Sunday, January 25, 2015

ABL Wrap Up & Anthony Alford's Thoughts

   The Canberra Elite Cavalry topped the Sydney Blue Sox 7-2 on Sunday, to wrap up their Australian Baseball League schedule.  The Cavalry had the same won-loss record as the Sox, but Sydney gained the last ABL playoff spot by virtue of a better head-to-head record with Canberra, which was all but sealed when they took 5 of the first 6 games of the season from the Cavalry.

   The Blue Jays sent four players to Canberra, including fan favourite C Jack Murphy, back for his third stint with the Cavalry, and first timers 2B Christian Lopes, 1B LB Dantzler, and OF Anthony Alford.  Lopes tore up the league, hitting .371/.421/.581, including a batting average of .450 over his last 10 games, before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury with three rounds left to go in the regular season.  His injury left a huge hole in the Canberra lineup as they battled for that final playoff spot.  The veteran Murphy was his usual dangerous down under self, hitting .353/.413/.542, providing leadership and deft handling of the Cavalry pitching staff.  Dantzler was just starting to come around at the plate until back and hip injuries sidelined him for the final month, and he wound up hitting .267/.316/.425.

   The player most Blue Jays fans wanted to see was Alford.  The toolsy outfielder abruptly gave up college football for baseball in late September, and was sent to Australia to make up for lost playing time.  Alford has just over 100 plate appearance as a pro, spread out over three abbreviated minor league seasons, and his inexperience showed against the mostly veteran pitching in the ABL, hitting .207/.327/.319, along with 9 stolen bases in 11 attempts.

  We had a chance to speak with Alford as league play was wrapping up this weekend.   Considering that other than brief trips to Florida for extended spring training (after spring football ended), Alford probably hasn't been out of Mississippi that much, let alone travel to the other side of the world, so we asked him how he found living in a foreign country.  "It was very nice experience playing here in Australia," he observed.  "The only adjustment I really had to make was driving on the other side of the road."

   We noticed that Alford didn't get a whole lot of strikes to swing at as the season progressed.  The veteran ABL pitchers fed him a steady diet of breaking balls on the outer half of the plate, followed by fastballs on the inner half.   Alford agreed, and suggested that he was partly to blame for putting himself into bad counts:

The pitching wasn't really overpowering. You were right, I saw a lot of breaking balls and fastballs out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of times by being too aggressive. But they did do a good job of mixing pitches up on me. Most of the guys I faced had at least 6 or 7 years of experience on me.

   With all of 25 PA's above rookie ball in his career, Alford likely had never faced pitching on a level with what he faced in Australia.  Even though many commented that the quality of pitching was down this year in the league compared to other years, most of the pitchers in the league rely on pitching smarts and their breaking stuff far more than pitchers in rookie ball do.  Still, Alford was upbeat about the experience he gained:

I really just came over here to learn and get caught up as much as I can. I wasn't really worried about the stats. I know they will come.  This experience definitely benefited me in a lot of good ways. I've learned that the pitchers over here don't pitch like the pitchers in the states. It's like they pitch you backwards here.

   When we asked him what part of his game he was most pleased with as a result of his Australian experience, he came up with the answer quickly:

 I was more pleased with my improvement on defense. It's like I'm a totally different person on defense from the time I first got here and where I am at now. But I definitely need to keep getting at bats and be consistent with my approach at the plate. 

  As the ABL season ends, Alford and his Blue Jays teammates will be heading back home.  Alford will have about a month to rest and get ready for the upcoming season, and told us that he reports for spring training on February 26th.  It will be interesting to see how this experience benefits him.  Our bet would be that it will be in the form of improved pitch recognition.  Even against the advanced competition, and despite his occasional aggressiveness, Alford had a walk rate of 12% - still not good enough for a leadoff hitter, but impressive considering his resume to this point.  It will also be interesting to see where Alford is assigned after spring training.  Our initial thoughts had him starting with Dunedin, but he may need to at least start the season in Lansing - which is good news to those of us in Southern Ontario, who were about to scrap our travel plans after Franklin Barreto was dealt.


  We also had a chance to correspond with David Polkinghorne (@Super_Couch on Twitter), who covers the Cavalry for the Canberra Times.  In light of the injuries suffered by Lopes and Dantzler, and given some of the concerns expressed by Murphy about the import rule, we have to wonder if the Blue Jays are all that thrilled about sending their prospects to Australia.  Polkinghorne's response:

I guess injuries are injuries and could happen anywhere. The import rule doesn't really take away playing time from the Jays players as they're given preference in selection, it's unaffiliated guys like (Canberra IF Marcus) Lemon who miss out on playing time. So the ABL is no longer a way for American guys to get back into the MLB system. Lots of people feel it has lowered the standard of play this season though which might make MLB clubs hesitant about sending guys down under. The Cavs are a lot weaker this season but that is partly recruiting on their behalf as well.
   All in all, the ABL was entertaining to watch this winter.  Listening to commentary from the Aussie television guys was fun - they don't take things too seriously, and make observations like, "I reckon that pitch was about 75."  The live stream was much more reliable this year, and the highlights on the ABL YouTube channel were updated regularly.  It's interesting to see the variance in stadium facilities from one city to another - some are obviously makeshift diamonds on cricket grounds, while others are not that far removed from parks in the low minors in the U.S.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hoffman for Duquette? Uh, No, Thanks.

   The Toronto Blue Jays as a franchise are at a bit of a cross roads.  With a stadium badly in need of upgrading or replacement, and with long time President and CEO Paul Beeston being nudged or pushed (depending on what you believe) out the door, there is a need for a high profile name to come in to become the new face of the franchise, at least from an executive point of view.

   Dan Duquette would appear to fit the bill perfectly.  He has helped to rebuild the Orioles, put together the core of a team that won the Red Sox their first World Series in roughly a millenia, and has run a team in Canada before, at a time when the Canadian dollar was trading at values it has stumbled down to again.

  Word is from various columnists south of the border that Orioles owner Peter Angelos insisted that Duquette serve out the remaineder (until 2018) of his contract.  Angelos himself will only relinquish leadership of the franchise upon his death, and he would prefer that it stay within the family after he is gone.  Angelos, by the way, is a very complex man - this article by Bruce Schoenfeld of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal paints a thorough picture of a workaholic lawyer who trusts no one, least of all his GMs. 

   So, for Duquette, he is bumping his head against the O's glass ceiling. And this isn't the first time he's wanted out.   Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star believes that he was interested in the Blue Jays top job before Paul Beeston undertook an exhaustive search for a new CEO for the club, only to find himself the most qualified candidate.  Asking for to get out of his contract is nothing new for baseball executives, and the tradition usually has been for ownership to allow the exec to leave as a courtesy if the position they are leaving for is a promotion, with some minor compensation in return as a consideration.

  When you're dealing with Peter Angelos, there is no courtesy in his black and white world.
Angelos has always marched to the beat of his own drummer, and this case is no exception.  Angelos has made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer, which allowed him to buy his beloved hometown club (after a failed attempt at municipal politics) at a bargain when the franchise was at its rock-bottom value in 1992 in a bankruptcy court action.  Angelos went through a succession of GMs and Managers before landing Duquette and Buck Showalter, who led the O's to their first post season birth in 14 years in 2011.

   That it is rumoured that the Orioles are demanding P Jeff Hoffman, the Blue Jays top pick in last June's draft and a projected front of the rotation starter, and possibly another top prospect goes against traditional compensation in these cases.  Granted, there have been few cases where an executive has gone to work for a division rival, and even fewer where the exec in question has more than three years remaining on his contract, but in the legal world, precedent is just that.  If the Blue Jays agree to the Orioles' excessive demands, that sets the cause of mobility for MLB executives back considerably, because it's hard to believe that other organizations would agree to the new bar for compensation this deal would set.

   And it's hard to see the Blue Jays baseball operations people agreeing to this deal.  The club followed Hoffman extensively prior to the draft, and had done sufficient homework on him to feel that he had the physical and emotional capacity to recover from Tommy John surgery last spring to become the front of the rotation starter he was projected to be.  At the same time, there are no guarantees, and because of MLB rules preventing the trading of draft picks, Hoffman could not join the O's until mid-June.
  Hoffman was projected as a top 3 pick before injuring his elbow last spring, but fell to the Blue Jays at 9th because up to 8 other teams picking before them were scared off by his injury.  Most teams would be frightened off further by the fact that they couldn't get Hoffman under the supervision of their medical and rehab people until part way through the season. Despite Hoffman's projected ceiling, he would still be a huge risk for another organization.

   Baseball execs know that ultimately they serve their corporate masters at the ownership level, but if I am anyone in the Blue Jays front office, I would be beyond angered if the club gave up Hoffman at this point.  Surrendering a  top prospect like Franklin Barreto in a trade to improve the on-field product is one thing, agreeing to give up a front of the rotation starter (a projected one, granted) who could anchor the starting staff for years is completely another.  And with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle not likely to be Blue Jays in the long run, agreeing to give up a pitcher who could step in as early as next season to take one of those spots doesn't make a lot of sense, especially when you factor in the $3 million signing bonus they invested in him.

   The Orioles are likely very displeased with Duquette, who wasn't having the greatest off season in baseball anyway, with the O's losing free agents Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller, and missing out on Blue Jays free agent OF Colby Rasmus.  That they are insisting he honour his contract while at the same time supposedly demanding excessive (by current standards) compensation.  It's hard to understand Angelos' stubbornness in this situation.  He has a pair of highly competent baseball men in Showalter and VP Brady Anderson who could assume Duquette's duties without the organization missing a beat.  As a self-made man, Angelos follows his own rules.

   Obviously, the pursuit of Duquette from the Blue Jays is coming from the ownership level, and we're looking at you, Edward Rogers.  With Paul Beeston under contract for another year, it makes no sense for the Blue Jays to push the envelope on this.  The price on Duquette will likely come down as time progresses.  As Griffin says, it may be time for the Jays to walk away from this and end the speculation, at least for now.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Minor League Notebook

   It's that time of year.  There is snow on the ground, and a bitter chill in the air.
But the days are starting to get just a little bit longer, and the warmth of the sun can sometimes be felt through the biting wind.  Baseball can't be far away.

  We have gathered a fair number of tidbits of information about the Blue Jays farm system that, so we thought we would resurrect the old Notebook and share them with you.

Lopes  is a major reason the Cavs are still in play-off contention, despite some up-and-down form in recent series.
Christian Lopes wielding a hot bat
Canberra Times photo

   Christian Lopes took a few weeks  to adjust to the veteran pitching in the Australian Baseball League, but he caught fire, as the above photo shows, and has been a mainstay in the Canberra lineup.
   Through January 9th, Lopes was hitting .371/.421/.581 for the Cavalry, mashing at a .450 clip over his last 10 games, and with fellow Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy, was the main reason Canberra was still in the playoff picture as the Australian Baseball League season winds down.
  Rainy weather invaded the Cavalry's homestand last weekend, and may have been responsible for ending Lopes' season.  Lopes was rounding third when he heard a pop in his left hamstring as he slipped on muddy ground on the baseline.  He was shut down for the remainder of the weekend (which was washed out by the rain, anyway), and according to our source in Australia, is done for the season, and has likely headed back to the U.S.
   Lopes has had a mostly nondescript minor league career.  Once a prominent prep prospect, Lopes' stock slipped to the 7th round in 2011, and he has put up pedestrian numbers in four minor league seasons.
   We've learned, via the Canberra Times, that Lopes is tri-lingual.  He has a Brazilian background, and his mother is from the Philippines, and he speaks English, Portuguese and Tagalog.
   According to Manager Michael Collins, Lopes' performance this year has been a result of increased patience at the plate.  He told the Times:
  "The big thing I've noticed is when he gets a good pitch to hit, he's not missing it at this point," he said.
"If you miss those good pitches to hit, or swing at bad pitches, you put yourself in a hole.
    "In the last couple of weeks, each time he's got a good pitch, he's put a good swing on it and had success."
   A hamstring injury can be a tricky thing.  It can take a few weeks or months to recover from, depending on the severity of the injury.  The Blue Jays likely wanted him shut down immediately after the injury, and he likely is rehabbing in Florida at the moment.  He may not be ready for the start of spring training, again depending on the extent of the strain.
   Lopes should start the season with AA New Hampshire, unless he misses time in the spring, which might see him return to Dunedin.  His success down under should set him up well at AA, where he will face the same type of pitchers he faced in Australia, although with higher FB velocities and better command of their secondary pitches.

  While the Blue Jays must be pleased with the relationship they've had with the ABL over the past several years, we can't help but wonder if they are still as content after the events of the past few weeks.  LB Dantzler has been out of the Canberra lineup for several weeks with back and hip issues, while Anthony Alford had to come out of the game yesterday after injuring his jaw while trying to make a diving catch in the outfield.  You can't necessarily blame the playing conditions for Alford's injury, but we've noticed that some of the fields in the league are not nearly of the same quality as those stateside.  We don't know about Dantzler, but those conditions may have played a factor in Lopes' injury.

   We thought we would include some action between Lopes and lefthander Matt Boyd.  We've been in touch with Boyd to see how he has been doing this offseason.  Here's our interview with him:

Clutchlings:  How much are you able to train in the off-season ?  Do you have to get a job?

Boyd:   I am able to train as much as I want to. I do have a job giving lessons and camps as well as some odd jobs here and there but you can always find time to get your work in, sometimes that means getting up a little earlier.

Clutchlings: What is the focus of your training? Cardio/strength/flexibility/agility, or some cross-training?

Boyd:   The focus of my training shifts throughout the off-season. Early on this year it was recovering from the surgery I had after the season.  It flared up during the last month of the year. It was a clean up…I had a big chip taken out of my elbow.  In the beginning it was just rehab, getting my body healthy and cardio.  So winter ball wasn't an option. After I was able to work out fully again my focus has been to just get stronger, especially in my lower body. The main focus for it all is to stay athletic and do all that you mentioned.  I feel better than I have in the last three seasons now...I am excited for this upcoming season.

Clutchlings:   What type of training do you do? Has your attitude toward nutrition changed since turning pro ?

Boyd:  You know it hasn't much. I was very fortunate to have a great strength and nutrition coach at OSU that helped me build good habits that carried into pro ball. But it is hard to always eat healthy when you are on the road. And as for training its a combination of agility/ cardio work and just in the gym with weights.

   Boyd, who was married a few weeks ago, had a better April than Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman, posting a 4-0 0.29 record with Dunedin.  Florida State League hitters were overmatched against the lefthander, who fanned 37 in his first 31 innings.   Boyd was promoted to AA in May, but hurt his foot in his first start for New Hampshire, and he had trouble getting his mechanics back. Sent back to Dunedin, he pitched well and earned another shot at AA, but was sent back to the D-Jays to help with their playoff push in August.  Obviously, the bone chip must have been affecting him in his August return, as he did not pitch as effectively in the Florida State League playoffs.
   A 6th round pick out of Oregon State in 2013, Boyd pitched out of the bullpen until his senior year of college, when he led the Beavers to the College World Series semi-final.  Boyd has pitched almost exclusively as a starter since joining the Toronto organization.  His FB sits between 90-92, and touches 94 on occasion.  He does not have one outstanding pitch in his arsenal, but commands all four of his pitches well.  We have wondered if Boyd might not be converted to relief, but he lacks that power fastball, so the club appears to be content to let him continue as a starter.  Boyd profiles as a back of the rotation starter, but we're encouraged that he feels healthy, and are eager to see how he fares this year.
   Boyd should get a chance to try things again at AA this year.  We have to admit that he's one of our favourite prospects.  He responds quickly to questions we've asked, and he seems like a level headed young man.  We hope he earns a promotion to Buffalo this season, so that we can watch him pitch in person.

 Just before Christmas, the Blue Jays announced the coaching staffs for their minor league affiliate.
The Buffalo staff will remain intact.  Gary Allenson returns for a second season, along with hitting coach Richie Hebner, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Bobby Meacham returns for a second season at the helm with New Hampshire, and will be joined by Canada's own Stubby Clapp, who served as hitting coach for a pair of seasons with Dunedin, and Bob Stanley, who was the bullpen coach with the big club in 2014.  
  Omar Malave, the 2014 FSL Manager of the Year, returns to pilot the Dunedin Jays, and will be joined by hitting coach John Tamargo Jr, who managed Lansing for the past three seasons, and another Canadian, pitching coach Vince Horsman, who moves up from Lansing as well.  Former Blue Jays C Ken Huckaby moves from hitting coach to manager at Lansing, with pitching coach Jeff Ware moving up from Vancouver to join him, along with Kenny Graham, who managed the GCL Jays last year, and is tutoring Jays prospects in the Australian Baseball League at the moment.
   John Schneider will return for a second season as Vancouver's manager, and will be joined by holdover hitting coach Dave Pano, and Jim Czajkowski, who was at New Hampshire last year.
  Dennis Holmberg will be back to manage Bluefield again this year, while Jose Mateo takes over the complex league team.
   On the administration side, Dane Johnson moves from minor league pitching co-ordinator to bullpen coach in Toronto, with Sal Fasano moving from roving catching instructor to assume Johnson's duties.  Darold Knowles, who was Dunedin's pitching coach, takes over the role of rehab pitching coach (working with Clinton Hollon and Jeff Hoffman, among others), and Rick Langford becomes senior pitching advisor.
   We also learned last week that Clayton McCullough, who led the Vancouver Canadians to back to back titles before being promoted to Co-ordinator of Minor League Instruction for the system last year, has left to become the Dodgers new Minor League Field Co-ordinator.


   Numerous sources are reporting that a 20-second pitch clock will be implemented at AA and AAA in 2015, but not the majors just yet, thanks very much.
    There can be little doubt that the pace of play in MLB has slowed considerably:


   Where does this slowdown come from?    From numerous sources.   With today's hitters taught to be discerning at the plate, pitchers are throwing more pitches:

     Which leads to more pitching changes per game:

    If the average pitching change, from the moment the manager calls time to stroll out and remove him, to the time the incoming relief pitcher throws his first pitch to a batter, takes ten minutes, times two teams, that's a game that is a minimum of 20 minutes longer than it was less than 20 years ago.
  Factor that with the increasing number of pitches thrown in a game, and you have one that's about a half an hour longer, on average, than it was prior to 1990.
   We do like the idea of a pitch clock.  It forces batters, pitchers, and catchers to work faster.  We don't expect every pitcher to work as quickly as Mark Buehrle, who takes an MLB-low 17.3 seconds, on average, to deliver a pitch, does, nor do we expect every hitter to be a human rain delay, like David Ortiz, who has three of the top 10 slowest home run trots of all time. 
   The Arizona Fall League implemented several measures to speed up game times, including a pitch clock of 20 seconds.  Realizing that was only one part of the problem, other time-saving measures were introduced:

• Hitters had to keep one foot in the batter's box throughout each at-bat, except in the case of a foul ball, wild pitch, inside pitch that made a hitter sprawl out of the box, passed ball or a handful of other minor disruptions.
• On intentional walks, the catcher showed four fingers and the hitter immediately jogged to first base.
• Teams allowed a total of three mound conferences per game. 
• A maximum 2:05 break was in effect between innings; hitters were required to be in the box by the 1:45 mark.
• A 2:30 break applied during pitching changes. Like the 2:05 stoppage between innings, that's the same guideline used in MLB regular-season games.  Umpires tried harder to enforce it in Arizona.

   The results of the experiment were mixed.  Teams would often find a way around the rules: did a visit to the mound by a catcher to go over signals with the pitcher count as a conference?  Just the same, baseball was encouraged by the outcome of the games to implement the pitch clock in the minors this season, meaning that it likely is on its way to MLB in the future.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Toronto's Own Babe

   One of the most accomplished athletes to ever put on a uniform representing a Toronto team not only did so for one team in the 1920s, but did so for three.  But Babe Dye is one of the city's least-known sporting figures among today's fans.

   Born in Hamilton in 1898, Cecil Henry Dye moved with his mother to Toronto after the death of his father when he was an infant.  He grew up playing on the playground of Jesse Ketchum Public School, which produced the famous Conacher brothers Charlie and Lionel (voted Canada's top athlete of the first half of the 20th century).  Actor Keanu Reeves also went to Ketchum, although he may not have spent as much time on the playing fields.

HHOF photo

   Hockey was a much different sport in the first two decades of the last century.  The sport had just eliminated the rover position, removing a player from the ice as the skating and puck handing skills of players was rapidly evolving.  The rules had recently been changed to allow a goaltender to drop to the ice to make a save. Forward passing was only allowed in the defensive and neutral zones, so players tended to carry and stick handle the puck as long and as far as they could.  The game resembled shinny much more than it did today's game, with its emphasis on passing and teamwork. Teams rarely carried substitutes, so players were expected to play the whole game - some would deliberately take a penalty, which had to be served in its entirety before the player returned to play, in order to get a breather.  Defencemen tended to loiter in their own end as the puck moved up the ice, going only as far as their own blue line.  This footage from 1929 gives you some feel for how the game was played at that time:

   Dye was a 5'8", 150 lb right winger.  He played junior hockey in Toronto for Aura Lee and De La Salle, and graduated to the Senior Toronto St Patricks in 1919.  Dye turned pro with the NHL version of the St Pats the following year.  On the ice, he was not known as a great skater, but had a wicked shot in those pre-slapshot and curved stick days.  On the ballfield, he was known as a speedy outfielder and good hitter who used that speed on the basepaths well.
   Dye was also a well-known amateur football player in his pre-NHL days.  At that time, a player could conceivably compete in more than one sport without seasons overlapping. Hockey season really didn't get started until Christmas, and was usually finished by March.  Baseball ran from April to September, as the Canadian football season was starting, finishing up by mid-November.
   Dye was able to compete successfully in all three sports.  He played halfback for the Toronto Argonauts, as well as suiting up for the St Pats, and he made his pro baseball debut in 1920 with the Brantford Red Sox of the low-level Michigan-Ontario league.
   Dye's hockey teammates kidded him about his baseball commitment, and he quickly became known as "Toronto's Babe," in homage to a guy who was gaining acclaim south of the border.  Dye was good enough to have caught the eye of Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, who offered him $25 000 to sign with the A's.  While he was a good ball player, Dye knew his future likely lay with hockey, which was about to grow in leaps and bounds across the northeast.
   Dye scored 33 goals in 23 games in 1920-21, his second NHL season, and his reputation soared. He led the league in goal scoring three times in the next five seasons.  A few sources we read in researching this article claimed that his low assist totals were a reflection of his poor skating skills, and that's just plain hogwash.  The legendary Lester Patrick introduced the compilation of assists a decade earlier, but the concept had yet to fully catch on during Dye's era.  Excellent research compiled by Ellen Etchingham of The Score, which you can read here, notes that assists were awarded at a very low rate of between .4 and .6 per goal during the decade.  That, combined with the style of play likely accounts for Dye's low assist totals - Joe Malone and Cy Denneny, who were in a constant battle with Dye for the league scoring league from 1920-25 had a similarly low number of assists.
   1922 was Dye's peak.  Brantford sold his contract to Buffalo of the International League, putting him a step away from the majors.  Dye was 2nd on the team in hitting with a .322 average, and slugged .444. On the ice, Dye again led the NHL in goals with 30, and led the St Pats to the Stanley Cup, scoring 9 goals in the 5-game final. It would be the only time his name would be etched on Lord Stanley's mug.
   Dye announced that he was giving up hockey for good after the 1923 season to focus on baseball, but he had changed his mind once winter had rolled around.  In 1924-25, he scored an astounding 38 goals, a Toronto record which stood for 35 years.   We couldn't find a reason for his brief retirement from hockey, but we can't help but wonder if it was a contract ploy.  With the game expanding into the United States, and attendance growing rapidly, Dye may have been trying to extract a higher salary from the St Pats.  
   Dye's production began to tail off after 1925, and his sale to Chicago in 1926 may have ironically brought the Toronto Maple Leafs into existence.  Torontonian Conn Smythe, a noted businessman, horse owner, and hockey coach, had been hired by Col. John Hammond to run the new NHL franchise in New York.  Smythe knew about Dye's availability, but passed on him.  Smythe preferred a team player, and he felt that Dye was anything but.  Dye was more a product of his time, when carrying the puck was the most effective way of advancing it, particularly in the attacking zone. The only way for him to take advantage of his shot was to create his own scoring opportunities. Hammond was furious at missing out on a marquee player who likely could have filled New York's new Madison Square Garden, and fired Smythe before the team he assembled had even hit the ice. Smythe, for his part, probably preferred a younger (and cheaper) player that he could control over a celebrity like Dye. The irony, of course, is that Smythe returned to Toronto after the Rangers let him go, and was asked to coach the Leafs.  Not wanting to be a victim of management interference again, Smythe insisted on a portion of the ownership of the franchise, and put up some of  his own money to buy in.  He became part of a new ownership group that took over the moribund St Pats on Valentine's Day, 1927, and changed their name to the Maple Leafs. He would change the team colours from green/white to the more traditional Toronto blue and white the following season. Completing the circle, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1927-28, with the core of the team being the group Smythe had put together. 

   Dye's goals total dipped to 18 in 1925-26, and his last productive baseball season was also in 1925, when he hit .293 and slugged .406 for Buffalo.
    Dye regained his scoring touch in the Windy City, playing on a line with fellow Hamiltonian Dick Irvin.  Dye broke his leg in training camp prior to the 27-28 season, however, and he was never the same again.  He missed the entire baseball season that year, and his career on the diamond was all but over, too.
   Dye was sold to the New York Americans, but scored only 1 goal in 42 games in the 1928-29 season. Buffalo had sold his contract to International League rival Baltimore, who sold him to his hometown baseball Maple Leafs part way through the 1926 season.  He finished his diamond career with a .215 season.
   The hockey Leafs signed Dye as a free agent before the 1930-31 season, but released him after he went scoreless in 6 games.  He scored but one goal in his final 58 NHL games.  Starting in 1926, the NHL had embarked on a number of rule changes that gradually opened up the game by allowing passing in all three zones.  Hockey was moving to a passing and skating game - two skills that Dye had never possessed in abundance. The injury didn't help, but the game had literally passed him by. He retired with 202 lifetime NHL goals, and a .311 career minor league batting average.
   Dye coached in the Ontario Hockey Association's senior ranks and for the minor league Chicago Shamrocks after his playing career ended, and after his coaching days stayed in the Chicago area, where he worked for an oil and gas distributor.  He died in 1961, several months after suffering a heart attack.  Dye was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970, and was ranked 83rd on a list of the 100 greatest players of all time published in 1998 by The Hockey News.  
   Ask most Toronto hockey or baseball fans today who Babe Dye was, and you're likely to get a blank stare, but he was a local icon for half a decade, and was probably the city's most popular athlete during that time.  Pound for pound, he may have been one of the best all-around athletes Hogtown ever produced.  He is also the only man to suit up for both the hockey and baseball versions of the Toronto Maple Leafs.


   We're wandering a bit off topic here, but we can't hit the publish button here without sharing a couple of Conn Smythe stories.
   Of building a hockey team, Smythe once said, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice."  A divisive figure who was equally loathed and loved by the people of Toronto, he had the audacity to find the cash and make labour deals to build Maple Leaf Gardens in the early years of the Depression, and turned the Maple Leaf brand into a national institution before relinquishing control of the team to his son and his friends in the early 1960s.  The club, of course, has experienced nothing close to the success it had under Smythe in the ensuing half century.
   After being fired by the Rangers, he was invited to attend their opening game in the fall of 1926 by owner Tex Rickard.  Smythe initially refused to attend, claiming that the team still owed him $2500 by the terms of his contract.  Smythe's wife was able to get him to change his mind, and the pair attended the game, where the Rangers upset the defending Cup champs Montreal Maroons.  Rickard was elated with the result, and made sure that Smythe left New York with the money the club owed him.  On the way home to Toronto, the Smythes made a stop in Montreal, where Conn bet the settlement from the Rangers on a football game between Toronto and McGill University.  With the $5K winnings from that bet, Smythe then put the whole amount on the Rangers to beat the St Pats upon his return to Toronto.  Smythe won that bet, too, turning $2500 into $10 grand in three days.
   How much was Smythe's stake as part of the group that took over the St Pats?  You guessed it - $10 000.

   One last Smythe story.  We can't help ourselves.

   Michael Francis "King" Clancy was as big in Ottawa during the 20s as Dye was in Toronto.  The son of a famous football player by the same nickname, the younger Clancy was a star for the Ottawa Senators, and led them to Cups in 1923 and 1927.  The Senators fell upon hard times as the Depression hit, and were very cash strapped by the fall of 1930.
   Toronto was not much better off as a franchise.  Maple Leaf Gardens was still a wild dream in Smythe's mind, and while the club's on-ice fortunes had improved, their home rink, Mutual Street Gardens, was a marvel during its day, but could hold only 7500 fans for hockey.  Smythe faced limited resources in his attempts to build a champion.
  He was at the race track one day (where he could be found most days), making his picks for that day's card.  Without a PA system to make announcements, a track official wandered through the stands informing the crowd that a horse named The Monkey, owned by a prominent woman named Mrs Livingstone, would be unable to take part in the next race.  "Scratch.....Mrs Livingstone's......Monkey" the official boomed as he moved through the race patrons, who soon picked up the chant.  Before long, the whole grandstand was yelling, "Scratch Mrs Livingstone's Monkey!" with raucous abandon.  Humiliated, the matronly Mrs Livingstone gave up horse racing on the spot, and sold her entire stable.  From the fire sale, Smythe picked up a filly named Rare Jewel for the bargain price of $250.
   Rare Jewel had an undistinguished record, but she slowly improved for Smythe, who had never won a race in his brief career as an owner, and he entered her in the Coronation Stakes, an event for two year olds at Toronto's Woodbine racetrack.  
   Smythe made a token bet before the race, but as the race approached and the odds lengthened, Smythe upped his bet.  To hedge his bets, however, he decided to put $30 on the race favourite. While he was in standing in line waiting to place his wager, a doctor Smythe had recently fired for misdiagnosing a player's broken leg happened by.  The doctor chided Smythe for betting against his own horse.  Smythe's hair trigger temper kicked in, and he put his money on Rare Jewel.
   Smythe headed off to watch the race, expecting to lose his bets for the day.  What he didn't know is that unknown to each other, Rare Jewel's trainer and a betting crony of Smythe's had each poured her half a flask of brandy prior to the race.  Fortified, Rare Jewel clipped the favourite at the finish line, earning Smythe almost $10 000, plus the purse of over $4000.  Smythe used his winnings to finance obtaining the services of Clancy, who was coming off the best season of his career.  Unlike Dye, who was nearing the end of his career when Toronto let him go, Clancy was at his prime.
   Clancy joined the Leafs for the 30-31 season, and helped to fill Smythe's new ice palace when it opened a year later, capping off the 31-32 campaign with the Leafs' first Stanley Cup. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Aussie League Notebook

   With play in the Australian Baseball League, a loop designed to give some added reps to MLB prospects, and to give homegrown players a chance to develop, heading into the final month of its season, we thought we would take a look at how several Blue Jays prospects are faring, and examine some general issues with the league.

Blue Jays Prospects

    The player everyone is asking about is CF Anthony Alford.  And that's understandable, given that the 2012 draftee was labelled a 3rd round pick with 1st round talent, but dropped in the draft due to his commitment to college football.
  For the past three seasons stateside, Alford has reported to extended spring training after school (and spring football camp) had ended, and then was assigned to a short season team for several weeks of play before returning to school in early August.  The Blue Jays tried to convince Alford to give up the gridiron this summer, and after initially spurning their contract extension, he agreed to switch to the diamond in late September.  As a result of his truncated baseball experience over the past three years, Alford has been limited to 107 plate appearances, only 25 of them at the full season level.

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Anthony Alford photo - @ajalfor1
   As might be expected, Alford has struggled at the plate against the more experienced pitching in the ABL.
One of the youngest players in the league, Alford has posted a line of .206/.325/.309, and is hitting only .179 over his last 10 games.  His 35 strikeouts are tied for the league lead, and his 32% K ratio is a concern. Pitch recognition was a problem earlier in the ABL season for Alford, but he has started to work the count more often.  Our viewing of his AB's over the past weekend showed that the opposition was giving him a steady diet of breaking balls on the outer half of the plate, and fastballs low on the inside part.  Alford was doing a better job of laying off the breaking balls, but swung at several fastballs outside of the zone, resulting in weak groundball contact.  Word obviously has gotten around the league, and Alford isn't being thrown a whole lot of strikes.
   When he has shown some patience, and has attacked pitches in the strike zone, Alford is starting to drive the ball better, and is getting some more line drive type contact.  We can't find a stat for it, but Alford has to be among the league leaders in hit by pitches.  Ordinarily, that might be indicative of a player who crowds the plate, but we think it's more of a reflection of Aussie pitchers pounding him with those inside fastballs.  Alford has worked on his bunting, and it has paid off, as he has dropped a number of successful ones along the third base line, and the 3rd baseman in almost every situation has had no chance to get him at 1st.
   On the basepaths, Alford's speed can be a distraction, but it hasn't translated into huge SB totals. Again, veteran pitchers know how to hold runners on, and the Canberra coaching staff likely prefers Alford to pick his spots.  Alford is tied for the league lead in runs, which granted is sometimes more of a reflection of the hitters behind him in the lineup, but to us, it shows that Alford is getting on base (not as much as we would like for a leadoff hitter, but at a better rate than we had expected), and is using both his speed and baserunning smarts to get into scoring position.   He made a heads up play over the weekend and impressed us.  Taking his lead from 2nd,  Alford froze for a second as Christian Lopes hit a weak chopper to the 3rd baseman, who didn't look over at him before he threw to 1st, and Alford alertly took 3rd as a result.
   In the outfield Alford has made some highlight reel plays.  He also booted a fairly routine flyball that led to a run in his last game.  He shows good reaction to the ball, and a strong arm here:

   The Blue Jays likely expected Alford to have some struggles at this level.  The experience of playing every day from Thursday to Sunday, and having to cope with travel and adjusting to life in a country that's just a little bit different from living in America is probably just as important. We're sure the Blue Jays would rather his first 100 AB-season had come in the GCL two years ago, and not against pitchers who have a plan.

Christian Lopes, IF
  Lopes was a 7th round pick in the 2011 draft, and was a fairly high profile high school player.
We wonder if he would have been better going the collegiate route, because his numbers after 4 minor league seasons are those of an org guy's: .251/.321/.367.
   Something about the Southern Hemisphere has agreed with Lopes, however, and next to Jack Murphy, he has been Canberra's most consistent threat, hitting .343/.384/.471.
   Lopes has a compact stance at the plate, and puts the ball in play, striking out only 8 times in 110 PA's (he doesn't walk a whole lot, either). The pop has not been there, but  the ABL seems to be more of a groundball pitcher league, and Canberra's home stadium, Narrabundah Park, is a tough home run place, with LF and RF lines 330 feet down the line, and has the usual high Milb outfield walls:

      Just the same, Lopes has been a pleasant surprise, and while he's been off the Top Prospects radar for a while now, his Australian experience will set him up nicely for AA.

Jack Murphy, C
    Something happens to Murphy in the rarefied air over the Pacific Ocean on the flight to Australia every fall. He turns from a Crash Davis-type career light-hitting (.230/.310/.373) journeyman catcher to one of the most feared hitters in the ABL.
   This is Murph's 3rd go at playing down under, and he continues to mash, hitting .356/.417/.545 this year.
According to David Polkinghorne, who covers Canberra for Canberra Times Sport, Murphy is a beloved figure in the Nation's Capital because of past heroics.  He led the Cavalry to the Claxon Shield, emblematic of ABL supremacy, in 2013, and hit a key grand slam to lead them to victory in the now-defunct Asian Championship tournament.
   Murphy is a big guy (6'4", 230), and looks downright menacing at the plate.  Polkinghorne lauds his leadership abilities, and calls him, "a true leader of the team both at and behind the plate."
   The obvious question is how a guy who has always been a minor league back up turn into Mike Piazza when he crosses the International Dateline?  It likely has everything to do with the quality of pitching in the league.  Many of the veteran types have breaking balls the likes of which younger players like Alford have never seen before, but not the velocity to get players out who have the patience to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone.  The younger ABL pitchers tend to have less control, so they eventually have to give in to hitters who are willing to wait them out.
   Murphy is a great handler of pitchers, and likely has been a good mentor to the younger players on the team.  He seems to have a place to play as long as he wants to.

LB Dantzler, 1B
   The 2013 14th rounder was the Northwest League's MVP that year, but struggled in his first try at full season ball, hitting .245/.328/.361 between Lansing and Dunedin.
   His struggles at the plate continued through his first month in Australia, but he appears to have started to figure things out, hitting .293 over his last 10 games.
  Like Lopes, Dantzler puts the ball in play.  His swing tends to get a little long at times, but he's hit several towering home runs.

The Import Rule
   Canberra is currently in a three-way battle for the ABL's final playoff spot.  If they come up short by a game, they can point to a game before Christmas as the culprit.
   The Cavalry and Brisbane were tied at 4 before Canberra exploded for 7 runs in the top of the 13th to secure a victory. Or so they thought.
    The import rule dictates that an ABL team have at least 5 Aussies in the 10-man lineup at all times. When outfielder and homebrew Adam Silva was hit by a pitch in the 6th inning and couldn't continue, Canberra Manager Michael Collins was faced with a dilemma.  The only available Aussie on the roster was pitcher Wayne Ough.  Collins, perhaps mindful of when Adelaide broke the quota in a game against the Cavalry last year and only received a fine, took a chance, and substituted American OF Alex Hudak in the lineup.
   The league decided to take the victory away from Canberra, much to the surprise and frustration of Murphy.  He told Polkinghorne that the only reason US players had become an issue was because Canberra won the league title in 2013 with a number of them in the lineup, which caused other clubs to complain.  The import rule was at two players at that time, and has now risen to 5.  And that's not good for the game, says Murphy:
   "(The ABL) should be more focused on putting the best possible product on the field from a baseball standpoint.  Isn't that what people come to see?  They pay to watch these games because they feel they're watching the best possible baseball they can watch in Australia.  Once (MLB) teams start to realize it's no longer a competitive environment then they're going to pull their talent from the league, and then what will be left? - you're going to be left with what you had before the ABL started."

  A rule is a rule, but Murphy does raise a good point.  Some teams have trouble attracting Aussie players, particularly if there is not a strong amateur baseball program in the area.  Many Milb Aussie-born players prefer to play in their hometowns, not necessarily where their major league teams assign them - as Polkinghorne noted, the only MLB-affiliated local player on the Cav's roster is C Robbie Perkins, and the rest are "players the  other (Aussie) states don't want".  And MLB teams likely would be less than thrilled at the prospect of having playing time taken away from their players.
  Just the same, the rule was put in place to help develop Australian talent.  On the other side of the coin, having to put a pitcher in the lineup at any spot other than the mound makes a bit of a mockery of the game, and also increases the risk of injury to that player.  The problem with any such sort of quota is that assumes a level playing field, and equal access to talent. Such is not the case in Australia, and the league needs to address this issue in the off season.  As long as Aussie players can pick and choose where they play in the league, there's an uneven distribution of talent.   An annual draft of native players, to us, seems like a logical step.

The Future of the ABL
   Unequal access to talent and unstable franchise ownership doomed the first edition of the ABL, which lasted from 1989 to 1999.
  MLB and the Australian Baseball Federation re-launched the league in 2010, with MLB retaining a 75% stake in the funding of the partnership.  The league owns all of the franchises, which has lent the league more stability than its previous incarnation.  Sponsorship from local businesses helps to defray expenses.
   The concept behind the league is to help develop Australian talent, as well as giving MLB and Asian prospects additional playing experience.
   The league published attendance figures for each game in past years, but appears to have stopped the practice.  From what we have seen, most parks are half full at best, meaning that attendance likely is averaging something just shy of 1 000 spectators per game. We're not sure if that makes the sport viable in the long term.
   According to Polkinghorne, baseball is still very much a minor sport in Australia, ranking far behind cricket, and it probably ranks with soccer and women's basketball with the sporting public.  If MLB were to pull up stakes, he notes, it would deal a serious blow to the Aussie game.
   The original five year agreement MLB and the ABF signed is up for renewal after this season, and it will be interesting to see where they go from here.  With the announcement by President Obama of a gradual restoration of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, we wonder if the Serie Nacional, which mostly fits MLB's off season, might become the desired location for major league teams to place their prospects.  It's closer, meaning that teams can keep closer tabs on their investment, and the cost of transporting players would be less.  This is a scenario that is several years away, at best, though.  Just the same, the ABL is at a bit of a crossroads.  The direction it takes from here is dependent on how happy MLB is with their current arrangement.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, have to be pleased with the arrangement.  Jon Berti used a successful 2013 ALB campaign to vault himself into fringe-prospect status.  Other Toronto farmhands like Michael Crouse, Kenny Wilson, and Marcus Knecht have had successful stints in the league.  And Alford's struggles now will likely pay dividends when he starts full season play this year - he will be a more polished, patient hitter after this experience.