Monday, April 30, 2007

From Nine Corners of the Earth

One of the aspects of sports that I love is once a team walks between the lines of the field all players are equal. It matters not whether the person is rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Jew. They become one unit with a common cause, they work together to achieve the same goal. As a coach or player, I don’t know anything about the socio economic background of my players or teammates, it is irrelevant. Ties to the world all melt away on the ball field. During games the only world that exists is the world contained by the chalk lines and the nine innings (or seven in the case of the IBL). The world beyond the game is temporarily suspended.

Today I learned who my Pioneer teammates are. They hail from the Dominican Republic, Australia, Israel, Canada and the USA. That’s five of the nine countries from which the IBL signed players. The Pioneers include African American, Spanish and Caucasian players. They include Christians and Jews. They include the two oldest players in the league who will be pitching to their teenage catcher.

They were gathered from around the world for two months to share a home in Israel and a field in Petah Tikva. They were gathered to introduce the grand sport of baseball to the uninitiated and entertain the initiated.

…and I get to be one of the players. I must be one of the luckiest guys on earth.

Lets Play Ball!

To the right are the flags of the nine nations that the IBL players come from. They are in the order shown, Australia, Israel, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Ukraine, USA, Venzuela and Japan.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Yarkon Rivalry?

While I was looking at the satellite images of Israel I noticed that Petah Tikvah's Baptist Field and Tel Aviv's Sportek Field are both located on the Yarkon River. Actually, Baptist Field is about 200 yards from the Yarkon and Sportek Field seems to be right next to it.

For those who don't know, the Yarkon River is Israel's largest coastal river. It originates in northern Petah Tikvah and flows into the Mediterranean sea in Tel Aviv 16.7 miles later.

Is this the foundation of a rivalry in the Israel Baseball League? Maybe the Pioneers vs. Lightning games should be referred to as the Yarkon series. With that said, I propose that the team that loses the season series or the first game they play against each other must row from their home field to their rivals field. I am not sure if this is logistically possible, but worth checking out.

Click on the image below to view a larger version

Photos of the Yarkon River photos are fron here and here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Israel Baseball League Field Work

Using Google Earth and Emap I tracked down pre-renovation satellite photos of the baseball fields at Gezer, Tel Aviv and Petah Tikvah.

While doing the research I noticed that the altitude above sea level of the fields are as follows, Gezer - 395ft, Baptist Field (Petah Tikvah) - 78ft and Sportek (Tel Aviv) - 24ft. It got me wondering, how much more will the ball carry at the Gezer field as opposed to the Sportek Field which is right on the Mediterranean Sea?

I found this information from the book titled the Physics of Baseball. A ball that would travel 400 feet in "normal" conditions goes:

  • 6 feet farther if the altitude is 1,000 feet higher

  • 4 feet farther if the air is 10 degrees warmer

  • 4 feet farther if the ball is 10 degrees warmer

  • 4 feet farther if the barometer drops 1 inch of mercury

Using the information above, with all other relevant criteria being equal, a ball hit 400 feet in Tel Aviv will travel approximately an additional 2.5 feet at Gezer. So if you see a home run clear the fence at Gezer field by a foot or two you know there was a reasonable chance it would have been caught at the Sportek

Click the images to view a larger photograph

Gezer Field

Baptist Field

Sportek Field

See the map below to view the field locations in the context of the country.
Israel fields

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Exposing the Israel Baseball League Player

Using the 64 player profiles currently listed on the IBL website I organized the information and below are the results.

Favorite Foods

Some of the foods mentioned could be added to the categories. For example, Eggplant Parmesan could have been added to the Italian category, Nachos and Tacos could have been added to Mexican and Humus, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Israeli food could have been combined with Falafel. Also, Pasta and Pizza could clearly be combined with Italian. But I decided to be a purist and only tally the exact words used.

Favorite Movies

Rocky III got one vote so I guess the Rocky series wins with five votes. Major League received two votes and Major League II received one vote so the Major League series totaled three votes which could have made the list. Others receiving two voters were The Big Lebowski, Borat, Pulp Fiction, The Natural, Batman, Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Bull Durham.

Below are player averages broken down by position

The Average Pitcher is:
Height - 6 feet 1 inch
Weight - 192 lbs
Age - 26.5 years

18 Righties
9 Lefties

The Average Outfielder is:
Height - Almost 6 feet
Weight - 186 lbs
Age - 26.3 years

Infielders (including catchers)
The Average infielder is:
Height - 5 feet 11 inches
Weight - 183 lbs
Age - 23.8 years

Should the Israel Baseball League's Home Run Derby Rule affect how team's drafts players?

First let me define what I understand to be the Home Run Derby rule. When a game is tied after seven complete innings of play (games in the IBL will be seven rather than nine innings) the winner will be decided by a Home Run Derby. I do not know the specific rules of the Derby, but assume it will be some abridged version of the Major League pre All Star game Home Run Derby.

To calculate whether a team should alter their drafting strategy with this new rule in place a variety of issues must be considered. Here are a few key ones that came to mind.

1) How often is Home Run Derby expected to occur during a season?
2) What attributes does a master of Home Run Derby possess?
3) Can these attributes be summoned reliably when needed?
4) Do these Home Run Derby attributes coincide with the standard desired attributes that are sought after in valuable baseball players?

How Often?
In the Major Leagues approximately 8% of games go into extra innings. Being that games in the IBL will be shortened to seven innings the 8% should rise a bit but for the arguments presented the rise is negligible. If we apply the Major League data to the IBL’s 45 game season then Home Run Derby will happen on average between 4-5 times in a season for each team. On the one hand this might seem like a small number, on the other hand, the team that does not reach the playoffs by a game or two might look back at a Home Run Derby loss as a pivotal opportunity lost.

What Constitutes a Derbymeister?
What attributes does a Home Run Derby master possess? It might not be as obvious as you think. The IBL drafters making the choices do not have past Home Run Derby data to rely upon. I am not convinced that having such data would serve the purpose anyway. Understandably, the drafters will most probably place past power numbers as the prime quality a top notch derbymeister must possess. This is reasonable, but a couple things need to be considered.

Home Runs in real games do not correlate as consistently as one might think to Home Run Derby home runs. Take the MLB’s 2005 Home Run Derby as an example. It was won by Bobby Abreu who had 24 home runs during the season while Mark Teixeira came in next to last while having 43 home runs to his credit during the season. Last year, Ryan Howard won both the Home Run Derby as well as the regular season home run title. But digging a little deeper reveals that David Wright came in second last year while having 27 home runs on the season. Troy Glaus came in dead last and had 37 home runs in the regular season.

Does Size Matter?
Another option one might consider in order to sniff out a potential derbymeister might be size. Without much data on IBL players one might form a conjecture that player size plays a substantial part in Home Run Derby success. Not true, though there is some correlation it is weak. 2005 Derby champion Bobby Abreu weighs 210lbs, David Wright weighs 200lbs, Miguel Tejada won in 2004 weighing 213lbs and Garrett Anderson won in 2003 weighing 190lbs. Not small guys, but not in the same category as Troy Glaus - 240lbs, David Ortiz - 230lbs.or Albert Pujols – 230lbs.

Can the power that hitters demonstrate during regular season games be summoned consistently when needed for Home Run Derby? The answer is, not really. Looking at past Major League Home Run Derby’s one can see that players that do great one year might not perform well the next year. As mentioned earlier, Miguel Tejada won the Derby in 2004 and came in next to last in 2006.

Raw Power vs. Consistent Power
Another interesting point to ponder is the difference between raw power and consistent power. For example, Willy Mo Pena is known to put on an incredible show in batting practice by hitting monster home runs. Additionally, two years ago he hit both the longest and second longest recorded home runs in the National League. Last year he hit two of the top eight longest home runs in the American League. Clearly, Pena has tremendous power but it does not translate perfectly to real game consistent power. Though Pena can hit long home runs he does not challenge his teammate David Ortiz’s consistency (a home run every 10.3 at bats last year). In other words, raw power is not the same as consistent power. Consistent power is crucial to being a derbymeister. For the draft there is not much to go on to evaluate consistent power as opposed to raw power. Available player stats are weak and the tryouts too small a sample size. This point is really only worthy once the team’s hitters have been viewed in batting practice.

Overlap of Skills
Lastly, how much overlap is there between desirable player attributes and derbymeister attributes? If they possess the same desired qualities then there is not much reason to consider a player for his Derby prowess potential. I believe, for the most part, this is the case. Power is desirable whether extra innings or the Derby rule is in play. Differences in skill sets might be speed, glove and arm. One can move like a turtle, have a little league glove and no arm to speak of and still be a phenomenal derbymesiter. But chances are if a player is in the draft to begin with, he must have reasonable skills beyond a powerful bat.

Don't Do It
In conclusion, drafting a player for his Derby potential will probably disappoint if other skills are being sacrificed to get the player. Considering that a team will probably play in approximately five Derby games coupled with the inconsistency demonstrated by Major League Derby participants, drafting a player because he might be a potential derbymeister is an unwise gamble. Draft the best balanced team and when Derby time rears its head at the end of seven innings, roll the dice with the teams best batting practice power hitters.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Velocity Shlemocity

Often, when people hear that I am a pitcher, their first question is “how fast do you throw?” As a pitcher, coach and avid student of the art and science of pitching for well over a couple decades it pains me to answer the question. Answering with a quick two digit number makes me an accomplice to stripping the craft of pitching to the point of being naked in a New Hampshire snowstorm. It is unfair and cruel.

It is actually a reasonable question. It is just that it forces me into an answer that over simplifies what comprises an effective pitcher. I believe people ranging from baseball laymen to major league scouts over value velocity. Don’t get me wrong, velocity is a key to effective pitching, but it is given too much weight.

The most important element to effective pitching is command of the fastball. Just like in real estate, location is critical. Hitters would rather see a fastball at 90 mph waist high over the middle of the plate than an 85 mph on the black low and away. I just saw Tom Glavine of the Mets open this MLB season on Sunday against the Cardinals. He threw his fastball between 82-84 mph (he hit 86 twice) and the Cardinals scored only one run in six innings. Let me put that in perspective, the average MLB fastball is 90 mph, 83 mph is a good high school fastball.

To bring my point home take a look at these stats from last year. The pitcher with the slowest average fastball in the National League last year was 21 year veteran Jamie Moyer (he started the year in the American League), second slowest was four time Cy Young award winner Gregg Maddux, fourth was two time Cy Young award winner Tom Glavine. In the American League it goes as follows, the second slowest pitcher was last years All Star game starter and World Series game winner Kenny Rogers, fourth slowest was Cy Young award winner Barry Zito and sixth was the perennially formidable Mike Mussina. These "slow" throwing guys are some of the top pitchers in the world. All the while, the minor leagues are loaded with guys who can throw well into the 90’s and will never throw a pitch in the Major Leagues.

So, why are people obsessed with velocity? The same reason they love fast cars, the dunk, the knock out punch and the home run. It is exciting and macho. It speaks to the testosterone part of the love affair people have with sports. And yes, I am guilty of loving it too. I enjoy throwing a splitter in the dirt that the batter chases. I enjoy throwing a curve that freezes the batter like a deer staring into headlights. But there is nothing like rearing back throwing the high hard one and watching the batter swing through it while the ball pops loudly in the catchers glove, dust fly’s from the mitt and the ump signals strike three!!! God, I love that!

In reality it is very rare to have the kind of fastball that a pitcher can blow by a good hitter at will. Typically, a pitcher that throws hard will have success until they enter a level in which it no longer works, then they are lost. A pitcher who throws 90mph probably breezed through every league they played in through high school and even many colleges. Then suddenly throwing 90mph over the heart of the plate doesn’t work any more. Instantly, they need to make adjustments or they fail. Unfortunately, this type of pitcher has had so much success with their fastball that often their instinct is to try and throw harder to work their way out of trouble. That approach does not work. When pitchers try to muscle the ball they will most often either lose velocity or incrementally increase the velocity at the expense of movement and location, this is a terrible trade off. Another reason it is not a good idea to muscle up is that it increases the probability of getting injured. When the experienced pitcher gets into trouble, ala Glavine, he will take something off a pitch or throw within his usual velocity range but make sure to throw a good pitch. A good pitch means it is located well, moves well and has good deception or any combination of the three. The pitch will have reasons behind it. Every pitch is sensitive to context; this is how a good pitcher can make a batter look silly on a 72 mph pitch.

Now that I have exhorted my views on how velocity is overrated, let me sing its praises. No pitcher in his right mind would ever turn down MPH on his fastball. Velocity allows a pitcher to make mistakes and get away with it more often than a soft tosser. A pitcher with command and great velocity has the potential to be superstar. Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens had command (of more than one pitch) and great velocity, which is a horrifying combination to batters. I would also like to clarify that guys like Glavine, Maddux, Zito, Rogers and Moyer excel at the Major League level not only with great command of their “slow” fastballs but they have splendid secondary pitches. Glavine has a great changeup, Maddux has devastating movement on his sinker and a excellent changeup, Zito has an incredible curve ball and a good changeup, and Moyer has a superb change, good curve and an uncanny ability to mix his pitches so that batters are constantly off balance. Lastly, there is a limit to how slow a fastball can be while still maintaining its place as the foundation of every pitchers repertoire. I don’t believe a pitcher can survive in the Major Leagues without a fast ball that is at least in the low 80’s, and that is a rare breed.

So at the risk of sounding like a wise guy, next time someone asks me how fast I throw I might tell them fast enough to make hitters swing ahead of my changeup.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Why is playing baseball in Israel meaningful to me?

Why is playing baseball in Israel meaningful to me?

Let me explain...

Grandpa and Baseball
My grandfather, Abraham Alexenberg, was a pitcher and his big brother Ben was a catcher. When I was twelve years old I asked Grandpa if he ever hit a guy with a pitch, and if the batter charged the mound. He said it happened once but Ben, who was strong as an ox, was the catcher and grabbed the batter before he could get very far. Grandpa told me that Ben always took care of him. I wondered how amazing it must have been for the brothers to share a ball field and the game they love.

Grandpa was born in Woodbine New Jersey in 1906 and lived there until he was an adult. He was six foot three and had a large frame. His father, my great grandfather, immigrated to the USA from Odessa in the Ukraine to escape the pogroms. I never met my great grandfather, but I am told he was taller than my grandfather. I saw him in a few pictures standing very proud, looking strong and handsome. Woodbine was a small agricultural village of Jewish immigrants. Grandpa was one of eight children. He had four brothers and three sisters. He was the second to youngest. The brothers all played baseball.

My grandfather played semi pro ball and was offered a pro contract with the Brooklyn Robins but bursitis in his shoulder, the low pay for pro ball players and the tough life the minor leagues presented for a Jew in the 1920’s made his decision to pursue dentistry the more practical choice. As it turned out, the great depression came and he was forced to abandon ambitions of an education to make an immediate living. Around 1980, I went with grandpa to visit Burke, one of his older brothers. Burke must have been around 80 years old and was blind. As we left, I hugged Burke goodbye and he held my arm and told me that back in the day Grandpa was one hell of a ballplayer. My grandfather overheard and declined the compliment saying it was Burke that was the best of the brothers. I still love imagining what it must have been like, a bunch of brothers playing baseball in a small Jewish immigrant farming town.

Grandpa was a quiet man and extremely modest. I would ask him about his baseball playing days and he would typically respond with one sentence. I could never get a conversation going. But he loved to play catch with me and regularly showed me how to throw a knuckleball. He also enjoyed watching baseball on TV and took me to many Met and Yankee games. I have fragmented memories of games. I remember Grandpa pointing out Harmon Killebrew when the Twins were at Yankee stadium. I also remember Roy White scoring a run in that game. Another time, after a post game subway ride we took a long walk through the city streets of New York. It was late in the afternoon on a warm summer day we were on our way to a deli. Just Grandpa and me, I had a Pastrami sandwich.

Israel and Holland
When I was almost eight years old my family moved to Israel and shortly thereafter my grandparents moved to Florida. On our way to Israel in the summer of 1969 we stopped in Holland for a few days. My mother’s family is Dutch and my aunt, uncle and cousins lived in Amsterdam. My great great grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dunner , was the chief rabbi of Holland. Most of my mother’s side of the family were murdered in the Holocaust. It was in those few days that I was first exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust. My uncle’s parents gave him to a gentile family so that he would survive the Holocaust. He was four years old and spent most of his time in silence in an attic living on left over foods like potato peels. I asked my father why Mom’s family didn’t just leave Holland before the Nazi’s got them. He explained that they believed Hilter was a madman contained in Germany, and that his insane ideas would never come to fruition.

As the plane approached Israel the passengers began to sing joyous Hebrew songs. This did not happen when we landed in Holland. When the wheels touched the ground my mother burst into tears. It was scary and I asked my father why mom was crying. With an intense look and a few words he conveyed to me that we just completed a journey, not of a few hours ride from Europe but of a couple thousand years from the four corners of the earth back to our homeland.

During that week I experienced a Jewish history lesson that permanently instilled in me the depth of value that Israel has to the Jewish people. Anyone who reads the ancient Jewish texts will repeatedly be reminded that Israel has always been the Jewish homeland. But it became real and practical the second we landed. Most European Jews had no place to escape the Nazi's. Many of the surviving members of my mothers family now lived in Israel. Israel is the hope realized; a strong nation with a growing economy, bustling with innovations founded on a deep functioning democracy. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kahn, my great great grandfather (on my fathers side), left the Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania to attend the Fourth Zionist Congress in 1900 in London. He never returned, after his studies in London and Paris he moved to Boston and eventually opened a Hebrew book store on Coney Island Ave in Brooklyn. My family has a letter in Yiddish written by him telling of his experience at the zionist congress. To him Israel was a dream for me it is a dream come true.

Baseball, Israel and Grandpa
During my “Little League years” between the ages of eight and twelve I lived in Israel. Though there was no baseball in Israel back then, I would often throw a tennis ball against stone walls and field the erratic bounces pretending I was making great plays. When I was almost twelve years old we moved back to the states for four years. I spent every opportunity playing stickball with my best friend Yitzie. We were observant Jews and because Yeshiva ended late and we could not play on the Sabbath we did not have the opportunity to play in organized leagues.

My love of the game never waned and the summer I turned 24 years old I decided to tryout for an amateur league in Boston. I could fill a book with the trials and tribulations I endured learning how to pitch as an adult in competitive leagues. Eventually, I learned that it took more than throwing a good fastball somewhere around the plate to succeed at a high level. Unfortunately, by the time I figured out how to harness my talent, I had a family to support and was “too old” to pursue a pro career. I continued coaching and playing over the years. I played ball and coached from little league through division one college ball at San Diego State University, one of the best programs in the country.

When I was told that a pro baseball league was starting in Israel I felt excited but then the cruel irony gripped me. I had missed the opportunity to play pro ball because I grew up in Israel before baseball was being played there and when I returned to the states I could not play because games were played on the Sabbath. Now there was a pro league in Israel that does not play games on the Sabbath and I seemed too old to play. In a further irony, the first tryouts were being held in Massachusetts, a mere couple hour drive from my home. My wife, as she did as my girlfriend over 20 years earlier, encouraged me to tryout. Though I knew I could still pitch at a high level I told her it was ridiculous, that they would never consider a 45 year old. The tryouts came and went. When I heard that the next tryouts were being held in Petah Tikvah, ten minutes from where my parents and two siblings live, I started feeling like the universe was giving me signs. I was being given a second chance to play the game I love, in a country I love. If I did not at least go to a tryout, I would regret it the rest of my life. My father understood what was happening and called to tell me he was booking a flight to Israel for me. On a beautiful day on a ball field in the center of the country I pitched my heart out. Dan Duquette, the past general manager of the Boston Red Sox was watching and it was he who would decide if I was worthy of a contract. After completing my tryout Dan sat next me in the dugout and asked me a few questions. A few days later I received an email congratulating me on making the cut! If anyone told me a year ago I would be playing professional baseball in Israel and would be signed by Dan Duquette I would have laughed at the adsurdity. Life truly is stranger than fiction.

I possess both an Israeli and American passport. I was told I would need to play under my Israeli passport for tax reasons. I had not seen my Israeli passport in many years, finding it would require a major search. After looking in the attic for quite a while I finally found it resting in a folder with an old relic from my childhood. The relic was a printed roster from a spring training game that my grandfather took me to in Florida in 1974. Though I was only 13 years old, I remember that day like it was yesterday. Jim Mason, a no power, light hitting shortstop for the Yankees hit a 400 foot homerun and Walt “No Neck” Williams made a spectacular catch in the outfield. I kept that roster because on the back I had received the autographs of two old time greats, Roger Peckinpaugh, the American League MVP in 1925 and Hall of Fame member Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto. I turned the roster over to see who played that day and the first name that caught my eye was Ron Blomberg. I will be sure to bring the roster to Israel this summer for Ron Blomberg to autograph. Ron will be a manager in the Israel Baseball League, he might be my manager. I wish my grandfather was still alive. I can only wonder how he would have enjoyed seeing me share a ball field and the game I love with Ron Blomberg.