Mid-Season Canadian Report
* 1B Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) is on pace to set the major league record for doubles (67 by Earl Webb of the 1931 Red Sox. With 35 doubles he’s also chasing the NL record (64, held by Joe Medwick of the 1936 St. Louis Cardinals) the Canadian record (52 by Tip O’Neill of the 1887 American Association Browns) and the Reds club record (51 by Frank Robinson of the 1962 Reds and equalled by Pete Rose of the 1978 Reds ….
By Neil Munro
The 2012 season promised to be one of the most exciting and productive in many years (for Canadian players and fans at least). While there have been a few pleasant surprises, serious injuries and some surprising declines in productivity have diminished that enthusiastic outlook somewhat.
What is now an all too common refrain in recent years, Canadians are spending inordinate amounts of time on the disabled list. In fact, a few serious injuries have raised the possibility that some of our brightest stars may be reaching the end of the line in their productive careers.
Joey Votto, coming off his new lucrative contract signing, continues to establish himself as one of the premier batters in major league baseball. The $251.5 million, 12-year deal Votto signed with the Reds is the longest guaranteed contract in major-league history. The agreement adds $225 million over 10 years to his previous contract. The deal includes a club option for 2024, when the 2010 National League MVP turns 41. At this year’s All-Star break, Votto leads the majors in doubles (with 35), on-base percentage (at .469), times reaching base (with 168), extra base hits (with 49) and intentional walks (with 13). He also leads the NL with 65 walks and is once again the runaway leader among first basemen with 87 assists. For those of you who place significant importance in the “Sabermetric” statistics, Votto leads all major leaguer batters in OPS (1.087), runs created (86), offensive winning percentage (.847), batting runs and wins and just about every other mathematical machination you can dream up.
Votto is actually on pace to set the major league record for doubles in a season (although it is highly unlikely he will continue on this torrid two-bagger pace). His targets to aim for in this regard are:
Major League record: 67 set by Earl Webb of the Red Sox in 1931
National League record: 64 set by Joe Medwick of the Cardinals in1936
Canadian record: 52 set by Tip O’Neill of the American Association Browns in 1887
Cincinnati team record: 51 set by Frank Robinson in 1962 and tied by Pete Rose in 1978
Votto was selected as the starting first baseman for the N.L. All-Star team quite handily with a vote total of 7,343,110 (more than 3,400,000 votes ahead of second place Brandon Belt of the Giants). The fact that Belt was runner-up to Votto underlines a controversial story in itself about the current voting system used for selecting the starters for the All-Star game. The Giants catcher, Buster Posey, set the NL vote total record with 7,454,753 votes. He surpassed Votto for the top National League vote count in the last week of voting. Posey might generously be described as being the third best catcher playing in the NL this season (behind Ruiz and Molina). The San Francisco faithful followers tried their very best to elect every one of the Giants starting players to the All-Star starting eight. Pablo Sandoval beat out David Wright (a worthy All-Star having a career year) for the N.L. third base starting spot. The Giants Brandon Crawford (an infielder with virtually no speed or power, currently batting .240) was the second place vote getter among shortstops. Freddy Sanchez (who has not played a game in the majors in over a year) received the fourth most votes of any second baseman in the National League.
For the older fans, this might bring back memories of the ballot-box stuffing fiasco that took place before the 1957 All-Star game. That year, the exuberant Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot boxes and nearly elected their entire team onto the National League’s starting roster. This upset then Commissioner Ford Frick to the extent that he responded by arbitrarily removing Gus Bell and Wally Post from the starting nine to be replaced by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays (you may have heard of them).
Frick also transferred the responsibility for All-Star voting to the players, managers and coaches the next year. In 2012 however, all we got from Commissioner Bud Selig was his observation that, “It was just part of the process.” You can actually vote 25 times for the All-Stars at any computer that you have access to. It appears likely that the vast majority of workers in Silicon Valley are Giants fans. Just for the record, I did take the opportunity to get in my 25 votes for Votto on the MLB official ballot.
Votto’s Cincinnati Reds are in a tight race for first place in the NL Central Division with the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. As things stand right now, there is the strong possibility that the National League MVP will come from the team that ultimately wins this division.
Brett Lawrie has become a fixture at the hot corner for the Toronto Blue Jays following his excellent showing after being called up to the big league team near the end of the 2011 season. Lawrie bounced up and down the batting lineup for the first part of the year until he was positioned permanently in the lead-off spot in mid-May. He was a little wild in the field and on the base paths for the first month or two (Lawrie is just 11 and 8 in the stolen base-caught stealing department and leads AL third basemen with 12 errors at the break). His walk total is down significantly from his 2011 rate (he has just 17 free passes in 327 at bats in 2012). He displays enough power (16 doubles, 8 home runs) and speed to have a good shot at scoring 100 runs this season (the abundance of Toronto sluggers in their lineup will certainly help in that regard). Lawrie also shows great range in the field as he leads all American League third basemen in putouts, chances taken and range factor.
Brett’s season has not been without controversy however. An enraged Lawrie spiked his helmet in the dirt after umpire Bill Miller made some terrible calls on balls and strikes (according to all observers) in a game last May. Unfortunately his helmet ricocheted off the field and bounced up and struck Miller in the right hip, which qualifies as throwing an object at an umpire. Lawrie apologized after the game and said he planned to speak to Miller directly to apologize. He didn’t have to wait long to see the ump again because his third base companion on the very next night was none other than that same Miller, who made the normal umpire rotation from home plate to the hot corner. Miller and his colleagues were roundly booed as they walked onto the field at the Rogers Centre at the start of the game. In the end, Lawrie probably got off lightly with a four game suspension – likely because he did not intend to hit Miller.
Ryan Dempster had a great start to the 2012 season, unlike the previous year when he was hit pretty hard by NL batters early on. Unfortunately, his teammates could not muster much offensive firepower in support of his pitching efforts. Demster’s ERA has hovered around 2 runs per game for most of the first half of the year, and he actually is the NL leader in that department at the All-Star break (his 1.99 ERA is 37 points up on his closest pursuer, Ryan Vogelsong of the Giants). Demster sports a record of only four wins and three losses to date, in part because he has had a few stints on the DL but also from the lack of run support. Only one of his losses happened when he did not pitch a quality start (in a 7-4 loss to the cross-town White Sox on May 19th). He currently sports a 27 inning scoreless streak, dating back to June 5th. Ryan continues to increase his second place rank in most career pitching statistics (for Canadians) although he has no hope of ever overtaking Ferguson Jenkins in most of those categories.
He now has 116 career wins (he also has 119 losses, but he did spend most of his career with losing teams), 2,129 innings pitched and 1835 strikeouts. However, Demspter is also closing in on Fergie’s 997 career bases on balls mark and now sits just 35 walks behind Jenkins. With the Cubs battling hard with Houston and Colorado for the dubious honour of compiling the worst record in major league baseball, it is quite likely that Dempster will be offered up as trade bait as the July 31st trade deadline approaches.
John Axford has fallen off substantially from his reputation as the best closer in the National League in 2011. This development is not really that surprising as relief pitchers are notorious for mixing in great seasons with mediocre results. Axford does have 15 saves at the break, but he also recorded five blown saves as opposed to having two such outings in all of 2011 (when he won the NL: Rolaids Relief Man Award). His ERA has also ballooned up to 4.72 although he is still striking out well over a batter an inning with 49 K’s in 34 1/3 innings. Axford still sports his trademark Fu Manchu mustache which earned him the 2011 Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award by the American Mustache Institute among his other accolades. Perhaps it is appropriate that a Canadian should win an award that was named for another entertainer with Canadian roots. The prospects for Axford and the Brewers returning to post-season play in 2012 (already severely diminished by the loss of Prince Fielder to free agency) appear to be quite remote.
Justin Morneau has bounced back somewhat from his disastrous 2011 campaign, when he struggled to regain his composure at the plate after suffering a severe concussion in 2010. Morneau has 11 home runs and 38 RBI at the All-Star break after posting just four homers and 30 RBIs in all of 2011. His batting average (.246) is down significantly from his glory years but he remains a steady fielder at first base and is still a power threat at the plate. It remains to be seen whether he will ever again display the kind of power figures that he produced from 2005 to 2010. Justin now has 196 career four baggers, which leaves him four away from joining Larry Walker (383 home runs), Matt Stairs (265 HR) and Jason Bay (now with 207 HR) as the only Canadians to reach the 200 career home run level. At least we can say that Morneau is back from his career-threatening concussion and he should have several more years in the majors.
Michael Saunders has finally figured out how to contend well enough with major league pitching to secure a regular spot in the Seattle Mariners’ lineup. His excellent work in the outfield was never in doubt, but he had failed in three previous attempts to post batting marks anywhere close to the ones suggested by his minor league records. At the break, Saunders is batting .257 with 20 doubles, 8 homers and 13 stolen bases (a figure which is tops among the Seattle ball players). I had always predicted that he was capable of hitting 15 home runs to go with more than 20 steals if could make it as a regular in the big leagues. If he maintains his current batting pace, his fielding prowess will assure him of a permanent position on a major league roster for years to come.
Jesse Crain has continued to pitch effectively as a set-up man for the Chicago White Sox relief crew since he joined the Windy City South Side team last year. Unfortuately (as with all too many Canadian major leaguers this year) his time spent on the DL has limited him to just 24 appearances so far in 2012. His record of 2-1 to go with an ERA of 2.38 and 28 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings offers just a glimpse of what might have been this year. He is expected to return to action following the All-Star game layoff and he should reach the 500 games pitched plateau by season’s end. Crain continues to sport the best career winning percentage of any Canadian hurler with a .632 figure (based on 43 wins and 25 losses). Jesse’s five “holds” so far in 2012 have given him exactly 100 for his career, a figure which places him third among Canadians, behind Paul Quantrill (176 holds) and Rheal Cormier (129).
Russell Martin resigned with the New York Yankees for 2012 (a one year deal) and has resumed his role as the regular catcher for the Bronx Bombers. Last year it appeared that his career was back on track after he suffered a severe injury in 2010, but his batting skills have mysteriously seemed to disappear in 2012. He is currently mired in a prolonged batting slump, having managed just two hits in his last 37 at bats. His season batting mark now sits at just .179. He does have 11 doubles, eight homers and 30 walks to keep up relatively respectable slugging and on-base percentage levels. Luckily, his performance behind the plate has not suffered as a result of his batting slump, as he guides the Yankees’ hurlers to one of the best pitching records in the American League.
Erik Bedard signed a one deal with Pittsburgh for 2012 after splitting the 2011 season between Seattle and Boston. He has certainly been on a roller coaster ride with the Pirates this year, and he has not benefitted from their surprise run as pennant contenders. As the openning day starter for Pittsburgh, Erik proceeded to compile a record of just 1 and 4 in April, despite the fact that he had a very respectable 2.48 ERA for the month. He was 3-2 in his next eight outings before dropping four decisions in a row, including a few rough outings in June and July. To date, his record stands at 4-10, with an ERA of 4.80. He is now tied with Tim Lincecum of the Giants for the most losses in the National League (a surprising result in itself). Bedard does have 78 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings, an indication that he still can pitch effectively. On May 3 of this year, in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Bedard struck out 11 in just five innings. That outing marked the 14th time in his career that Bedard has fanned at least 10 batters (and it was the 125th time that a Canadian hurler recorded 10 or more strikeouts in a game, going all of the way back to 1884 when three Canadian pitchers first accomplished this feat). Bedard’s 14 such games leaves him tied with Ryan Dempster for the second highest number of 10 strikeout games registered by a Canadian − Ferguson Jenkins is the runaway leader in this department with 48 games in his career. Demspter also turned the trick once this year when he fanned ten Washington Nationals in his openning day assignment on April 5th.
Scott Diamond was a late-season call up in 2011 but struggled in his seven outings to post a record of 1-5 (with an ERA of 5.08). After starting the 2012 season with the Twins’ Triple-A Rochester club, Diamond was added to the Minnesota roster in early May, to shore up the Twins staff suffering from a number of injuries at the time. He was not expected to remain with the big league team, but Scott pitched so well that he became the club’s most dependable starter. In 12 starts, he has managed to post a record of 7-3. At the same time he has an ERA of 2.62 in 79 innings of work while fashioning an excellent ratio of 45 strikeouts to 12 walks. He should now be considered the ace of the staff (although he doesn’t have too much competition from the other Twins’ hurlers in that regard) leading the Minnesota club in wins. He is now their only starter with a winning record.
Jason Bay has succumbed to the injury bug in 2012 to the point where his career is in serious jeopardy now. He was an early season resident on the DL, after fracturing a rib on April 24th. That injury forced him to miss six weeks playing time. After just a few games back with the Mets, he slammed his head and right shoulder into the outfield wall in Citi Field while he attempted to run down Jay Bruce’s inside-the-park home run on June 15th. Afterwards, Bay did not move for several minutes before he finally got to his feet and walked around. His headaches have now subsided to the extent that he is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment with the Mets’ St. Lucie Class A farm club in a few weeks. Still, we must be mindful of how difficult it is for an athlete to return to form after suffering from the long-lasting symptoms of a concussion. This marks the second time in the last three years that Jason has had a concussion after he has come out second best in a collision with an outfield wall.
Bay’s trials and tribulations remind us that several top-flight Canadian ball players have had their careers significantly hampered or shortened by way of serious injuries.
Corey Koskie’s stellar career was debilitated by a series of minor injuries before he too suffered a terrible concussion while chasing down a popup while playing with the Brewers in 2006. Ironically, that incident also occurred in Cincinnati. Koskie was only 33 years of age at the time, but he never returned to the major leagues.
Jeff Heath was enjoying one of his finest seasons with the Boston Braves in 1948, batting .319 with 20 home runs, helping them win the N.L. pennant. However, he missed the World Series after breaking his ankle in an attempted slide toward home plate near the end of the regular season. A widely published newspaper photograph of the play showed Heath sliding toward the plate, mouth open in shock, with his leg shattered mid-ankle with the lower ankle rotated ninety degrees to the upper ankle. The injury probably caused permanent damage to his nerves and leg structure at the break site. He played just 36 games in 1949 before a second ankle injury ended his career for good.
In his first two seasons in the majors, Pete Ward had shown all of the promise of being ranked alongside Tip O’Neill and Jeff Heath as one of Canada’s best batters. He finished in the top 10 in the MVP vote in both 1963 and 1964 with the Chicago White Sox. He was an excellent third sacker and was one of the top power hitters and clutch batters in the American League. However, in 1965 he was involved in a car accident while he and Tommy John were driving to a Black Hawks hockey game. Ward suffered serious neck and back injuries, and never again recovered his promising early form. He missed half of the 1966 season after having to undergo surgery to fix a hernia problem. He played for five more years after that but never fulfilled his initial promise. Even with those difficulties, Ward’s batting statistics still do not accurately reflect his impact as a top flight hitter. He had the misfortune to play in a period when the rule changes to the strike zone and pitching mound drastically reduced the batting records of the time.
Jeff Zimmerman showed the promise to be one of the baseball’s best relief aces. After two fine years in a set-up role with Texas (in 1999 and 2000), he became the club’s closer in 2001. He responded to this new assignment with 28 saves in 31 opportunities, and was named the team’s Pitcher of the Year. Then after signing a three-year, ten million dollar contract, he suffered a series of arm injuries and never pitched in the majors again. Three operations, including two Tommy John surgeries, could not restore his promising career. Interestingly enough, Zimmerman attempted a comeback in 2009, but he retired for good after hurling just two innings of minor league ball that year.
A few other Canadian major leaguers are holding down roster spots in back-up or utility roles in 2012. George Kottaras continues to play in a reserve catching role for the Brewers behind the injured Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado. In limited action, his batting average is just .228. Still, he displays some power and draws a very high number of walks, so that his on-base percentage is an excellent .430. Kottaras now has 18 home runs, 34 doubles, 65 runs, 65 RBI and 82 walks in exactly 500 career at bats.
You would think that that would earn him a spot as a regular with some major league club.
Pete Orr was effective in a utility infield role this year, batting .286 and slugging .429 in 23 games with the Phillies, but the club outrighted him to their Triple A franchise in June. He would have been eligible for arbitration in the off-season. Taylor Green was called up to the Brewers in May, and he served in a utility role, used primarily as a pinch hitter. He was just optioned back to the Triple A level at the All-Star break.
Scott Richmond was up briefly with the Blue Jays when the club became desperate for pitching (as it often does) but was sent back down after 3 appearances in relief. Jeff Francis signed with the Colorado Rockies after being released by the Cincinnati Reds in June (he had signed a minor league contract with that club in the off-season after being released by the Royals at the end of 2011). So far, Francis has posted a 2-2 won-lost record with the Rockies (and still has not made an error in the field).
Mike Nickeas also serves as a back-up catcher with the Mets (behind their regular Josh Thole). Mike blasted a grand slam home run (his first) against San Diego on May 26th of this year. That gives Nickeas one more grand slam for his career than former greats Tip O’Neill and George Wood together managed to hit. The list of Canadians who did hit at least one grand slam home run in their career is given below. Ryan Dempster leads all Canadian pitchers in surrendering bases loaded blasts (he gave up 9 in his career). Dempster was especially kind to fellow Canuck Matt Stairs, serving him up three of his Canadian record 12 grand slam homers. Ferguson Jenkins may have allowed 484 homers to opposition batters in his career, but just five of them came with the bases loaded. A total of 22 Canadians hit a total of 63 grand slam homers (25 players hit 66 slams if you count Canadian citizens born outside of Canada). One of Votto’s two slams was hit this year on May 13th against Washington. It was Joey’s third home run of the contest, a walk-off game winner for the Reds. This was reported to be the only time in major league history that a player with 3 or more homers in a game finished the day with a walk-off grand slam.
Grand Slam Home Runs Hit by Canadians
Matt Stairs 12
Larry Walker 7
Justin Morneau 6
Jason Bay 4
Jeff Heath 4
Russell Martin 4
George Selkirk 4
Pete Ward 4
Terry Puhl 3
Corey Koskie 2
Joey Votto 2
Vince Barton 1
Reno Bertoia 1
Doug Frobel 1
Jack Graney 1
Tim Harkness 1
Spud Johnson 1
Jimmy Knowles 1
Brett Lawrie 1
Mike Nickeas 1
Mark Teahen 1
Kevin Reimer 1
Sherry Robertson 1
Michael Saunders 1
Rene Tosoni 1
Total for Canadians: 63 Grand Slams
Canadians Who Played in the Major Leagues in 2012 (through the All-Star Break)
Player Position (Team) Status Injury Note
John Axford RP (Milwaukee) Closer – lost some of his 2011 great effectiveness
Jason Bay LF (New York – NL) Activated May 5 – struggling to regain batting form in NY Placed on DL twice – (fractured rib in May, concussion in June)
Erik Bedard SP (Pittsburgh) Struggling as starting pitcher after promising start
Jesse Crain RP (Chicago – AL) Effective as set-up in relief Placed on 15-day DL twice this year
Ryan Dempster SP (Chicago – NL) Effective starting pitcher Placed on 15-day DL twice this year
Scott Diamond SP (Minnesota) Effective starting pitcher since being recalled in May
Jeff Francis SP (Colorado) Recalled to Colorado after minor league assignment in Cincinnati farm system
Taylor Green UT (Milwaukee)Optioned to Triple A in July
George Kottaras C (Milwaukee) Back-up catcher
Brett Lawrie 3B (Toronto) Effective regular at third base
Russell Martin N.Y. (AL) Effective catcher who has lost his batting efficiency
Justin Morneau 1B (Minnesota) Regular 1B/DH – still struggling to regain 2010 form Placed on 15-Day DL in May (wrist)
Mike Nickeas C (New York – NL) Back-up catcher
Pete Orr IF (Philadelphia) Outrighted to Lehigh Valley (Triple A) in June
Scott Richmond P (Toronto) Recalled to Toronto for brief trial – optioned back to minors
Michael Saunders CF (Seattle) Effective regular outfielder
Joey Votto 1B (Cincinnati) All-Star, MVP candidate
Chris Leroux RP (Pittsburgh) Has not pitched in 2012 – scheduled for July rehab assignment in minors Place on 60-day DL in January (chest muscle)
Blake Hawksworth RP (Los Angeles – NL) Has not played in 2012 – back on DL after brief minor league rehab assignment Placed on 60-day DL in January (elbow)
Luke Carlin C (Cleveland) Born in USA; grew up in Quebec – briefly recalled to majors as injury replacement
Additional Notes on Canadians Who Played in the Major Leagues in 2011
Rich Harden Unsigned free agent Red Sox failed to sign him as free agent after medical exam Will miss all of 2012 after shoulder surgery
Adam Loewen OF (New York – NL) Released by Toronto – signed as minor league free agent Placed on 15-day DL in June (foot) in Triple A
Trystan Magnuson RP (Toronto) Minor league assignment – outrighted to Dunedin in May
Scott Mathieson P – Released by Philadelphia Signed with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan
Mark Teahen IF (Washington) Released by Toronto in January – signed minor league contract with Washington
Rene Tosoni OF (Minnesota) Cut in spring training and optioned to Triple A level