Saturday, September 15, 2007

Israel Baseball League players pitching well in the States

Rafael Bergstrom pitching for the Bridgeport Bluefish

Blue Sox pitchers Rafael Bergstrom and Jason Benson were both signed by teams in the Atlantic League after the IBL season ended. Between the two of them they have started four games so far and have done well in each one. Not only is it great to see old league mates do well but it is also validation of the high caliber of baseball that was played in the IBL.

The Atlantic League is a premiere Independent League. Ex major league All Stars Rubin Sierra and Jose Offerman both played in the Atlantic League and they equate the level of play there to be between AA and AAA.

I am a bit ashamed to say I did not think they would do all that well. I can’t say I am shocked but I have been pleasantly surprised. I have followed the games live on radio and studied the stats on the Web, it has been fun.

So here is some basic analysis. The sample size of Rafi and Jason's Atlantic League and even the IBL stats are too small to give serious credence to any deductions derived from the analysis. But it is fun (at least for me) to run some numbers and try to put Rafi and Jason’s work in a broader context.

Rafi plays for the Bridgeport Bluefish and Jason plays for the Lancaster Barnstormers

Jason pitched beautifully in his first start a couple of nights ago. He did not give up a hit until the fifth inning. The only flaw in his performance was his five walks in five and a third innings. Jason does not throw hard (mid 80’s) but has excellent command of multiple pitches and rarely walks batters, so the five walks is atypical for him.

Interesting to note is that neither Rafi nor Jason was the ace of the Blue Sox staff. Juan Feliciano, winner of the best IBL pitcher award, was their ace. Rafi was the number two pitcher and Jason number three. In the IBL Rafi had a 2.44 ERA and Jason had a 4.11 ERA.

Before Rafi pitched a shut out against Modiin in the championship game, I did some analysis that led me to believe that Rafi would not cruise through the game. This is what I saw…

He seemed to become less dominating as the season progressed.
But he proved me wrong, reversed course and pitched a gem to win the IBL championship.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Inaugural season slide show

To view a slide show of the inagural season click here The slide show is best viewed in Internet Explorer.

To download a Power Point version click here. The Power Point version allows the viewer to scroll forward and backwards. Soon I will add comments to the slides. Warning it is over 6 megabytes.

The Inaugural Season

This summer I lived a multi-layered dream. I played professional baseball in Israel, I signed autographs for smiling children and excited adults, I helped to introduce a sport I love to a country I love, and I made friends with ball players from around the world who share my passion for baseball.

I had daily conversations with World Series winning major leaguers, I read about the games daily in both Hebrew and English newspapers, I spent this summer doing what millions fantasize about doing but only a very select few get the chance to do. I lived a dream this summer and while doing so thousands of baseball fans were entertained. It doesn't get much better than that.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a perfect summer. Most of the players were housed and fed at Hakfar Hayarok, a youth village where about 1000 students live and go to school. The facilities were modest at best. The first weeks were rough. There was no place to work out, there was no physiotherapy on campus, the food was inappropriate for the players, the laundry situation was a mess, games were postponed due to fields not being ready, there was no ice for the players, my teammate got hit in the head by a line drive that ended his season, paychecks were postponed for a few days and I played for the Petah Tikva Pioneers which means I felt the pain of losing far too often.

Like I said it wasn't a perfect summer. The players were frustrated. But it did not remain that way. The players and league officials started meeting on a regular basis and changes were made. One by one, things came together and by mid season it was all about playing ball. The frustrations of growing pains were a small price to pay to be part of bringing high caliber baseball to Israel.

I am grateful to have been chosen to be member of a select fraternity that shared this summer breathing life into the dream of bringing professional baseball to Israel.

Judging by the attendance and fan enthusiasm at many of the games there are thousands of grateful fans too and next year there will be more. Wether you hail from or play for Petah Tikva doesn't matter, this summer we were all pioneers.

Now that I am back stateside I keep thinking back on a glorious summer. I see 6'7" Dominican Maximo Nelson in the dugout before the game fooling around with a giggling seven year old bat boy with tzitit hanging from his sides. On the far side of the dugout sits 'Miracle Met' Art Shamsky looking at his lineup card.

I hear a teammate ask if I am finished stretching and ready to have a catch, I see the sun setting at magical Gezer Field while the fans are cheering their beloved Blue Sox. I hear Australian, Dominican, Israeli, American, Japanese and Canadian accents in the dugout, I feel the excitement and tension of being on the mound in a tight game, I see long home runs, diving catches, head first slides and nasty curve balls.

I hear American Israelis explaining to native Israelis the rules and joys of baseball, I see fans davening Mincha (afternoon prayer) by the concession stand, I hear the guys sitting around at night playing cards and talking baseball.

I miss the sound of 'Hatikvah' being played everyday while the Israeli flags waved on the outfield fences. Maybe it was a perfect summer.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Championship Game

The Championship Game

Championship game starting pitcher, 6'7" Maximo Nelson holding the batboy's hand before the game.

Johnny Lopez (.379 BA, 14 HR's) fooled by a Maximo offering. Maximo can bring his fastball at 97mph and then has the chutzpah to snap off a slider that can make a good hitter look helpless.

Bet Shemesh starting pitcher 6'5" Rafael Bergstrom (Rafi) pitched a magnificent game. He went all nine innings giving up only five hits and no walks in his shut out. Behind Rafi is third baseman Jim Peirce, focused and ready in case a ball is hit his way.

Jim Pierce delivers a peice of a broken bat to the batboy. The bat broke and flew into the infield.

Miracle Manager Art Shamsky before the game. Art was always generous with his stories about his playing days.

Blue Sox manager Ron Blomberg relaxing before the game. Ron is a great guy. He is positive and freindly to everyone that crosses his path. His favorite saying, "how is it going big guy"

Blue Sox have great fans, loyal and enthusiastic.

Raanana pitcher Esequier Pie (on the left) and Netanya Shortstop Hector De Los Santos enjoying the game with the crowd. Hector shared the best defensive infielder award with Tel Aviv third baseman Nate Fish. In my opinion, Esequier Pie has the best "stuff" in the IBL. He needs more time to mature. Not sure if he will but if he does he can go a long way.

IBL co-MVP (Hank Greenberg Award winner), Gregg Raymundo sliding into second in hopes of disrupting a double play.

Blue Sox celebrate

Monday, August 20, 2007

Pribble deserves it too

Juan Feliciano

After the championship game last night the league handed out awards to the top performers in the league. The award for best pitcher in the IBL in 2007 went to Juan Feliciano (JF). JF is a great pitcher. He throws a variety of pitches, has good movement on his pitches, hits his spots, changes speeds and hits 93 on the radar gun. He also played in the major leagues of Japan, he is an elite pitcher. Now that I have given JF his deserved respect I can say with a clean conscious that I believe that Aaron Pribble (AP) should have received the award or at least shared it with JF. The best batter award was shared between Gregg Raymundo and Eladio Rodriguez, so the idea of sharing an award is not unprecedented.

AP is a pitcher on the Tel Aviv Lightning. He is a 6’5” lefty who pitched for the division one University of Hawaii and went on to pitch successfully in the pros. He throws a fastball in the 80’s (tops out at around 87), has a great changeup, superb command of his pitches and he is smart. He is Glavine Lite.

Here is a why I believe he was the best pitcher in the IBL this season. First, every statistic has its shortcomings. They are all flawed in isolation. They gain value when viewed in context and support of other stats. But some stats are more valuable than others and often the baseball community attaches high value to weak stats and low value on more meaningful stats. For example a pitchers win loss record is pretty meaningless to me. A weak pitcher on a great hitting team can end up with a good record and a strong pitcher on a weak team can end up with a losing record (Andrew Morales had a 4.47 ERA, eleventh best in the IBL and had a 1-6 record). Wins and losses are the ultimate statistic in evaluating a team, not a pitcher. The good news is that JF and AP both won 7 games and though AP lost 2 and JF lost 1 there won lost records should not differentiate there performances.

ERA is not perfect stat by any means but generally speaking it is a valuable measure of pitcher effectiveness. AP led the league with a 1.94ERA and JF had a 1.97ERA. Both great and very similar so again not a differentiator.

My guess is that JF was given the award because he gave up only 28 hits in 50 innings while striking out and impressive 73. AP gave up 44 hits in 60 innings and struck out 57. Opposing hitters batted a mere 160 versus JF. Against AP batters batted a meager 203 which is extremely low but JF’s 160 is absurdly low. This is a differentiator. The 73 strike outs in 50 innings is also incredible and though AP had 57 strikeouts in his 60 innings it is simply not as sexy as 73.

Strikeouts and even more so strikeout to walk ratio can be a valuable scouting tool for determining if a pitcher will succeed. But once a pitcher has proven he can succeed without the gaudy strikeout numbers (in which case walks must be low) it becomes an exciting stat but not one that should be given much weight. Interestingly, AP’s k/bb ratio is slightly better than JF’s.

So why am I on a “give it to Pribble” campaign? Because AP faced significantly stiffer competition than JF and emerged with a slightly better ERA. Over 45% of the at bats against AP were facing Bet Shemesh a team with a 294 batting average and an extra base hit every 9 at bats. In the 28 innings against Bet Shemesh Aaron yielded only 3 earned runs (0.96ERA) gave up only 19 hits and beat them all four times he faced them. JF never had to face Bet Shemesh, the next best hitting team he had to face was the Tel Aviv Lightning. Tel Aviv batted 282 and hit an extra base hit every 15 at bats. 36.6% of the at bats that JF faced were against Tel Aviv. In contrast to AP’s domination of Bet Shemesh, JF gave up 15 hits in the 16 innings against Tel Aviv and yielded a very good but not dominating 7 earned runs (3.93 ERA).

Furthermore, only 17% of the at bats against AP were from the two weakest hitting teams (Raanana and Petah Tikva) as opposed to JF who faced them on 28% of the at bats against him. JF never gave up a run to either Petah Tikvah or Raanana, AP gave up one run to Petah Tikvah, none to Raanana.

Lastly, Leaguewide AP faced a 277 batting average while JF faced a 270 batting average.

So, who was the most effective pitcher in the IBL this season? I say Aaron Pribble, though I could make a good argument for both Juan Feliciano and Aaron Pribble to share the honor.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Pioneers are breaking new ground

Under our new manager we are 4-4 and have won 4 of our last 7. We are playing like a reborn team under a positive manager, Tony Ferrara. He is a knowledgable, confidence building, unifying presence in the dugout. So take our low batting averages, High ERA's and weak fielding past and chuck them in the trash. The Pioneers are breaking new ground and ready to win the championship.

A couple of things. Ken Holztamn has gone home. He had some issues with the league and players and it was decided that it was best for all if he were to step away from the league.

Also, our 4-4 record under Tony does not include an unfortunate forfeit loss. The forfeit came after a player of ours, in the first inning of a scorless game could not accept a mind numbingly bad call by the umps. He was so upset that after being tossed from the game he decided to protest by not leaving the batters box. This is old news and for another blog entry.

Celebrating a win over the Miracle

Arrow (Aaron Rosdal), on the right and Seth Binder getting ready to bat. Arrow has incredible speed and a good glove, Seth is a great athlete.

Chopper (Dustin Melanson) get out of the way of an inside pitch

Big Daddy (Ryan Crotin) ready to pounce on a pitch during HR derby

Michael Olsen, our 18 year old catcher has excellent physical tools

From L to R - Butts (Ryan Butkowsky), Amo (Andrew Morales), Al (Alper Ulutas) and Schwartzy (Adam Goldman)

Feeling good after a win

Monday, August 13, 2007

Update on my pitching

Here are some interesting stats on my pitching. It is hard to say I have pitched well with an ERA above 7.00. But, it might not be as grim as it looks and here is why.

I have appeared in 15 games thus far (incidentally this is the most in the IBL.) Of those 15 appearances I have started 4 games and relieved in 11.

Batting average against me in those 11 relief appearances is .172
Batting average against me in my last 5 relief appearance .074
Batting average against me in my 4 starts is .355

Below is a chart demonstrating the gap between my relief and starting appearances as well as the improvement over the season.

Also interesting is my success against the mighty Blue Sox line up. I have pitched six innings against the Blue Sox and have given up only one hit and no runs. On the other hand, my pitching against Raanana, not a strong hitting team, has been terrible.

So what does it all mean? Well it demonstrates that so much of pitching is psychological. I never know when I am coming in to relieve. I am told to go warm up and I come in when I get the call. The second half of the season I have literally been lights out relieving no matter who I have faced. Starting is a whole different animal. I know a few days ahead of time that I will be starting and I do a lot of research on the hitters and develop a plan for the batters. I spend the days before a start thinking pretty much incessantly about the upcoming game. It turns out that this doesn’t work for me. Perhaps I over think and get to fine with my plan for each batter, perhaps the buildup gets me too tense. I am not sure, but I am starting Wednesday’s game and will be taking a different tact. I will only pitch the first three innings so I can be available for the playoffs. By the way, don’t count the Pioneers out, we might go all the way.

I also spent most of the season reworking my whole approach (mechanical as well as philosophical) to pitching. In the process I walked too many hitters and before I knew it I could not find my way back. Finally, with the exception of one bad outing where my arm muscles kept cramping up (deltoid and bicep of throwing arm, weird)I have solved that problem during second half of the season.

So I have shown lately that I have the “stuff” to be successful in this league, I just have to learn how to manage my approach to starting and leave the first half of the season walkathon in the past.

Winding Down

The season is winding down. By this time next week the first IBL season will be in the books and most of the players will be on planes heading home. Yesterday at the game I was trying to take in as much as I can knowing that soon it will just be a memory. Tomorrow is our last scheduled game at Gezer. I love that place. I say this as a romantic, a lover of baseball and of Israel.

As a pitcher…it has to be one of the least friendly parks ever created. A rough field where bounces take balls in many unpredictable directions, a non uniform slope upwards towards the outfield fences that are 280 feet down right field line and 316 to left. Gezer is the land where many routine fly balls have become homeruns. There is more but I think you get the picture.

But I will miss baseball here. The fans are enthusiastic, the field is situated among sunflower fields and rolling hills. I was talking to Ron Blomberg before a game at Gezer and he looked at the hills in the outfield and said “these are the hills of King Solomon.” Games usually end around twilight to beautiful sunsets. Some of my favorite moments this summer are going into the seats after a game to sign autographs for excited kids while watching the sun set. It is the field of dreams, it is perfect.

Twilight at Gezer

Homerun Derby at Gezer

Autographs at Gezer

You can see many great IBL pictures here

Thursday, August 2, 2007

IBL Observations


The first two weeks of the season (June 24th – July 6th) there was an average of 1.98 errors per team per game. The second two weeks there was an average of 1.16 errors per team per game. This is staggering improvement in a very short time. The reason? We had no spring training, never played with our teammates and had some jitters. I looked up what the average errors per game are for an A level minor league team in the states and found that the average Southern Atlantic League team commits 1.33 errors per game (nine innings) this year. Considering that the field conditions are superior in the states the error rate in the IBL is in range for what was expected for the caliber of play. Why did I do this bit of analysis? Well I noticed that the sloppy play both in terms of physical errors and mental errors has diminished greatly and I wanted to confirm and quantify my hunch.

The next step would be to check the error rates at each venue and see if playing at the various fields, which are vastly different in quality, effects the error rates. Analysis for another day.

Diverse Talent

Coming into the season I assumed the Dominican players would dominate the IBL. There were approximately 170 players, all with professional experience invited to the tryouts in the Dominican Republic. Over a two day period 16-18 of the players trying out were signed. Some of the players were top prospects in the US pro leagues and had there careers stymied because of visa issues not performance issues. These include Maximo Nelson of the Yankees clocked at the IBL All Star game throwing 96MPH and my teammate Abel Moreno who was the number 3 prospect in the Angels organization and whose change up was considered tops in the Angels system. He also throws in the low 90’s. Juan Feliciano another Dominican pitcher played last year in the Japanese Major League and has an impressive repertoire of pitches including a 93 mph fastball. Then there is Julio Guerrero, Vladimir’s brother, whose pedigree alone can make a pitcher shutter. I could go on but I hope you see why most assumed the Dominicans would lead the league in just about everything.

This is not what happened. Looking at the league leaders what jumps out at me is diversity. Below is a list of the top 10 batting and pitching leaders with there associated nationalities.

I am impressed with the Australians. I did not realize that there is high quality baseball coming from there. Currently there are over 80 players in the USA minor leagues hailing from Australia and at least three major leaguers.

As expected, the group that is struggling are the Israeli’s. Approximately 12% of the players came from the amateur Israeli league and the goal is to expose them to a higher caliber of baseball in order to elevate the knowledge and play in Israel.

BB’s and K’s

One thing I find puzzling is the high rate of walks being issued. The league is averaging 5.9 walks per 9 innings. The pitchers in the IBL could not have survived in their previous playing experiences with such an astronomical walk rate. So what happened to them?

Some can be attributed to the Israeli pitchers who lack the experience of their league mates. But even without the Israeli pitching, the rate is still far more than I would have expected. Take for example Abel Moreno, he issued just 54 bases on balls in 272 innings in the minor leagues for the Anaheim Angels. In the IBL he has issued 21 walks in the 27 innings he has pitched. A couple weeks ago we were sitting in the dugout together and he started venting about his struggles. He did not understand why his command has suffered.

I too have had severe issues with control. For me though, it is clear why. First I had a lack of confidence in my stuff so was scared to put anything over the plate. Then my approach to pitching was completely altered through some discussion with my manager and pitching coach. The reworking of my pitching was a flop that cost my team and myself a high price paid in bases on balls. After the All Star break I changed back to my original pitching style but with some added insights and so far it has worked beautifully. I imagine my experience is not unique and that other pitchers have struggled with confidence and reworking of mechanics.

There is another possible reason. The hitters are not that comfortable. A couple weeks ago an umpire told me he has never seen so many pitches being taken. When batters are taking marginal pitches there will be more walks issued. On the flip side, if this is true there should be an abnormally high rate of strikeouts as well. Turns out there are, there are 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched in the IBL. So why are batters taking so many pitches?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Desperatley Needed Win
The Friday game ended in a 1-1 tie. Games that end in a tie in the IBL are determined via home run derby. This idea is hard for me to accept but it is exciting for the fans and I was pretty tense myself. During the game we had five hits, three came from Ryan Crotin. Then he helped us win in Home Run derby to earn our second victory. It was great to get another desperately needed win. The picture below show’s our elation.

Painful Loss
Sunday’s game was brutal. It impacted me more than any game thus far, it was devastating. It was a seesaw battle throughout the game. The game only went six innings because the umps called the game due to darkness. There are no lights at this new field and games start at five pm. So if play is prolonged there is a chance for a game to be called on account of darkness.

In the bottom of the sixth and final inning we were down 8-7 and we proceeded to load the bases with no outs. Now I am almost positive we have at least a tie game as it is very rare to get out of that type of situation unscathed…but it gets worse. They switch pitchers and the new pitcher proceeds to throw three consecutive balls. So now we have bases loaded, no outs and a 3-0 count. At this point I am willing to wager a substantial sum that we will win this game. It is too painful for me to recount the specifics that follow. It is enough to say that we joined the very rare company of teams that were not able to score a run in the situation.

The loss was extra tough on me because I was the losing pitcher. I am trying to adapt to a revamped style of pitching that Kenny is encouraging me to employ. I don’t trust the approach and ended up walking four guys in just over three innings and as often happens the walks came back to haunt the team. Without going into the details of how my style is being changed the essence is that I threw nothing but fastballs and my groundball to flyball ratio was 7-1. Batters went 2-12 off me which is good, I just have to trust the style of pitching and not try to be so fine, the walks are a killer.

It is hard to lose game by one run but when you lose the game due to errors, bonehead plays and walks it really hurts. As an example, the fourth inning Netanya run comes to mind. With runners on first and second a ground ball is hit to the second baseman. He picks it up and throws to the shortstop covering second base. The runner who was on second notices the short stop not paying attention and runs home. Kenny was not happy and the Short Stop was benched on the next game. The run should never have scored but I am equally to blame as the runner initially got on base via a walk that I issued.

Pitching on Sunday

Big Win
Last nights game was beautiful! For some reason it all came together for us. Our hitters that usually struggle hit well. Alper pitched a shut out and it felt good to cruise through a game for a change. Baseball is a crazy game! Ryan Crotin and Ben Dashevsky our two consistant hitter go 0-6 while the rest of our line up, who combined is batting around 150, goes 10-21, go figure. So we have won two of our last three games and tonight we have Abel on the mound against the hot hitting Miracle.

Israeli National Anthem

Fans at Gezer

Out at Home

Discussion with Kenny