This has been the busiest spring training in memory — and it has nothing to do with the action on the field. Baseball has been buzzing with talk of sign stealing and commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling of the Houston Astros‘ transgressions, a proposed change to the playoff format and trade rumors involving some of the game’s biggest names.
ESPN baseball reporters Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez made the rounds during media day at the Cactus League in Arizona, asking managers and GMs for their takes on some of the hot-button issues.
How are you addressing sign stealing as spring training opens?
Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns: “This is a topic of conversation in every clubhouse, and it’s a topic of conversation with every fan base. And through these conversations, I think there’s an awareness of it. I don’t know that we’re necessarily doing anything systematically different than we have in the past, but there’s certainly an awareness of it.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “We’ve been working on getting a handle on multiple sign systems, and probably getting some type of card that [the pitcher] and the catcher have to be able to kind of choose which system they use, and can be able to change it at any point in time, whether it be within an at-bat or change of an inning, whenever they want.”
Oakland Athletics GM David Forst: “I don’t know that we’re doing anything differently. We’ve had these concerns for the last couple seasons, not only going into Houston but other places. I think Bob [Melvin] and the catchers, the pitching staff, I think they’ve had an ongoing conversation about how to change this up or how to do it. I don’t think this is something new that has to be addressed for the first time.”
Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto: “It’s not like sign stealing is new to baseball. This is a much different thing, but we have adopted multiple sets of signs, we changed them very frequently, and made sure that we never got too stale. I remember coming up as a player, you had one set of signs on Opening Day and you didn’t change the signs again until the All-Star break, and through the year you’d go through two sets of signs. We’re doing four and five a game, just to make sure that there’s a constant flow.”
Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward: “Making sure our guys abide by the rules. We’re very aware of what happened with the Astros. Obviously that was probably the height of how bad you could do it. But teams are always going to try to get away with as much as they can. So we tell our guys, ‘Let’s not even border on getting close to the [line].’ Teams are going to get as close to the line as they can. We do that in other ways as far as just preparing, trying to do the best we can with the numbers and do everything we can with our players and our staff to give ourselves the best advantage. But in that way, a line’s been drawn.”
San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler: “You don’t want to get too far out in front until we know exactly what the rules are, as far as video and things like that. I feel it’s our responsibility to be versatile and be able to protect our signs, and besides that, we’re just waiting to hear the rules.”
Chicago Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: “You have a responsibility to protect yourself from legal sign stealing. That’s on us. You can’t blame that on anyone else. We have to be vigilant. It’s important to classify those things differently. The real-time, trash-banging stuff, you can’t have that, but if it’s based on the night before or the last start or whatever, that’s legal and we have to come up with ways to prevent that.”
What is your preferred playoff format?
Major League Baseball is considering a new playoff format that would add two more wild-card teams in each league, with the top team in each league getting a bye and the other six teams playing best-of-three series.
Forst: “My preference is to go back in time and get rid of the one-game wild card the last two seasons. … We [the A’s] obviously are victims of that game three times now. I’m open to any proposal that changes that format.”
Dipoto: “I think more teams in the playoffs is a good thing. I vote yes. That’s fun. It’s fun to imagine more teams competing. I go back to 1994, as an active player — when they went to the new three-division leagues and added a wild card, who had ever heard of such a thing? It was, like, blasphemy. And it made the postseason so much more exciting. I don’t see why the next layer isn’t going to do the very same thing.”
Tingler: “I just want to see the Padres in it.”
Woodward: “I’m all for more teams, not because our team right now doesn’t grade out as a top-three team. Regardless of whether I had the best team in baseball or the worst team in baseball, it’s healthy for the game. We do it in other sports.”
Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell: “It’s something I thought about for sure. One idea I’ve had for years is making the first round longer, a best-of-seven. I like the wild card. It’s been good, but if there is a way to improve it, I’m all for it. More playoffs is a good thing.”
Stearns: “There’s a benefit from a competitive balance standpoint to having more teams in the race. That’s clear. It’s potentially going to lead to strong engagement, it can help out in some other areas as well. I certainly understand the purist argument that increasing the number of teams potentially dilutes the regular season. I’m still digesting it. … I’m interested to hear the debate on this. I’m glad we’re thinking about these things. As an industry, we haven’t been great at implementing change.”
Roberts: “I think an ideal playoff format, for me, is three seven-game series. I think that the wild-card system, as is, is great. But that first division series should be seven games. I just think that over the course of a seven-game series, it shows the better team. I just think it’s harder to steal a series.”
Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore: “I view it real simple. This is my 27th year in pro baseball. I grew up in the game very traditional. Whatever the commissioner says, we do. Whatever the rules are, we do. I wasn’t for instant replay. I wasn’t for interleague play, but I don’t get caught up with it. If the commish says this is best for baseball, then we’re going to work like heck to make sure it is the best for baseball.”
Hoyer: “I would lean toward maintaining the importance of the regular season. That’s what makes baseball special. It matters. The marathon is really important. The more playoff teams we have, the more we sort of get away from that a little bit. If we go that route, I would hope they would do something to preserve that, whether it’s making a big deal out of the team that finishes with the best record or whatever it might be. The marathon is why we do this. It’s why we look at the standings every day. We don’t look at the standings every day in other sports in the same way.”
What’s the most exciting thing at your spring training camp?
Forst: “We don’t often get to return the majority of our club. I’m excited that we have a group that knows each other, that has played together, and that can actually build on the previous season, and that we didn’t have to do quite as much turnover this offseason.”
Dipoto: “Watching the young players grow. We have so much young talent. If I were to flash back two years, it’s night and day — what’s happening in our organization, the quality of the prospect system, the quality of the young guys that are at the big league level. I think we’re going to wind up as the youngest team in the American League, and what’s exciting to me is watching them get better every single day.”
Woodward: “The belief. Our group has a lot of optimism. There’s a lot of belief in our clubhouse that we’re gonna be good. And they expect to be.”
Stearns: “I’m excited about our depth as a team. We took an approach to this offseason where we believe we created a really talented roster from 1 to 30 that we think can help us throughout the entirety of the season. I think it’s about as deep a team as we’ve had since I have been here, so I’m excited about seeing that depth come together and seeing some of our different puzzle pieces fit together.”
Moore: “We have great energy and a hunger with our players that, truthfully, I haven’t seen over the last couple of years. Mike Matheny is a tremendous man and great leader. We had an interesting offseason. We’ve had an ownership change and a managerial change. The neat thing about our ownership group is they live in K.C. or have strong ties to K.C. That gives us a competitive advantage going forward. They don’t view this as an investment. They view this as a mission.”
Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn: “We’re on the precipice of an extended run of success. This rebuild was never aimed at jumping up and winning for just one year. It was aimed at putting us in a position to contend for multiple years. From our standpoint, we view this as just a start.”
Bell: “What’s exciting in camp is the culmination of a lot of different work over the last couple of years putting this foundation together. It’s the excitement of having a player from Japan [Shogo Akiyama] and the media that comes with that. It’s added an element. And veterans like [Mike] Moustakas and Wade Miley and Nick Castellanos.”
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon: “We have several great athletes, I’m finding out very quickly. There’s more there than I knew. Billy Eppler has done a wonderful job in the draft. We have athletes. It’s very interesting.”
Roberts: “The one thing I’m most excited about in our camp is to watch Mookie Betts every day.”
Agent Scott Boras says MLB draft limits send ‘wrong message’
Agent Scott Boras believes the agreement reached between Major League Baseball and the players’ union “sends the wrong message” when it comes to possibly shortening the draft and limiting the financial pool for amateur players.
Under terms of the agreement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has the discretion to shorten the 2020 draft from 40 rounds to as few as five rounds, sources told ESPN. And he also has the right to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds.
“For owners to do this to these young men, who are so passionate about baseball, is something that they need to examine their conscience,” Boras told USA Today Sports in a story published Friday. “More kids will have to go to [college]. And anyone not taken among the top 200 players will have to go back to school.”
Sources said players drafted in 2020 will get only $100,000 of their bonus this year. The remaining amount will be split into payments made in July 2021 and July 2022.
“I’m a big proponent of college, so I want these kids to get their education, but what really bothers me is that kids outside the fifth round deserve their bonuses,” Boras told USA Today Sports. “And now they’re freezing their [bonuses] for the next two years, and are paying them late.”
He later added: “I just think in this climate and this environment, you should keep the status quo. You’re sending a message to drafted players you are major league baseball’s step-child. It’s unconscionable to me for that small amount of money. We’re talking about a whopping $6 million savings over the whole damn draft.”
Boras said that by cutting the draft, teams will suffer.
“In reality, you are going to be surrounding [established] players with less-caliber players now,” Boras told USA Today Sports. “They need 10 rounds to fill their minor-leagues teams with talent. A sixth-round high school talent is a good player. An eighth-rounder out of college is a good player. They can be All-Star players. Now, they’ll be back in school.
“Really, we’re not giving them much of a choice.”
Tim Kurkjian’s baseball fix – Mom’s birthday, and how she almost cost my brother a home run
You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 1924, my mother, aptly named Joy, was born. Today is her birth and she turned 96.
She really had no chance in our house against her three boys, who loved and played the game, and her husband, who loved it more than anyone I have ever known. My mom was born in Bournemouth, England, and lived there until her early 20s. My dad loved my mom so much, the only time I saw him disagree with her was when she said that a bowler in cricket throws harder than a pitcher does in baseball.
“Joy, stop!” my dad said at the dinner table in 1968, soon after the historic Game 1 of the World Series. “No cricket player throws harder than Bob Gibson!”
My mom and dad went to all the games played by my brothers at Catholic University. The baseball and football team shared the CU Stadium in the 1970s. The right field stands were 250 feet from home plate. The ground rules were unique: any ball that landed no more than halfway up the stands was a double, any ball that landed beyond that was ruled a home run.
So my beloved mom was standing on the dividing line of the stands in 1974 when my brother Andy, who broke all the home run and RBI records at CU, hit a line drive into the stands. The ball hit my mom in the shoulder, and fell into the doubles area.
The umpires conferred. The ball had landed in the doubles area, but if it hadn’t hit that woman (who was the mother of the hitter), it would have been a home run. It was ruled a homer.
My dad, who knew my mom was physically tougher than he was, made sure my mom’s shoulder was OK, then jokingly told her, “What are you doing? You almost cost the kid a home run!”
Other baseball notes from March 28
In 1958, Hall of Fame outfielder Chuck Klein died at age 53. He is the only 40-40 player in history. In 1930, he hit 40 home runs and had 40 outfield assists.
In 1970, Ron Fairly hit a home run in the All-Star Game. He would finish his career with the most career homers (215) by anyone who never hit 20 homers in a season.
In 1986, in the last significant trade made between the Yankees and Red Sox, the Red Sox sent DH Mike Easler to the Yankees for DH Don Baylor. Easler was an ordained minister. The deal was agreed to on Good Friday.
‘What even is that pitch?’ An oral history of Kerry Wood’s 20-K day – Chicago Cubs Blog
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 6, 2018 for the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game
It was an otherwise nondescript day. In fact, it was a forgettable one. Overcast and rainy, the Cubs were hosting the Houston Astros in an early May matinee. School was still in session, so just 15,758 fans were in attendance. How many stayed to see history is unknown, as the rain picked up throughout the day.
That didn’t stop 20-year-old Kerry Wood from a magical performance. He produced the highest game score in baseball history, posting a pitching line of 9 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 20 K’s. He did it with a dynamic fastball and a slurve, which the Astros would call unhittable. Here are the memories of some of those involved, including Wood. Current Cubs pitchers Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks add their two cents as well after watching the highlights in arguably the greatest-pitched game in Wrigley Field history. It was May 6, 1998 — 20 years ago.
Kerry Wood: “I remember specifically having low energy that day. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a day game or the overcast skies. I was dragging at the ballpark. It wasn’t jumping right away, the way I wanted. I felt sluggish.”
Cubs manager Jim Riggleman: “I do remember him saying that after the fact. He didn’t have a great warm-up.”
Astros second baseman Craig Biggio: “Our minor league [scout] said, ‘Hey, he has a good fastball, OK curve and be patient with him.’ We watched him warm up, and it was like, ‘OK, no big deal.’ Then the game started, and the kid put on his Superman costume, and the next thing you know, he struck 20 of us out.”
Wood: “I was all over the place in warm-ups. I was erratic. Every other pitch in the bullpen, I was getting another ball because I was throwing it to the screen or bouncing it in. I didn’t throw one strike. The first pitch of the game, it didn’t change. I hit [plate umpire] Jerry Meals in the mask. I didn’t have the feel.”
Plate umpire Jerry Meals: “To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen again. It’s the first pitch of the game, so things start going through my head. ‘Is there something I need to be addressing? Is there some bad blood? How do you get crossed up on the first pitch? What the hell is going on here?'”
Wood: “I went to 2-0 on Craig Biggio, then struck out the side. I absolutely surprised myself. After the first I felt great, but I had zero of those feelings warming up.”
Biggio: “He had a nice, smooth delivery. The ball was electric. I could relate it to [Craig] Kimbrel. He’s got that ball where he throws it and it pops in the glove, and it’s heavy and hard and firm. He was on.”
Jon Lester: “In that game, it wasn’t a lot of long at-bats. You see a lot of swings-and-misses and takes, not a lot of foul balls. Nowadays, you know the spin rate and all this stuff, that would have been plus-plus. That’s the biggest thing, the way those pitches broke.”
After four innings, Wood had eight strikeouts. An infield hit by Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez ruined any chance of a no-hitter, but by then, he was locked in and thinking about a complete game.
Wood: “Bagwell’s second at-bat, I know I get to 3-1, and I throw hook-hook and buckle him back-to-back. After that, I knew I had a chance to finish this.”
Meals: “He had everything working. He had a good-hitting team just baffled. They were flailing on the breaking stuff and couldn’t catch up to the fastball.”
Kyle Hendricks: “The movement on his pitches was incredible. What even is that pitch [the slurve]? I don’t know how you snap that off. No clue. You can just see how much spin is being created. Those guys didn’t have a chance.”
Biggio: “We didn’t have the technology they have today. Now you know everything about a guy. What he throws, how hard and stuff like that. You got everything. And you can go look at your at-bats as the game is going on.”
Lester: “The only information you had back then was facing the guy.”
Riggleman: “Somewhere around his 13th strikeout, [third-base coach] Tom Gamboa said, ‘You know how many strikeouts he has?’ It became interesting. … I didn’t know 20 was a record.”
Meals: “The weather turned crappy in the sixth. The grounds crew did a good job.”
Wood: “My goal was not to walk anyone. That’s what I heard my whole minor league career and my short time in the big leagues: Just don’t walk anyone. In a 1-0 game, I was just focusing on not putting the tying run on base.”
Biggio: “We’re one swing away from tying the game, so we’re not thinking about the strikeouts. But when you go out there, you see the fans throwing up the K’s, and you’re like, ‘Holy shoot, how many strikeouts does this guy have?’ You start counting them up. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … I think they ran out of K’s.”
During one stretch, Wood struck out five in a row looking.
Wood: “With two strikes maybe they thought I was trying to trick them with off-speed, so a lot of those fastballs were them not pulling the trigger, thinking off-speed.”
Hendricks: “The fastball is obviously electric. It rides up in the zone. A few of these breaking balls to a lefty, it goes up and in to him. The spin rate would have been unbelievable. It makes it more fun to watch, without all those stats on the screen.”
Biggio: “We had 102 wins that year. That was no weak lineup. He carved us up like we didn’t belong there.”
Riggleman: “This is probably a little bit of an indictment of everyone that managed in that period, I was probably thinking like 135 pitches for him. I have to let him try and finish this thing.
“I didn’t want to take him out with men on base. That’s when you give life to the other club. Maybe at the end of the inning. I’m not sure we ever got anyone up though.”
Wood: “Being from Texas and following Roger Clemens, I knew he had the major league record, but it’s not one of those numbers you think is attainable. … I didn’t know how hard I was throwing or how many pitches I had thrown. We didn’t have that back then.”
Riggleman: “There were games [in which] after six or seven [innings], he had 13 or 14 strikeouts, the pitch count was high, and we would take him out. I would get booed like crazy for taking him out. Later, when he was hurt, it was, ‘Oh, you pitched him too much.’”
Wood: “In the seventh inning, I thought the umpires might call it for a moment due to rain. And I knew at that point, if there is a delay, I’m done. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t call that game.’”
The Cubs scored an insurance run in the eighth, giving them a 2-0 lead. Wood had 18 strikeouts yet still did not know he had a chance at a record.
Wood: “I remember thinking in the eighth inning I just wanted to get back out there and finish this up. We scored another run, and I know I just wanted the inning to end. A young player should want his team to score as much as possible.”
Lester: “That would be so hard now. I don’t know if you’ll see 20 again in the future. With bullpens and specialization. … He was very unique. How big and tall he was and he had the levers working. When you think of Kerry Wood, you think of someone special.”
Biggio: “He hit his spots and made his pitches that day. It was just a man amongst boys right there.”
Wood (on getting strikeout No. 20 against Derek Bell): “His first swing in that at-bat, I knew I could throw the rosin bag up there and he would swing at it.”
Meals: “I was thinking about almost calling a no-hitter. The crew chief pointed out he had 20 strikeouts. I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention to the fans holding up the K’s.”
Wood: “My fist-pump on the mound was about no walks and completing the game. I hugged [reliever] Terry Adams and say something to him, because before the game, he said, ‘Hey rook, why don’t you pitch more than five innings. You’re killing us.’ But no one said anything about 20 strikeouts.”
Meals: “[Umpire] Terry Tata was at first base. He says, ‘You had 19, I had one.’ Because he rang one up on a check swing. That was when I realized 20.”
Wood: “Thirty seconds after it’s over, they bring me over to the camera, and my hands are shaking. My adrenaline is racing. That’s when I found out I struck out 20 and tied the record. I didn’t have anything to say, though.”
Biggio: “You’re bummed out you lost, but 20 punchouts is pretty amazing.”
Riggleman: “You meet a lot of people that say they were there that day, but it was a rainy day in May. Maybe it was 18,000.”
Hendricks: “And to do it that young. He must have been in one of those once-in-a lifetime zones.”
Riggleman: “[Former Cubs] Billy Williams and Ron Santo were at Wood’s game that day and said that it was even more dominating than Sandy Koufax’s perfect game [against the Cubs in 1965]. They were at that one, too. You could make a case, as old as that stadium is, that could be the greatest game anyone has ever pitched there.”
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