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The joining of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge places arguably the two biggest, strongest players in major league history on the same team. It is a story so compelling, the New York Yankees will open the gates to spring training games three hours earlier so fans can watch these two, and others, take batting practice, which, on certain days, will be more entertaining than the game. Exit velocity, launch angles and home run distances will be even more celebrated in 2018, especially in the Bronx.

Baseball strength always has been one of the great, hidden components of the game, at least to some. The strength of the players, especially in their hands, wrists and forearms, goes largely unappreciated: I’ve never met a position player who wasn’t really strong in those areas, even dinky, little middle infielders. Indeed, after Michael Jordan’s one year in baseball in 1994, one of his many observations about the game was that virtually every player on his Double-A team was stronger than him from the tips of their fingers to their elbow.

“I noticed how really strong baseball players are when I joined the general population after retirement,” said John Baker, who caught in the big leagues from 2008 to 2014. “I started practicing jujitsu. From day one, when I grabbed the lapel, I could grab it longer and harder than anyone else. That comes from thousands and thousands of violent swings with a baseball bat. Swinging a bat makes your hands strong. Baseball players are so strong.”

The lineage of strength in modern baseball history can be traced to where most in baseball is first traced — to Babe Ruth, who played at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds in his prime in the 1920s, and hit home runs that even today would be considered tape-measure blasts. He soon was followed by Jimmie Foxx, whose nickname was “The Beast.” He gave way to others, including Mickey Mantle, who once hit a ball that reportedly traveled 565 feet at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Former Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski wore cutoff sleeves to show off his muscular arms. Former White Sox outfielder Dave Nicholson’s hands were so strong, he turned off all the showers after a loss, and no teammate was strong enough to turn them back on.

“No one hit the ball harder than Jimmie Foxx,” Ted Williams once told me. “Until I saw Frank Howard.”

Howard was listed at 6-7, 255 pounds but was actually closer to 300 pounds with the Senators in the mid-1960s.

“Frank Howard came to the plate [in a spring training game in 1959], he was the biggest person I had ever seen in my life,” Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo said years ago. “He hit a one-hopper that hit me in the stomach and knocked me out. When I woke up in the hospital, there he was again, standing over me. I said to myself, ‘Am I in heaven? Who is the giant?’ “

The stories about Howard sound Ruthian and apocryphal, but this one is also true: Former Senators catcher Jim French loved chiding Howard, who, one night, had had enough, so he dangled his teammate by the ankles off a hotel balcony that was several stories high. And this one is true, too: Ted Uhlaender, a former center fielder for the Indians and Twins, said Howard hit a line drive over his head, he turned to see where the ball would land, and when he turned, the ball hit him in the chest after ricocheting off the center-field fence.

Howard’s legend gave way in the mid-1980s to Bo Jackson, who, more than once, snapped a bat over his knee in frustration, and similarly, snapped a bat over the top of his helmet.

“Bo was a big bow hunter,” said catcher Mike Macfarlane, a former teammate. “He kept his bows in his locker. He would show us how to shoot, but for him, it was like plucking a harp. He just used two fingers to cock it. I stood on top of the bow and, using both hands, tried to cock it, and I couldn’t do it. And neither could anyone else on our team. I’m sure our front office wasn’t happy about this, we were all afraid of tearing a rotator cuff trying to cock a bow. Bo needed two fingers. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

More Bo: “When he signed, they sent him to Memphis [Triple-A] where I was,” Macfarlane said. “He hit a ball foul in the game, and broke his bat. It wasn’t broken in half, but it was clearly cracked. Typical Bo, he said, ‘Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, screw it.’ He didn’t get a new bat, and hit the next pitch over the center-field fence. It was right then that we said, ‘OK, you are a freak.’ “

Many followed Bo Jackson. The Brewers’ Rob Deer, who hit 230 major league home runs but had trouble making contact, “once just picked me up, put me under his arm, and carried me around,” said former teammate Tom O’Malley, who was 6 feet, 180 pounds. “It was like I was a little kid.”

In the 1990 World Series, the Reds’ Glenn Braggs, whose physique was that of a body builder, broke a bat without hitting the ball: In the follow-through of a swing-and-miss, his bat snapped in half when it collided with his shoulder blade.

I had never seen that.

“Oh, I did that a dozen times this season,” he told me after the game.

I once saw Cal Ripken put a ball on a batting tee at home plate, and, using a fungo, hit a ball over the left-center-field fence, a blast of at least 380 feet. Ripken had incredible hand strength.

“I could lift more weight than him,” former teammate Brady Anderson said, “but once he got you in a bear hug, and he wrapped you up, there was no way to get free.”

Prince Fielder, 6 feet, 275 pounds, became the game’s strongest man, perhaps carrying the mantle from Mantle to Bo Jackson and others. “I really believe he could enter the World’s Strongest Man competition — you know, carrying logs on his back — and he would hold his own,” former teammate Ryan Braun said.

Phil Coke, a former teammate with the Tigers, said of Fielder, “He showed us a video of him wrestling a professional sumo wrestler. It was unbelievable. Prince just chucked the guy across the room.”

The players today are especially big and strong. The Mariners’ Nelson Cruz “will hit the longest home run in baseball history one day,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said a decade ago. Cruz hit a ball so hard in spring training many years ago, then-Rockies left fielder Ryan Spilborghs said, “If I’d caught it, the momentum of the ball would have carried me through the left-field fence, leaving only an outline of my body like you see in the cartoons.”

And there there’s the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, who once, on a checked swing, missed the ball, and the bat snapped in two in his hands. “That was unbelievable,” former pitcher Orel Hershiser said. “I’ve only see that one other time in my life — by Bo Jackson.”

And now we have Judge and Stanton together.

Judge is, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the biggest position player — 6-foot-7, 282 pounds — ever to play major league baseball. Last year, he routinely hit balls to places no one had ever gone before.

“I took BP for eight years at [the new] Yankee Stadium, and I never hit a ball to center field where he hits them all the time,” said Mark Teixeira, who hit 409 career homers. Ken Singleton, who has played or has broadcast major league games since 1969, said Judge “hits the ball harder than any player I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Stanton is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds. When he was with the Marlins, Baker said, “He had this tiny waist. And he had this incredible leg strength. He had a 40-inch vertical jump. That was the highest in the organization. He could hit a ball farther and harder than anyone, and jumped higher than anyone.”

When Stanton took batting practice in spring training as a 19-year-old, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson — an incredibly strong man — was watching. After one round of BP, Dawson said, “That’s the hardest I have ever seen anyone hit a baseball.”

Baker was there that day.

“He hit a home run in an exhibition game that went over the Cardinals’ clubhouse in right-center field,” Baker said. “It was ridiculous. No one had ever seen a ball hit that far. It was like Harry Potter’s wizardly, worldly power. When Stanton got to second base, he stopped running, he looked at the umpire and asked, ‘Was that a ground-rule double?’ He didn’t think he gotten all of it. The umpire looked at him with open palms, as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’ then told him to keep running. When he got back to the dugout, he had no idea what had happened. I said to him, ‘Dude, that ball went 200 feet over the fence!’ “

So strong. Get used to that this year with the Yankees.

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Shin-Soo Choo to play for South Korean club on 1-year, $2.4M contract

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SEOUL, South Korea — Free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has agreed to a one-year contract to play for a baseball club in his native South Korea.

Choo, who spent the last seven seasons with the Texas Rangers, signed a 2.7 billion won ($2.4 million) deal with a Korean Baseball Organization team owned by an affiliate with the Shinsegae business group, the company said in a statement.

Choo, 38, has confirmed the deal.

“I was born in Korea where I was raised and started baseball. I’ve always had hopes in my heart for a long time to play in Korea one day. Now I think it’s time to put into action and start a new chapter of my life,” Choo posted on Instagram. “I might not be able to promise how good I will be, but I promise that I will do my best.”

Earlier this week, E-Mart Inc., the biggest discount store chain in South Korea, finalized deals to take over the SK Wyverns baseball team based in Incheon, just west of Seoul. The team’s name is tentatively called E-Mart Electros, but it could change, company officials said.

“The Shinsegae Group has listened to the voices of Incheon baseball fans who want us to bring Choo Shin-soo,” the Shinsegae Group said in a statement. “[We]’ve been paying attention to his successful career, diligence and steadiness.”

The 2.7 billion won annual salary for Choo is the biggest of its kind in the KBO league. Choo plans to donate 1 billion of that to social charities, according to the group statement.

During his 16-year career, Choo batted .275 with 218 home runs, 782 RBIs and 157 steals in 1,652 appearances. He was selected as an All-Star in 2018. Before the Texas Rangers, he played for the Seattle Mariners, the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds.

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Fresh off Cy Young season, Shane Bieber, 25, would ‘love to dive into’ contract talks with Cleveland Indians

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CLEVELAND — Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber hopes to be talking about a new contract with the Cleveland Indians as soon as possible — maybe even this spring.

They don’t seem to be in quite the same rush.

Earlier this week, Bieber — who at just 25 led the majors in wins, ERA and strikeouts during the shortened 2020 season — didn’t hold back his excitement when asked about potentially meeting with the team about a long-term deal.

“It’s absolutely something I’d be open to,” Bieber said on a video call from camp in Goodyear, Arizona. “In terms of conversations, it really hasn’t happened yet, so that’s something I’d love to dive into and hopefully that will be reciprocated as well.”

On Wednesday, Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations, wouldn’t comment specifically on any planned talks with Bieber while hinting that Cleveland might be able to do something with him in the not-too-distant future.

“We’ve found it most constructive not to talk about individual circumstances with particular players,” he said. “Setting that aside, obviously, Shane represents all the things we would want our players to be, both on the field, the teammate he is, the way he prepares, the way he competes.

“We are hopeful that Shane will be here for a really long time to come.”

Bieber is likely to earn about $575,000 this season — meager for one of baseball’s best pitchers — and he’ll be eligible for salary arbitration after each of the next three seasons. This might be the ideal time for the Indians to extend him, and the club does have a history of doing that in the past with players like Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner in Cleveland.

But money is always an issue for the mid-market Indians, who couldn’t get All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor to bite on a long-term deal and wound up trading him to the New York Mets this winter before he walked as a free agent.

There’s plenty of time to get something done with Bieber, and with numerous guaranteed contracts expiring after this season, the Indians, who have slashed their payroll to $38 million, will be better positioned to lock up the right-hander to a long-term deal.

Antonetti said that future financial flexibility will allow the Indians to bend.

“It gives us a variety of options,” he said. “Part of the reason, if you look at the composition of our roster, it’s a lot younger and at different points in the service spectrum than maybe we’ve been at different points over the last few seasons. I would expect over the next six to 12 months, the guarantees that we will have moving forward will increase and you’ll start to see some of those commitments moving forward.”

Bieber was delayed in arriving at camp after recently testing positive for COVID-19.

He threw to batters for the first time on Wednesday, and manager Terry Francona wasn’t at all surprised by how he looked.

“Like Bieber,” Francona said. “Which is probably what another 30 guys would like to be. He’s such a perfectionist.”

In Bieber, the Indians have a foundational player to build around. He sets the example — on and off the field — for the club, and barring injury, there’s no reason to think he won’t get better.

If he performs the way he did last season, Bieber won’t get any cheaper, which is why it would make sense for the Indians to sign him to a long-term deal sooner than later.

Cleveland knows it has a special player.

“Leadership is something that’s earned by the way you go about your business, and Shane has earned that opportunity to lead because of the way he carries himself, because of the way he works, because of the way he prepares, because of the way he treats people and how much he cares about winning,” Antonetti said.

“And it’s really easy for Tito (Francona) or (pitching coach) Carl (Willis) or for me when young pitchers are coming up and they say, `Well, I want to be great. I want to be the best I what I do. How do I do that?’ And we could say, `Hey, look at Shane Bieber. Do what he does.’ It’s a pretty good example to have in the clubhouse.”

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Throwing live batting practice, an optimistic Shohei Ohtani tops out at 97 mph for Los Angeles Angels

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Shohei Ohtani said he topped out at 97 mph while throwing live batting practice on Wednesday, an encouraging development that further supports the enthusiasm voiced by prominent members of the Los Angeles Angels throughout the offseason.

Ohtani, the Japanese two-way player who hasn’t pitched regularly since the start of the 2018 season, threw against infielders Jared Walsh and Luis Rengifo from the team’s spring training complex in Tempe, Arizona, and stated through an interpreter that his elbow feels “much better compared to last year.” The session came 24 hours after Ohtani hit in live batting practice, which falls in line with the Angels’ plan to not be so restrictive with his usage.

Ohtani, 26, made his highly anticipated return from Tommy John surgery during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season but lasted two starts — recording only five outs — before straining the flexor pronator mass near his surgically repaired elbow, limiting him to only hitting once again.

After a rough summer on both sides of the field, Ohtani set out on an aggressive offseason program in which he put himself in more game-like situations, adjusted his diet, tweaked his weight-training program, collected data to better measure his fatigue and sought counsel from third parties, including, sources said, experts at the popular training facility Driveline.

“We just kind of lift up the hood this offseason and really got down to the nitty-gritty to find out what we’re dealing with,” Ohtani’s agent from CAA, Nez Balelo, said. “And then from there we built him back up and formed a program that we thought was extremely applicable to where he’s at right now in his career.”

The Angels checked on Ohtani’s progress constantly. And as he navigated through his first offseason as the team’s general manager, Perry Minasian continually raved about the reports he received, at one point predicting Ohtani would be “a difference-maker-type player” in 2021. The Angels vowed to keep him as a two-way player and not treat him as cautiously as they might have in prior years.

“The rules are there aren’t going to be any rules,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said shortly after pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday.

The following day, Maddon met with Ohtani and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to lay out the details of a weekly schedule in which Ohtani’s hitting would play off his pitching and also stress upon the importance of transparency.

“I want him to take charge and command his career more, in a sense, and what happens on a daily basis,” Maddon said. “The thing about him, coming from Japan — he comes from such a respectful background where I think authoritative figures are not gonna be questioned as much as it happens over here. And I wanted to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m good with this. I want you to know that I want you to tell me what you’re thinking. I don’t want you to hold back.'”

Thirty teams basically coveted Ohtani when he made himself available three offseasons ago. He chose the Angels partly because of their promise to commit to him as a two-way player, then flashed that potential in April and May of his first season — before suffering the torn ulnar collateral ligament that necessitated surgery. While rehabbing, Ohtani remained a productive designated hitter, batting .286/.351/.532 in 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019.

In 2020, though, Ohtani managed a .190 batting average and a 37.80 ERA. Maddon saw a pitcher who struggled to repeat his delivery and a hitter who constantly over-rotated, clear indications, in his mind, of someone who had been taken out of his routine and might have put too much pressure on himself to produce in a limited schedule.

This year, Ohtani said, “I wanna have fun and just feel good out there. And do my job where it’s [needed]. I wanna make Joe use me as much as possible.”

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