Loving Baseball's Winter Leagues


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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

Nice move by Houston manager Dusty Baker to send hitting coach Troy Snitker out to exchange lineup cards with his dad, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, before World Series Game 3 in Atlanta last night . . .

Ian Anderson, still technically a rookie, is now the only pitcher besides Don Larsen to pitch five hitless innings in a World Series game . . .

Even though Aaron Boone got a contract extension from the Yankees, GM Brian Cashman slapped him on the wrist by canning his best friend, third base coach Phil Nevin . . .

Pitching problems may continue in the Bronx after news that starting pitcher Jameson Taillon, a two-time survivor of Tommy John surgery, will be sidelined five months after undergoing an operation to repair a torn tendon in his right ankle . . .

Mets utilityman Jeff McNeil brought a career .319 average into the 2021 campaign, then turned in a .249 season and .674 OPS over 426 plate appearances . . .

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos describing the veteran acquisitions that enabled his team to win its fourth straight NL East flag: “It’s just like coming home with a bag of groceries and saying ‘Here, cook dinner.’ We just dumped four outfielders on him.”

Leading Off

By Bill Thompson

Every year I write this column, in some varying form, and every year it feels even better than the previous year. The way most baseball fans feel about the start of the Major League Baseball season is how I feel about the start of the Winter Ball season. It is, without question, my favorite time of the baseball year.

From the beginning of October until the Serie del Caribe champion is crowned at the start of February, I am in literal baseball heaven. The feeling this year is no different although the circumstances surrounding this Winter Ball season are somewhat different.

The 2021-2022 Winter Ball season will be facing consequences from the ongoing coronavirus disease of 2019 pandemic. We’ve had the Australian Baseball League cancel their season, while a prominent league like Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Béisbol has pushed back their start date to January with an undertone that they may not play at all. COVID deeply impacted the Winter Ball landscape during the 2020-2021 season and so far the new season appears to be still reeling from the damage COVID has wrought.

That being the case, Liga Mexicana del Pacífico and Liga Argentina de Béisbol started their seasons this month and the usual suspects, sans possible weird start times for Cuba’s SNB and Béisbol Profesional de Panamá, are ready to kick off their seasons this upcoming month.

In the past, I have broken down each and every Winter Ball league. Or, at the bare minimum, I’ve dug into the leagues you should be paying attention to the most in the upcoming season. This year we’re going a slightly different route, mainly due to me not trusting start times with COVID still being an issue. The focus this year is on Winter Ball in general and why it’s worth your time.

From a pure enjoyment of baseball perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better and more enjoyable baseball experience than following Winter Ball. You don’t need to follow every league; heck, even I can’t afford the time or money commitment to do that.

However, pick a league and choose a team in that league and start forming a fandom. What you’ll quickly find out is that it’s easy to form a rooting interest for any of the teams in any of the leagues. These are teams that want to go out of their way to be accessible to their fans and make a living based on the idea of fan enjoyment.

Once you’ve chosen your league, make sure you are comfortable with the talent level of that league. Some leagues will provide you with an A-level experience while others are ML-level (major league) even if they likely will never be acknowledged as such by MLB or those who believe MLB is the only collection of leagues that could ever be classified as major. Once you understand what talent you will be watching on a near-nightly basis you’ll be better able to enjoy the action taking place right in front of you.

Now that you have your league and know what talent level to expect, prepare yourself for lots of emotion. From the fans in the stands to the players on the field, emotion is an integral part of the Winter Ball experience. This is the sort of baseball you grew up playing or watching, the type that typically only rears its head in MLB waters come playoff time. The playoffs in Winter Ball are intense, but so is the regular season and that takes some adjustment for those new to any of the associated leagues.

The style of play will also be different and for me, this is a great thing. Three true outcome ball isn’t really a thing in Winter Ball. Teams run the basepaths aggressively, bunts are still commonplace, pitchers can and will go deep into ball games, and so much more. Folks who miss the style of play found in 1980s MLB will love the action in the vast majority of Winter Ball leagues. All in all the style of play found in Winter Ball helps to elevate the experience and engages fans in a way that MLB struggles with these days.

I haven’t told anyone reading anything new. I’ve been spouting these missives about the Winter Ball leagues for years now.

What I want to leave you with the most is the idea of having fun watching baseball. If you love baseball, then there is a Winter Ball league out there for you. Find your league and get to enjoying baseball because at the end of the day the name of the game is enjoying the baseball being played in front of us.

When it comes to that aspect of baseball fandom, the Winter Ball leagues succeed and then some.

Bill Thompson’s e.mail is billcubbieblue@gmail.com.

Cleaning Up

Injuries Can Come at The Most Inconvenient Time

By Dan Schlossberg

When Charlie Morton was knocked out of the World Series with a fractured fibula in his first start, the rest of the Atlanta Braves reeled from the blow but did not break.

After all, they’ve been rolling with the punches all season.

Star pitcher Mike Soroka, expected to return to the rotation after missing a year with a torn Achilles, tore it again.

Replacement Huascar Ynoa, having a breakout season, got mad at an early kayo and slammed the dugout bench in frustration — resulting in a three-month layoff with a broken hand.

Starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud needed surgery after tearing a thumb ligament in his catching hand.

Cleanup man Marcell Ozuna made a foolish head-first slide into third base, encountering the planted feet of Red Sox All-Star Rafael Devers, and fractured two fingers — then compounded the felony by allegedly trying to strangle his wife with the bad arm.

The topper came three days before the All-Star game, when superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. tore his ACL while trying to make a leaping catch of a Jazz Chisholm drive.

Starting pitchers Max Fried and Ian Anderson, among others, also spent time on the IL, formerly known as the DL but generally not a good place to be.

A lesser team, or a lesser GM, would have seen the handwriting on the wall and thrown in the chips. But Alex Anthopoulos, a riverboat gamble since his days in Toronto, thought his sub-.500 team could still revive — albeit with some solid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

He made six trades — count ‘em, six — that brought in a veteran catcher (Stephen Vogt), decent relief pitcher (Richard Rodriguez), and FOUR slugging outfielders (Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Adam Duvall).

Never mind that Rosario was riding the Cleveland injured list and unable to play for another month. Or that Duvall had spent the first half of the season going nowhere in Miami after Anthopoulos foolishly decided to non-tender him last fall.

Until August 6, the Braves chugged along at .500. Then they suddenly caught fire, racing past the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, wrapping up their fourth consecutive divisional crown, and easily defeating the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers — both heavily favored — in the first two rounds of the baseball postseason.

With the four new outfielders playing more like All-Stars than replacement players, the Braves have turned their guns on the Houston Astros, another team favored to beat them.

Soler homered to lead off the World Series, Duvall hit one later in the game, and the Braves survived the third-inning departure of Morton, who was hit by a Yuli Gurriel line drive in the bottom of the second but lasted long enough to throw 16 more pitches.

Losing Morton, who comes with a well-deserved reputation as a big-game pitcher, may not actually be that bad. He’d probably make only one more start anyway, allowing Max Fried and Ian Anderson to carry the pitching workload, perhaps with two starts each.

Options for Game 4 in Atlanta Sunday could include Kyle Wright, a long-time prospect who had a solid season in Triple-A, and Tucker Davidson, a lefty sidelined by injury for quite some time this season. Both are on Atlanta’s World Series roster.

The Braves haven’t won a pennant since 1999 or a World Series since 1995 but they’re the hottest team on the planet — even after winning fewer regular-season games (88) than any of the 10 teams that reached the playoffs.

Acuna, almost injured again when an Alex Bregman foul whizzed into the Atlanta dugout, was paving an MVP path when he was hurt in July. But had that accident not happened, Anthopoulos might not have dealt the team the quality quartet that remade the outfield.

Everybody has injuries — the Astros are without pitching ace Lance McCullers, Jr. — but not everybody compensates as well as these Braves have.

By winning Game 1, Atlanta can now clinch at home. In a year when the team lost Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, and the All-Star Game, not to mention its best player, nothing could be sweeter.

Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of When the Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta, The New Baseball Bible, and three-dozen other baseball books. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Think Adam Duvall was happy to return to Atlanta? After hitting 16 homers in 55 games, he reached the World Series for the first time . . .

Duvall’s oblique injury in Game 1 of last year’s NLCS against the Dodgers probably prevented the Braves from getting to the Fall Classic last year too . . .

Kevin Plawecki, always considered a backup backstop by the Mets, hit a solid .287 in 64 games for Boston after posting a .341 mark there in the virus-shortened 2020 campaign . . .

Of the 61 players used by the Dodgers this season, 39 were pitchers . . .

Amazing to think that the Braves didn’t top .500 until Aug. 6 or reach first place for another 10 days.

Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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