Mike Ilitch had a nondescript career as an infielder. Signed by Detroit in 1952, he was assigned to Class D Jamestown where he played alongside Coot Veal and Charlie Lau. Veal went on to play shortstop for the Tigers. Lau went to the big leagues as well, then became a legendary hitting guru.
Ilitch spent four years in the low minors, then became a pizza magnate and a beloved owner of two sports franchises in his hometown. On Friday, he passed away at the age of 87.
Ilitch opened his first Little Caesars in 1959, and in 1982 he bought the Detroit Red Wings. Ten years later, he bought the Detroit Tigers. All three have thrived under his ownership.
Little Caesars is the third-largest pizza chain in the United States. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup four times from 1997-2008, and have reached the playoffs for 25 years running. The Tigers have gone to the postseason five times in the last 11 years, and their lowest attendance over that stretch was 2.46 million.
What will happen now that the patriarch of the Ilitch empire is gone? Forbes estimates that the family is worth $6.1 billion, so the money is there if 51-year-old Christopher Ilitch, who is now calling the shots,follows in his father’s footsteps and keeps the purse strings open. MLB doesn’t have a salary cap (the NHL does) and the Tigers currently have one of baseball’s highest payrolls. Unlike some owners, Mike Ilitch was more interested in winning than he was in filling his own coffers.
Christopher Ilitch is unlikely to do things much differently than dad. But that doesn’t mean changes aren’t on the horizon. The Cabreras, Kinslers, V-Marts, and Verlanders are no longer spring chickens, and the farm system is anything but vibrant. A rebuild seems inevitable, regardless of expenditures, and it will likely begin following the 2017 season. In the meantime, the Tigers will chase a World Series title in memory of Mike Ilitch.
When I interviewed him last summer, Cardinals outfield prospect Harrison Bader told me that he has “a pretty concrete understanding of how a swing is going to work.” It’s hard to argue. The 22-year-old University of Florida product has an .822 OPS since St. Louis selected him in the third round of the 2015 draft. Riding on a fast track, he reached Triple-A midway through his first full professional season.
He hit a speed bump upon his arrival in Memphis. Bader slashed .231/.298/.354, with just three home runs, in 49 games following his promotion. The power outage was notable, as he’d gone deep 16 times with Springfield in 318 at bats.
Eric Longenhagen raised concerns about Baden’s future thump in his Cardinals prospect list a few weeks ago. According to our in-house scouting expert, “Bader has plus bat speed and some raw power, but it’s hard for him to utilize it in games because his swing is so flat and linear.”
My interest piqued, I asked Baden for his perspective.
“Quite frankly, I’ve taken some pretty-non-linear swings through the zone,” said Bader. “I’ve gotten lift on the ball. But as fast as the pitches are moving, it’s really difficult to be that fine with your swing. My only goal is for it to be strong and aggressive. I do try to stay flat through the zone. You don’t want to be chopping at the ball, or getting under it. Sometimes it works out well with that flat swing — it results in a back-spun ball that goes over the fence.”
Bader is aware that launch angle data is being studied, but he hasn’t spoken to anyone about it. While he considers himself a student of the game, not everyone explores the science of hitting in the same way.
“Studying the game from a player’s perspective would be drastically different from that of somebody hired out of an Ivy League school into a front office,” opined Bader. “I don’t bring my calculator to the box with me. I just focus on getting into a hitting position to where I can do the most effective damage. At the end of the day, it comes down to understanding your body, and having a feel for the game that you can’t really get if you don’t play it. That’s what I’m trying to perfect.”
The Chicago Cubs announced several promotions on Friday. Among them was John Baker going from ‘Baseball Operations Assistant’ to ‘Coordinator, Mental Skills.’ The new title befits what he’d already been doing. What happens between the ears, and how that impacts physical performance, became a focus for the 36-year-old Cal-Berkeley product not long after he was hired 14 months ago.
As far as former backstops go, Baker is more of a Moe Berg than a Yogi Berra. Calling him a renaissance man may qualify as hyperbole (or maybe it wouldn’t), but he’s certainly not cookie-cutter. That much was clear when he brought up one of his pet projects at last summer’s Saberseminar in Boston.
“We use the scientifically-backed practice of meditation with our players in the minor leagues to help them perform better on the field,” said Baker. “We teach guided meditation. Darnell McDonald… that’s his main role with the team. He goes around and leads guys in meditation, and teaches them how to do it on their own. We promote some different applications — iPhone applications, Android applications — for our players to do that.”
Improving focus is a primary objective. Baker spoke of “three-second time windows” where each player on the field should be fully focused on every pitch. Another goal is to reduce stress. That is especially true in environments like Boston and Chicago.
“Kevin Youkilis talks about having been called a truck driver, and the hate he sometimes felt,” explained Baker. “Jake Arrieta told me that he was followed in Manhattan, for 10 blocks, by 60 people. He was with his family. Kris Bryant was telling me he’s having trouble, in Chicago, just leaving the house.
“There’s all of this pressure, so we practice meditation. Why? So we can recognize negative thoughts and let them go, and so we can be fully present for those three seconds. That’s how we teach them to deal with that kind of pressure, stress, and failure. It’s by living right now, in those three seconds, 150-200 times a game, and then going home and not worrying about them any more.”
Nate Jones was confident that his velocity would return. He wasn’t disappointed. In his first full season after coming back from Tommy John surgery — he went under the knife midway through the 2014 campaign —the White Sox reliever regularly rushed his heater to the plate in the upper 90s.
Rehabbing from a repaired ulnar collateral ligament is an arduous slog, replete with a fear factor. That is especially true for flamethrowers. What if the explosive fastball — the weapon that got them to the top — fails to rematerialize?
Jones did his best to cast doubt aside. Rather than dwell on negative what-ifs, he put his trust in the process and eschewed radar gun readings.
“Coming back, I wasn’t worried about velocity,” Jones told me this past summer. “I wasn’t trying to hit a certain number, or anything like that. My focus was on making sure it was quality work, with my mechanics and my direction. If you have that good foundation, everything should fall into place, including the velocity at the end. I just went out there and did the program, and luckily it worked out.”
The righty has a similar attitude when he’s standing on a game mound.
“I’ve never been one to have a feel for just what my velocity is,” said Jones. “I just throw with what I have. If I’ve gone a couple days in a row and it’s only 90 percent of usual, it’s still ‘Boom! I’m going after you.’ I’ve always been like that. Whether it’s 99, 97, or 95, it’s all about what’s in the tank that day.”
Are certain pitch sequences more effective than others? I asked Red Sox manager John Farrell that question recently, and while time didn’t allow for an expansive answer, he did weigh in on the subject.
“Any time you can force a hitter into making adjustments to the extremes that a given pitcher can execute — high fastball to something soft and moving down below the strike zone — you’re creating the greatest difference between velocity and location,” Farrell told me. “Those are combinations that have proven to be successful. And strikes are a priority. So is the appearance of strikes, whether that’s through deception, or release point, or whatever it might be.”
Farrell went on to say that sequencing is something “you talk to pitchers about routinely.” Not being predictable is crucial. Hard up followed by soft down is less effective if the batter knows it’s coming.
“A pitcher has the final say,” said Farrell. “If you’ve maybe established a sense of predictability, you always have the ability to adjust off of it. All it takes is one variation of that predictability, and then all bets are off. You can’t assume it’s going to be the same pitch, in the same count, as in the previous sequences.”
This past Wednesday, we heard from Chase Headley and Ken Singleton on why switch-hitters will occasionally go same side against an opposing pitcher. Not included in the article were Mark Teixeira’s thoughts on that same subject.
The recently-retired Teixeira was better from the right side — an .895 OPS as opposed to .858 lefty — and that’s how he liked to hit against butterflies. Thanks largely to his AL East match-ups against Tim Wakefield, the erstwhile Yankee had 50 right-on-right plate appearances over his long career.
It was a knuckleballer-only thing. If a conventional pitcher was on the mound, he was going to be in the opposite-side batters box. Period.
“You’re just not used to doing it,” Teixeira told me at the tail end of last season. “I’ve been switch-hitting pretty much my whole life, so it’s just not a comfortable feeling when you’re going right-on-right or left-on-left off a normal pitcher. When you’ve been doing something your whole life… that’s just what you do. There’s a reason you’re a switch hitter — to go left against right, and vice versa — so I’ve never thought about doing it any differently.”
Teixeira, who was just hired as an analyst by ESPN — he should excel in his new job —went deep 409 times, and slugged .509, for four teams from 2003-2016.
I missed the news when it came out just before Christmas, but Todd Kalas is the new TV play-by-play voice of the Houston Astros. He is replacing Bill Brown, who retired after three decades in that role. Kalas — reportedly one of 70 to apply for the job — has spent the last 19 years as part of the Tampa Bay Rays broadcast team. His father, 2002 Ford Frick-recipient Harry Kalas, called games for the Astros and the Phillies from 1965-2009.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
The hitting coach for the Brewers Triple-A affiliate is back on the field after recovering from a rare disease. Tom Haudricourt has the story at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the opinion of FanRag Sports’ Jonathan Bernhardt,.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Walter Johnson went 10-2 in games where he pitched 13 or more innings.
As of his 21st birthday, Dwight Gooden was 41-13 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.93 FIP. He’d played two MLB seasons and led the NL in strikeouts in each of them.
Dwight Evans had a 3-0 count 193 times in his career. He put nine balls into play on 3-0, including a single, a double, a triple, and two home runs. In all plate appearances where the count started 3-0, he slashed .426/.813/.721.
In 1912, Home Run Baker of the Philadelphia A’s led the American League in HR (10) and RBI (130). He also had 40 doubles, 21 triples, and 40 stolen bases.
A reminder that the 2017 SABR Analytics Conference will be held March 9-11 in Phoenix. Featured speakers include Jim Deshaies, Jerry Dipoto, Mike Hazen, Jed Hoyer, Bill James, Randy Johnson, and many more.