and 2 runs scored. His official batting line was .190/.370/.190. Shocker made $1,350 total.

In 1917, the young Shocker found himself permanently etched into the Yankees rotation under Bill Donovan. The 1917 season, however, ended up being a trying year for the young spitballer. Shocker tended to drink and when he was in Boston during the season, he and spitballer Ray Caldwell (who was known to be a heavy drinker) were fined by Donovan for not returning to the Lenox Hotel (an upscale hotel in the Back Bay) by midnight the night after a game. Shocker received a first-offense lenient penalty of $50 ($927 in 2016) while Caldwell was slammed for his drinking. Caldwell was fined $100 ($1,855) on June 29 for his actions, as well as suspended without pay for the next ten days. Both Shocker and Caldwell had managed to violate training rules and the latter did not show up to Fenway Park for the next game. (Caldwell would be fined by Ban Johnson in August for intentionally getting himself ejected by umpire Silk O’Loughlin because he didn’t want to have to perform in the game or be with his team.)

Statistically, 1917 was also trying in terms of the performance on the baseball field for the 26-year old. Shocker appeared in 26 games for the Yankees, but only started 13 of them. In those 13 games, Shocker had 7 complete games (no shutouts) and accounted for a 104 ERA+ (a drop from his 112 ERA+ the previous season in a smaller sample size.) In all, Shocker matched his 1916 season in ERA (2.61) and managed to only give up 5 home runs, while sustaining a 68/46 strikeout/walk rate.

While there was improvement over the 1916 team, Donovan and the front office traded Shocker in January 1918, along with catcher Les Nunamaker, utility man Fritz Maisel, pitcher Nick Cullop, super-utility man Joe Gedeon, and $15,000 to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Eddie Plank and utility man Del Pratt. Plank would end up refusing to report to the Yankees and retired. This trade has been considered one of the most lopsided deals the Yankees have ever made. Miller Huggins, now in charge of the Yankees, was told that Shocker had a poor personality, and in 1925, noted that he never would’ve traded him had he known more.

To The Browns and Back

Because this is a Yankee blog, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about Shocker’s time in a Browns uniform. However, I will note a couple important things about his time in the St. Louis uniform. The first is that Shocker’s trade would be made even worse because he became an ace against his former team. The New York Times called him “The Great Nemesis” of the Yankees.

Second, his 1918 season was interrupted by World War I and his requirement to go to serve after being drafted. On June 31, 1918, Shocker reported to duty, but that didn’t stop him from pitching. He pitched for the Battle Creek, MI based baseball team. Shocker had given the Browns 9 starts and 5 relief appearances before ending the season abruptly.

The 1919 season was also interrupted by his military service (this time at the beginning; he returned from war on April 1). Shocker threw an average season for the Browns, who had him make 25 starts and 5 relief appearances. His stats would amount to a 2.69 ERA and a 13-11 record. At the end of the 1919 season, the spitball was banned by baseball’s managers. After lifelong Cleveland Nap/Indian Ray Chapman was killed by the Yankees’ Carl Mays on August 17, 1920, the league banned it following the 1920 season. The 17 spitballers in the league, including Caldwell and Shocker, were allowed to continue to throw it under a grandfather clause.

After the 1920 season, Shocker became the ace of the Browns and went on a rampage. In 1921 and 1922, the young Shocker started 38 games for the Browns and threw over 300 innings both times. His ERA during those times fluctuated, with a 2.97 ERA in 1922 and 3.41 in 1922. Three of his known ejections also occurred in the Browns uniform, for bench jockeying in 1920 and arguing balls and strikes twice in 1922 and 1923 respectively. On December 17, 1924, the St. Louis Browns traded Shocker back to the New York Yankees for the aforementioned Bullet Joe Bush, pitcher Milt Gaston (who would live to 100 (died in 1996)) and pitcher Joe Giard (Giard would end up being a Yankee again in 1927).

The Second Time Around

In 1925, now suited for his best chance at a championship ring, Shocker returned to his old team, now under the leadership of Babe Ruth. Miller Huggins noted his regret for the trade on the day of the announcement, saying it was a “grave injustice” that he was ever traded Shocker in the first place. The spitballer had a pretty average season for the Yankees, with a 3.65 ERA in 30 starts (41 appearances in total) and came to a 12-12 record for a seventh-place Yankee teams. In 1925, he also maintained an 88/52 strikeout/balls rate, giving Miller Huggins a 117 ERA+ performance. However, during the 1925 season, the health problems began to show, without anyone’s knowledge. Shocker developed a heart ailment, but he kept the details to himself.

The 1926 season was the year Shocker had waited so long for. The 1926 Yankees were a healthy team, and Shocker led a young rotation to the American League pennant with a 3.38 ERA in 32 starts (9 relief appearances). His record was 19-11 and represented a 114 ERA+ on the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig-led Yankees. That year the spitballer finished third in wins (19) and winning percentage (.633), along with a fifth-place showing in lowest opponent OBP.

The pennant-winning team sent Shocker to start Game 2 of the 1926 World Series against the great Grover Cleveland Alexander and the ace nearly matched Alexander. Urban mixed his pitches (spitters, curves, off-speed and fastballs) except for a Billy Southworth homer that gave the St. Louis Cardinals the lead for good. Shocker still wanted to start once again, leaving Huggins with the decision of pitching Bob Shawkey or Shocker in Game 6. Huggins chose to start Shawkey and kept Shocker ready for a Game 7. However, Shocker ended up being used in a 5-1 game from the bullpen and gave up a homer and single before retiring the side. The Cardinals won the game 10-2 and Shocker was furious that he had to come out of the bullpen in Game 6 and not start the game.

The 1927 season was the year everything came together for the great Shocker. Shocker led a pitching staff that included Waite Hoyt, George Pipgras, Wilcy Moore, Herb Pennock and Dutch Ruether. The team ran away with the pennant while Shocker threw 200 innings in 27 starts, pitching to a 2.84 ERA and an 18-6 record (.750 winning percentage (second highest in the majors that year). For the second consecutive season, Shocker walked more players than he struck out, despite the improved numbers everywhere else.

Shocker turned in his Yankee-best 137 ERA+ (his career high was 150 in 1918) and Babe Ruth had high respect of the spitballer. Ruth noted that “Rubber Belly” had gotten older, but was smart enough to make sure he could control the ball any way he wanted. Shocker’s health was deteriorating quickly from the heart ailment and when the 1927 World Series approached against the Pittsburgh Pirates, newspapers notes Shocker was the best pitcher the Yankees had, and that the Pirates were terrible against him.

The sweep of the Pirates meant Reuther and Shocker were not called for their starts. Shocker apparently had acquired heart disease circa 1925 and only a few knew of it. When December 1927 came around, Shocker’s health had continued to collapse. Shocker, who had weighed in at 170 for most of his career, had dropped to 115 and was fighting for his life. Shocker decided the time was right to pack it in, especially after sending the Yankees a message of his displeasure with them by sending his 1928 contract back unsigned. Shocker announced his retirement on February 16, 1928 (after a media brew-ha-ha in which Miller Huggins stated that they were ready to move on) stating that he wanted to devote time to his radio work in St. Louis and that his career was over with a good record.

The End

By April, though, Shocker had second thoughts and applied to be reinstated. Kenesaw Mountain Landis approved his application, letting him return on April 7, 1928. Seventeen days later, the Yankees signed Shocker to a 1 year/$15,000 deal and he would prepare to pitch. The press kept his wishes, making no comment about his health. On May 30, Shocker made his only appearance of the season, replacing Al Shealy in relief of a 3-0 games against the Washington Senators. He gave up three hits in two innings, but did not give up a run.

Throwing batting practice a few weeks later at Comiskey Park, the dying Shocker collapsed on the field. On July 7, 1928, after passing through waivers, Shocker was released from the contract he signed. Shocker noted that he took the deal in April because Yankees owed him $1,500 for moving expenses in 1925 for the trade back to the Yankees and the front office refused to pay it. Even after Huggins offered to pay the money himself, Shocker refused, only accepting the money from the club. He noted that he got his money back, four years late.

As for the post-release time, Shocker went to Denver to get his career revived, as well as seek medical attention for his heart disease. Despite playing for an independent team in Denver, Shocker was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver (the City Park West neighborhood) on August 13 for pneumonia. His wife spent his time at his bedside, listening to the Yankees win the pennant in 1928. Playing in a tournament in Denver on August 6, he was also stricken with what doctors called athlete’s heart (AHS), which is when the human heart grows and the resting rate is slower than normal. It is common in those who exercise over an hour a day, especially those who do endurance training.

On August 15 it was reported that Shocker was supposedly improving, but his wife Irene noted that he had a broken heart because he missed being in the pennant race with the Yankees. Shocker loved the game to the day he passed, listening to them 1,500 miles away in his death bed. With each loss, he felt the pain of the team losing, and with each win, he felt the joy in their victory.

Urbain Jacques Shockcor died at 7:10 am on September 9, 1928 at the age of 38, with the mix of pneumonia and heart disease. While the doctors used the medical reasons for his death, his wife cited the broken heart for the team. Even by the Friday before his death, they felt he had a chance to recover, but he had a relapse, leading to his death. On September 12, the Yankees announced that they would attend Shocker’s funeral, if it was delayed so they had the free chance before a series against the Browns.

Shocker’s body was moved from Denver to St. Louis, where over 1,000 mourners attended his funeral ceremony at All Saints Catholic Church. Lou Gehrig, Herb Pennock, Earle Combs, Mike Gazella, Gene Robertson and Waite Hoyt all served as pallbearers at his funeral. Brother Benjamin, the pastor at St. Mary’s Bays School in Baltimore (which Babe Ruth attended) also attended the funeral. The casket was brought to Calvary Cemetery in the northern end of St. Louis, where he was buried. The mood of the funeral carried over into the Yankees series against the Browns, who kicked them around.

Shocker’s career ended with a .615 winning percentage (187-117) in 412 games (317 starts) with a 3.17 ERA. This included 200 complete games and 28 shutouts. Though the save statistic would not be created until 1959 by Jerome Holtzman, Baseball-Reference credits him with 25 saves. Pitching to career 124 ERA+, Shocker faced 11,137 batters, striking out 983.

Shocker was one of the greatest spitballers in Yankee history, and if the ill-fated trade of January 1918 had never occurred, I’m confident there would be a plaque in Monument Park for the man who was really the first ace of the Miller Huggins era. It would only be fair. The kid from Cleveland became one of the best baseball pitchers in the American League and was gifted with an 80 name tool. The story of his early demise only leaves speculation to what Shocker could have been in 1928 and onward, but speculation is not for this historian.

Thoughts following the 2016 Draft

Rutherford. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
Blake Ruth. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

The marathon 2016 amateur draft is complete. The Yankees drafted 40 players from Thursday through Saturday — here are our Day One, Day Two, and Day Three recaps — and now we have to see how many of those 40 they actually sign before the July 15th deadline. It’s usually somewhere around 25-30. We’ll see. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. It’s hard not to love the California HS OF Blake Rutherford (1st round) pick. All the major scouting publications ranked him as a top ten talent, and the Yankees were able to get him with the 18th pick because of bonus demands and his age. Rutherford turned 19 last month and some are acting like he’s about to collect social security. It’s not like his 20th birthday is right around the corner. Slot money for the 18th pick is $2.44M and my guess is the Yankees end up signing Rutherford for something closer to $4M. They’ve spent over their bonus pool the maximum allowed without forfeiting a future first round pick last few drafts, so they might sign their picks from rounds 2-10, then take all the leftover money and drop it in front of Rutherford. That’s essentially what they did with James Kaprielian last year and Aaron Judge a few years ago. Either way, I fully expect Rutherford to sign. The Yankees did their homework and know what number they need to meet.

2. I’m pretty pleased by the Louisville 2B Nick Solak (2nd) selection. He can really hit. Maybe not for much power, but he can drive the ball from line to line and he’s willing to take a walk, plus he offers some speed. So basically the only thing he can’t do at the plate is hit the ball over the fence consistently. As long as Solak plays passable defense at second base, he’ll be a nice little player. I buy into his bat much more than I do some other college middle infielders the Yankees have drafted in the top ten rounds in recent years, like Kyle Holder and Vince Conde. Solak wasn’t the sexiest pick in the world, but the kid can hit.

3. California HS RHP Nolan Martinez (3rd) is exactly the kind of prep pitcher the Yankees have been selecting early in Day Two in recent years. He’s a three-pitch guy with a potential put-away pitch breaking ball and unusual polish for a high schooler. Drew Finley and Austin DeCarr, the team’s third round selections in the previous two drafts, came into pro ball with the same basic profile. Don’t get me wrong, every player is unique and their own individual, but there are definite similarities. I kinda feel like I should have seen the Martinez pick coming. Three-pitch high school guy with polish from Southern California? Too easy. I have to remember to keep my eye on that demographic when looked at candidates for next summer’s third round pick.

4. I need to learn a little more about Florida JuCo RHP Nick Nelson (4th) because Keith Law’s scouting report (subs. req’d) in his AL draft recap is pretty ridiculous. “(Nelson) works with a plus fastball up to 95 and a plus curveball, with good command for his age, and his arm action and delivery point to future plus command as well,” he wrote. Uh, a plus fastball and a plus curveball with the potential for plus command makes for a really really really good pitching prospect. That sounds too good to be true. Nelson is only 6-foot-1, so I imagine there is some concern about his ability to pitch downhill, but still. A plus fastball and a plus curve with a delivery that hints plus command is coming? In the fourth round? Yes please.

5. My favorite obscure pick: USC RHP Brooks Kriske (6th). He’s been up to 96 mph with his heater this spring after sitting closer to 90-92 mph in the past, and he also has an average-ish slider that could improve with pro instruction. Kriske is a senior sign designed to save draft pool space for Rutherford first and foremost. He’s not a non-prospect though. There’s some power in his arm and this is a guy who went from a 16.8% strikeout rate his first three years at USC to 29.4% this year thanks to that extra velocity. Kriske’s a pure reliever and the Yankee seem to have a knack for digging up random power arms from the college ranks.

6. This draft was definitely different than the last few. First and foremost, the Yankees shot for the moon with their top pick, which hasn’t always happened. (To be fair, the team hasn’t had a talent like Rutherford fall to them since I guess Gerrit Cole in 2008.) Secondly, they drafted way more high school players. They took 14 this year after taking 14 in the 2014 and 2015 drafts combined. College players were a definite point of emphasis the last few drafts. And third, just about every college position player they selected is bat over glove. That isn’t to say defense is unimportant. It obviously is. It just seemed like the Yankees leaned a little too heavily towards the top glove guys in recent years. I don’t know if this is all one giant coincidence or a shift in philosophy, but it’s not hard to notice this all happened in the first full year since the Yankees made their player development staff changes, most notably hiring Gary Denbo to run the system.

7. It was interesting to see how the 2014-15 international signing period affected the 2016 draft. The Yankees loaded up on infielders internationally two years ago, so when it came time to fill out their rosters late in the draft this year, they had to go heavy on outfielders. They took ten total outfielders in the 2016 draft and only four infielders. Teams don’t draft for need but they kinda do. Early on they take the best talent available because you have to. High-end talent is hard to get, so get it while you can. The later rounds are definitely about filling specific needs though. You need players to plug roster holes around the actual prospects, and for the Yankees, that meant bringing in a bunch of outfielders.

8. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is due this offseason, and while I do think it will bring some changes to the draft, I don’t think the bonus pools are going away. They’re a way for the owners to save money and they’re an easy concession for the MLBPA to make because they don’t hurt union members. Given the way the draft works nowadays, I’d like to see them shorten it to 20-25 rounds or so. Forty rounds is unnecessary at this point. Give teams their 20-25 picks, then let them fill out their minor league rosters with undrafted free agents. These days 40 rounds is overkill. I think there’s a chance draft picks will be made tradeable with some limitations in the next CBA, though I’m not optimistic. Making picks tradeable would certainly spice things up.