Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Rookie and the Legend

September 24th, 1966 was Yom Kippur. On that day the two most winning Jewish pitchers in the history of baseball were not at the ball field because they chose to honor their heritage. The pitchers were Sandy Koufax and Ken Holtzman. Sandy is a legend, one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. In 1966 he won the Cy Young Award which is given to the best pitcher in the major leagues. He had also won the honor the previous year and two years before that, he was simply dominating. Today I can say that Ken Holtzman is the winningest Jewish pitcher of all time, he won 174 games, Koufax won 165. I can also say that he owns 5 world series rings, played in two all star games and pitched two no hitters. But in 1966 Kenny, as he is called, was a rookie. I can only wonder what he was thinking and feeling in Synagogue on September 24th, knowing that the next day he was to take the mound against a living legend, Sandy Koufax.

On that Yom Kippur day in 1966 Koufax owned a 25-8 record, he was still on top of his game but his arm was ravaged. He would retire only a few weeks later. The two Jewish southpaws would face each other only this once, the rookie versus the legend.

Kenny was a Chicago Cub and the game was played at Wrigley field so the visiting Dodgers were up first. Kenny took the mound and quickly laid down the Dodgers one two three. In retrospect Kenny seems to thrive under pressure, he has a 4-1 record and a 2.55 ERA in World Series play. The Cubs scored the only two runs they were to get that day in their first try at bat. So Kenny had a 2-0 lead but with Koufax on the mound you had to know that the lead would not grow. In the second inning Kenny was to face the heart of their lineup, the number 3-4-5 hitters. Not a problem, he struck out number 3 and 5 and the cleanup hitter grounded to short. This went on all game. Koufax pitched a complete game giving up only four hits and one earned run. But that day the rookie out dueled the master. After eight full innings, Kenny had not given up a hit let alone a run. If it wasn’t for a third inning walk to Dick Schofield he would have had a perfect game going into the ninth and final inning. As it turns out Schofield was the first batter he had to face in the final inning and he hit a single up the middle. Kenny ended the game with a two hitter and the win. …And that’s the story of the greatest game two Jews ever pitched against each other.

I get to pitch and coach for Kenny this summer. I will get the inside scoop on that game and many others and report back.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Long Live The Changeup

I just watched the Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels throw a gem. He pitched eight innings giving up two hits while striking out eleven and walking only one. He is the National League version of John Santana, a southpaw with an above average fastball and a devastating changeup.

I recently spoke to a group of High School pitchers and said that the changeup is a better pitch than a curve. As I said it I realized it is not really accurate in the absolute sense but I let the statement stand in order to emphasize its value in light of its underappreciated status in the amateur ranks.

Some of the greatest pitchers currently playing have staked the claim of greatness on their changeup. I classify the splitter in the same category as the other traditional changeups such as the circle, palm, fosh etc. The bottom line is that the change of speed is the key deceptive element of those pitches, its movement, though integral to its effectiveness, is secondary to its change of pace. Some of the currently playing greats who rely heavily on their changeups are Cy Young winners Johan Santana, Tom Glavine, Gregg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens (splitter), and on the relief side, Future Hall of Famer, Trevor Hoffman. This of course is an abbreviated list but just looking at those names is impressive. Interestingly, Barry Zito, known for having among the best curveballs in the game, threw more changeups than curves last year.

With the changeup being responsible for so much pitching success, I have been thinking about why the changeup is so undervalued outside the professional leagues. This is what I came up with. Kids (think 12 and under) love to make balls curve, it is magical and hence irresistible. Additionally, making the ball curve will almost always leave a batter who, is uninitiated to the wily ways of the breaking ball, look utterly hapless. Changeups, on the other hand, are not magical on the surface. The magic is unveiled when you are facing a hitter that can crush your best fastball and swings with futility ahead of a pitch that plods through the strike zone at the pace of tractor on the autobahn.

There are other reason little leaguers put the changeup on the back burner. For the changeup to be effective a pitcher needs to establish a fastball. Often little leaguers simply don’t have enough velocity on their fastball to make the change of pace on their changeup effective. Changeups are also counter intuitive for young pitchers. Pitchers learn early that most often the harder they throw the better the results. So asking them to throw a change up, which is essentially a batting practice pitch, is scary. This leap of faith comes with experience and maturity.

The above reasons make sense, but I still believe coaches should teach kids the changeup before the curve. One reason to teach kids to throw a changeup before a breaking ball is health. The American Sports Medicine Institute recommends that kids should be 14 years old (give or take two years) before they start throwing curveballs. Aside from health reasons, the changeup expedites the process of teaching kids to be pitchers rather than throwers. Hall of Fame pitcher, Warren Spahn, said that “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” the change up brings that point home. So first learn to throw the fastball with proper mechanics and control, and then learn the changeup.

Friday, May 11, 2007


A movie maker heard my baseball story, gave my wife his business card and told her that I should give him a call. About a month later I did, we had a couple meetings. The producer thought that not only was the story interesting but I could tell it well. So now they are filming a documentary about it.

The story braids a few interesting paths, each rare unto itself, but the fact that they all come together in one life is unique. The reactions I get from people who hear it, the press and now from the movie makers, have been quite remarkable.

Briefly, this is the deal. I loved baseball and had talent but could not play organized ball because I grew up as an observant Jew and also spent key childhood years in Israel. The first time I played organized baseball I was almost 24 years old. I was a lefty armed with a 90mph fastball and the experience level of a tee ball player. By the time I could harness my talent I had a family and was too old to pursue a baseball career. Along comes the IBL. Thinking it is absurd to start playing pro ball at 45, I skip the first tryout being held a couple hour drive from my house. Next tryout is being held in Petach Tikvah, Israel, the same town where my parents and siblings live. I can resist no longer and fly over for the tryout. Dan Duquette, ex general manager of my beloved Red Sox, watches the tryout and bingo I am offered a contract to play pro ball. There’s quite a bit more but that is it in a nutshell.

camera baseballThey started shooting a couple weeks ago. The plan is to do a lot of filming over the next few weeks and then they will follow to Israel. The first filming was at opening day for the Eagles, a team I play for in Manchester, NH. It was a little nerve racking for a few reasons. First, it was opening day. But I had also been working out over the winter and was eager to test some of the stuff I have been working on against live batters. And of course, I had no idea what to expect with the filming. I also did not know how the team would react with a camera not only following me around but them too.

Everything turned out fine. Warming up with a camera in my face was not what I was used to but I was very focused on the job at hand, and did not really let it effect me. The team also operated as if nothing was happening. As for the game itself, we won 7-0. I pitched the first three innings, gave up no runs, striking out seven but walking three. I could feel I needed to work on some mechanical issues. My goal the next game was to iron out some mechanics and not to issue any walks. The next game I pitched the first five innings giving up no walks or earned runs, unfortunately we lost the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was a sloppy game by both teams. I am in a strange spot. I view my Eagles season as my pre season for the IBL. I want to try and test new things. On the other hand, this is not pre season for the Eagles, so I need to pitch optimally for their sake. I try to balance the two. The one mistake I made was throwing three consecutive splitters and leaving the third one up and in. It was hit for a long double. Luckily, I got out of the inning unscathed.

This is where the filming got a little weird. On Sunday night the film guys came to my house to start interviewing. Though I have no problem talking to the camera, I found myself saying things that if taken out of context can make me sound more than a little wacky.
In a couple weeks filming will be done in Teaneck, New Jersey. My best friend Yitzie and I will go around to the old neighborhood where we grew up playing stickball.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Poetry in Motion

A lefty named Sandy Koufax

The clip is from pitchingclips.com
They have numerous clips of great pitchers.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Draft

After doing a cursory study of the Israel Baseball League draft results I am a bit perplexed. Admittedly, I do not have complete data to review. I don’t have Dan Duquette’s scouting report. But even so, how do guys like Abel Moreno and Efrain Ramos not get drafted in the first ten rounds and how does a guy like Raul Franco get drafted behind 33 other players?

I noticed that I have a Pioneer teammate named Abel Moreno who had no IBL profile. So I googled his name along with the keyword baseball and this is what I found. A pitcher with three years of pro experience in the Angels organization compiling the following stats:

Like I said I don’t have the full story. It might be a different Dominican pitcher named Abel Moreno. His last year with the Angels was 2004, maybe he blew out his arm and never recovered completely. On the other hand, there were over 160 players trying out in the Dominican Republic and most if not all had pro experience and Dan signed him, so he must have some pretty good stuff. So why were there so many college ball players picked before him?

I did not venture much further into this issue but my brief scan led me to check out two more players. One is Efrain Ramos. Efrain played pro ball in the Dominican Summer League (an MLB affiliated minor league) for the Mets last year and had the following stats:

Again, it might be a different Efrain Ramos. If it is the same Efrain, I realize I don’t have the full story which might include information that detracts from his stats in the Dominican League.

With the information I have, I find it curious that certain players were not drafted in the early rounds. My guess is that further research would reveal additional players with professional experience that were not drafted and I don’t understand why.

As a Pioneer I am glad we have the benefit of an overlooked player named Moreno who appears on paper to be quite Abel.