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Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Brewers, Hoffman and more

by Matt Smith

January is almost over and whilst wishing away months isn’t the best approach to life, it’s understandable with the first of the year.

It normally throws up bad weather and travel problems as well as keeping you in the gloom of days beginning with going to work in the dark and then coming home in the dark too.

But most of all it doesn’t offer much baseball, other than some glimmers of light from places like Australia.

Once we cross over into February we’ll be in the month that MLB.TV prices are announced, teams start reporting back to their Spring Training camps and this year even will be the first month when teams start playing their Grapefruit/Cactus League schedules.

So long January, there’s baseball to be getting on with.

Milwaukee making moves

If you had the Milwaukee Brewers down as the team to get the Hot Stove bubbling again you were looking pretty smart on Thursday.

The Brewers not only revamped their outfield by signing Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, they made the NL Central and Wild Card race a considerably more exciting prospect.

Milwaukee surprisingly spent 60 days at the top of the NL Central last season before the Cubs predictably nudged past at the end of July.  Their second-placed finish ahead of the St Louis Cardinals paled against the similarly surprising Minnesota Twins winning an AL Wild Card at first glance, yet the Brewers finished a win ahead of the Twins (86 to 85) and fell victim to a higher level of competition for the second NL Wild Card than was needed in the AL last year.

The lengthy loss of starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson to a shoulder injury put a dampener on the end of the Brewers’ 2017 and initially affected their hopes for 2018, but the team haven’t let that hold them back.

It’s always great to see a smaller market team such as the Brewers coming out of a building phase with some quality young players and then having a go for it. The excitement of their 2008 season when they traded for CC Sabathia mid-season and just fell short in the NLDS to eventual World Series champs the Philadelphia Phillies is still fresh in the memory – so much so that it was a bit of a shock to find it was a full ten years ago when looking up the details.

They pulled off another big trade in December 2010 when they acquired Zack Greinke from the Royals and then made it to the NLCS in 2011, losing 4-2 to the Cardinals.  Lorenzo Cain was one of the players the Brewers traded away in that deal, which makes his return as a free agent all the more special. Milwaukee didn’t do badly out of that trade by any stretch of the imagination, yet their fans still would have watched Cain – as well as Alcides Escobar – win a World Series with the Royals and think of what might have been.

The same may happen with Lewis Brinson, the talented young outfielder who highlighted the package they sent to the Miami Marlins for Yelich.  However, largely gone are the days when you could swing a lopsided trade for a quality Major Leaguer like Yelich.  If you want to get someone good, you have to give up a good package to do it.

The Brewers judge that they have a shot at the NL Wild Card over the next few years and are doing exactly the right thing by making a group of deals – another one or two may well be forthcoming giving their outfield logjam – rather than just making one addition and stopping there.  There’s no guarantee it will work, but it’s increasingly feeling like some Front Offices are using the lack of any guarantees – and therefore the potential for fingers to be pointed in their direction at a trade or free agent signing going wrong – as a reason to merely tinker around the edges.

You can’t get relegated in MLB so the worst that can happen is things don’t pan out, you trade some players a couple of years down the line and build again.  I love what the Brewers are doing and will continue to hold that view regardless of whether it works out for them over the next few seasons.

Hall of Fame results

Although Trevor Hoffman ended his MLB career with a two-year stop in Milwaukee, everything thinks of him as a San Diego Padre.  Few in North America would link him to Great Britain either, but we had a personal reason to cheer his election to America’s National Baseball Hall of Fame this week alongside Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero.

Hoffman was part of the 2016 Great Britain World Baseball Classic coaching staff and you won’t find anyone involved in the national programme saying anything other than great things about his contributions.

I started watching baseball in 1998, so I have a strong connection to the excellent Padres team of that year – Tony Gwynn, Greg Vaughn, Ken Caminiti, Kevin Brown, Andy Ashby etc – that was so ruthlessly swept aside in the World Series by a New York Yankees team that ranks as one of the greatest of all time.

Hoffman only pitched in one game during the Fall Classic, taking the loss in Game Three, and that gets to the heart of the hardcore stattos being unimpressed by his election to Cooperstown. Hoffman was a closer who racked up huge numbers of saves, a role and a statistic that many analysts put little store in nowadays when evaluating performance.

I understand the argument, yet it doesn’t take into account the important point that the Hall of Fame is not simply determined by who were statistically the greatest players, otherwise there would be no point in deciding election by a vote.  It is there to recognise historic and memorable contributions to the game.  During the era in which he played, I always saw Hoffman and Mariano Rivera – who few would argue against being a first-ballot election next year – as consistently being the two leading lights in their role as closer.

To say saves didn’t matter, and that Hoffman being the first ever player to reach 500 then 600 count for nothing, has an analytical validity but doesn’t reflect how the vast majority of baseball fans enjoyed his career at the time.  It’s a personal choice for someone to disregard that, yet it’s also a personal choice to decide to take that into account.

Hoffman always stood out to me in part because any appearance or reference to him always led to Baseball on 5 presenter Jonny Gould mentioning that the pitcher’s mother was British. We don’t have all that many links to Major Leaguers, so that always made him a player to watch out for even if he wasn’t on your own team.

Now we can say we have a direct GB link to Cooperstown. I wonder if there will be a Union Flag or two at the ceremony this summer?

The Gouldfish Hall of Fame show?

Given the ever-present Chipper Jones figure that Braves-fan Gould ensured was always on the Baseball on 5 desk, the Hall of Fame announcement sparked the first time this year, and far from the last, that I thought of their MLB coverage with a smile.

Maybe Josh Chetwynd and Dave Lengel can convince their old pal to do a special one-off podcast for the Cooperstown weekend?!

GB pitcher signs with the Cubs

Further on the Great Britain theme, Michael Roth – member of the Great Britain 2012 and 2016 World Baseball Classic teams and the 2014 European Championships – has signed a Minor League deal with the Chicago Cubs.

The former College World Series hero for South Carolina has never quite kept hold of a Major League job in short Big League spells with the Angels and Rangers.  He pitched in Triple-A last year for the Sacramento River Cats (Giants) and Durham Bulls (Rays) and likely will be stationed at that level with the Iowa Cubs this season.

Roth qualifies for the GB squad by virtue of his mother being British. His GB stats can be found in the Project Cobb archive.

Hardball Times Annual -free to download

I had been searching for news on the 2018 Hardball Times Annual for a while, not finding either the new edition available anywhere on the usual book websites or anything on Fangraphs/Hardball Times to say the annual has ceased to be.

It turns out that the Annual is still alive and well but is now being released digitally.  And for completely free!

I’ve reviewed the 2010 and 2011 editions in the past – I think I stopped reviewing them just because they are always great so wasn’t much more to say – and a quick check of my baseball book shelves shows that I’ve been buying it consistently since 2006.  You really can’t beat it for a strong collection of baseball writing, from reviewing the previous season to research articles, history and – new for this year – a baseball fiction section.

Honestly, I always prefer a physical book but if this is the best way to keep the annual going then that’s fine with me. It’s well worth downloading and diving into during February.

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Nigel Underwood January 28, 2018 - 10:19 am

Lovely piece Matt and totally agree about January! As crazy as it sounds, as I’m laying in bed reading with the sun shining through and a nice breeze blowing it does feel like spring is on the way, and with it baseball! Let’s go Mets!

Matt Smith January 28, 2018 - 12:04 pm

Thanks Nigel. Yes, it’s unseasonably mild where I am too today. Must be a good sign!

Roly January 29, 2018 - 7:03 pm

I always bought the Hardball Times annual and thus never bothered with Baseball Prospectus. Is that similar Matt, ie is it worth getting if you already read the Hardball?

Matt Smith January 29, 2018 - 7:24 pm

They’re quite different books. BP is a bit more fantasy baseball based. It goes through all 30 teams with a good essay then stats and comments on all of the players, plus additional sections such as a prospects top 100. Both very good, but different approaches


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