Dave Dombrowski has had a highly successful career as a top-level front-office executive. Now the President of Baseball Operations for the Philadelphia Phillies, the 67-year-old Western Michigan University graduate’s resume includes World Series titles with the Florida Marlins and the Boston Red Sox, while nine other teams he’s constructed have reached the postseason before falling short. His current club has played October baseball in each of the past two seasons.
As Detroit sports fans know all too well, five of Dombrowski’s not-quite campaigns came with the Tigers from 2006-2014. Moreover, the majority of those disappointments are notable for a particular reason: a lack of reliable back-end bullpen arms torpedoed multiple opportunities to take home a title.
(Tigers fans wanting to avoid angst might want to skip the next two paragraphs.)
In Game 4 of the 2006 World Series, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya combined to allow three late-inning runs in a 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2011 the Tigers twice lost ALCS games in which the Texas Rangers scored four runs in the 11th inning, Two years later, five Detroit relievers combined to cough up a 5-1 eighth-inning lead in ALCS Game 2 against the Boston Red Sox, ruining a Max Scherzer start and depriving the Tabbies of what would have been a 2-0 series lead. That year’s Game 7 was even more painful. A 2-1 seventh-inning lead, this in another well-pitched Scherzer start, turned into a 5-2 loss when Jose Veras gave up a grand slam to Shane Victorino.
In 2014, Tigers relievers gave up four eighth-inning runs in a 7-6 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in ALDS Game 2. That Joe Nathan didn’t take the mound that afternoon is worth noting. A six-time All-Star who’d signed as a free agent prior to that season, Nathan had amassed 35 saves in the regular season, but they came with a 4.81 ERA and an equally-unseemly 1.534 WHIP. He then had Tommy John surgery the following April.
During Dombrowki’s nine-season stretch as Detroit’s top dog — one in which his teams won four Central Division titles and finished second three times — the Tigers bullpen had MLB’s 25th-best ERA and 28th-best FIP.
Dombrowski owned up to the deficiency when he I broached the subject with him during this month’s GM meetings, and that his response came with a caveat was understandable. Good fortune was by no means on the Tigers’ side when it came to having their best bullpen arms available when it counted most.
“Every club has got a weakness,” Dombrowski told me. “In Detroit, our clubs were so good position player-wise, and our starting pitching was absolutely outstanding. One of the unfortunate things that happened is that a couple of times we had bullpen guys get hurt at the most inopportune times. Joel Zumaya went down right before the 2006 ALCS [with the infamous Guitar Hero injury]. Bruce Ronóon was our setup guy in 2013 and went down the last week of the season. We had guys, but if you were going to point to an area that was our weakness, that would have been it.”
Despite back-to-back Craig Kimbrel debacles in last month’s NLCS that assuredly brought back bad memories, Dombrowski has built a better pen in Philadelphia. Above average in 2022, it was a strength in 2023. High-octane was a big reason why. Phillies relievers threw gas, averaging 95.0 MPH with their fastballs, the seventh-highest mark in MLB. Moreover, they ranked even higher in cutter and slider velocity, finishing fourth and fifth respectively.
Five members of Philadelphia’s pen — José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez, Jeff Hoffman, Yunior Marte, and Gregory Soto — made 40 or more appearances and averaged 97 MPH or better with their heaters. The power helped produce results. The club’s bullpen arms combined to log a 25,4 strikeout rate (sixth-highest in MLB) and a 3.88 FIP (fifth highest). Nine Philadelphia relievers recorded at least one save, with Kimbrel (95.8 MPH) leading the pack with 23, while Alvarado also reached double figures with 10.
And let’s not forget Orion Kerkering. The 22-year-old right-hander, who debuted in late September and went on to pitch in the postseason, epitomizes power. With a fastball that reaches triple digits and a spin-tastic slider, Kerkering has, as my colleague Michael Baumann wrote following the rookie’s first outing, “the potential to be the best of the bunch.”
The accumulation of power depth has been by design. Dombrowski’s evolving bullpen-building philosophy includes more than a desire to have pitchers who can overmatch hitters.Trends are also influencing his decisions.
“We got away from just looking to have a dominant closer,” explained Dombrowski. “Not that we didn’t have somebody that was, per se, our closer, but we had multiple people that could close games. I don’t think that anybody would frown at having a dominant closer.— most clubs would want that kind of guy — it’s just not quite as necessary as it used to be.
“One thing that I think is different now is that there used to be more dependency on starting pitching,” continued Dombrowski. “You didn’t necessarily need all the depth with relievers compared to when I was in Detroit. Starters don’t go as deep into games, so I’m putting a little more emphasis on finding more guys to cover those innings.”
Which brings us to the about-to-heat-up hot-stove season. Might Josh Hader be the next addition to Philadelphia’s pen? Kimbrel is no longer under contract, and not only is Hader’s heater as good as it gets, he is far and away the top reliever on the free-agent market. Dombrowski likes dominant closers every bit as much as he likes depth. Don’t bet against it.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Erik Sabrowski had one of the more unique backstories among players who participated in this year’s Arizona Fall League. A 6-foot-3, 240-pound southpaw who turned 26 on Halloween, he not only hails from Edmonton, Alberta, he’d logged only 50-and-two thirds professional innings prior to suiting up for the Peoria Javelinas. Selected in the 14th round of the 2018 draft by the San Diego Padres out of Concordia, Kansas’s Cloud County Community College, Sabrowski subsequently underwent two Tommy John surgeries before being taken in the Minor League phase of the 2021 Rule 5 draft by the Cleveland Guardians.
His performance this summer was that of a predictably unpolished, yet unquestionably promising, under-the-radar pitching prospect. In 20 relief appearances for Double-A Akron, Sabrowski surrendered just 13 hits while fanning 28 batters over 21-and-two-thirds innings — this with a 2.49 ERA and a 30.4% strikeout rate — but he also issued 18 free passes. His AFL numbers were similar in nature. Equal parts overpowering and erratic, he had 16 strikeouts and 10 walks, and allowed just four hits, in nine-and-two-thirds innings.
Sabrowski’s swing-and-miss stuff doesn’t come courtesy of elite velocity. As he explained in the final days of his AFL campaign, it comes primarily from movement.
“I don’t throw terribly hard, but I throw a pretty mean fastball,” said Sabrowski, whose heater sits in the low 90s and gets around 20 inches of vertical ride. “It has a lot of carry and they showed me that I can live at the top of the zone. It really plays up there. The backspin and carry is what makes me good, which is something I didn’t know for a long time. The Cleveland organization has a good idea of how to maximize your potential. They take what you’re really good at and try to make it even better.”
Sanbrowski, who throws from a high three-quarters slot, considers his curveball his second-best pitch — “I try to make it go straight down” — and his slider “still kind of a work in progress.” A scout I spoke to on my AFL visit is impressed with the overall quality of the southpaw’s offerings.
“His stuff is impressive,” the scout told me. “I saw him early on and it was like, ‘Oh boy.” This is what Cleveland does well — their pitching stands alone — and his story, being a northern arm who went to a junior college… I mean, I don’t hold age against these guys as much as some others might. Especially pitchers. There are so many training techniques that some of these guys take a really big leap in their mid-20s.”
One area where Sabrowski won’t need to need to take a big leap is with the bat. While he raked with the bat in 2017 as a two-way player for the summer collegiate Western Major Baseball League’s Edmonton Prospects, he has no aspirations to be the next Shohei Ohtani.
“I miss hitting, but then I look at some of the stuff our guys here throw,” said Sabrowski, who likewise gave up any NHL aspirations he might have by age 16 (still a big hockey fan, he took the ice as a defenseman growing up). I think I’d have zero chance of hitting any of them. I can hit 85 [MPH], but that’s about it.”
Sabrowski throws harder than that, and while he’s by no means a flamethrower, his ability to induce swings-and-misses from professional hitters has been impressive. Backstory aside, he’s an intriguing pitching prospect in a Cleveland Guardians organization that has a way of producing productive big-league pitchers.
Which player holds the record for most pinch-hit home runs? (A hint: he had at least one pinch-hit home run for eight different teams.)
The answer can be found below.
The St. Louis Cardinals have named Joe McEwing as a special assistant to President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak. “Super Joe” had been serving as St. Louis’s bench coach, a role that will be assumed by Daniel Descalso.
The Houston Astros have promoted Gavin Dickey to Assistant General Manager/Director of Performance Science. Originally hired by the organization as an area scout, the 40-year-old former minor-league outfielder has been in the organization since 2011.
The New York Mets are bringing Mike Sarbaugh on board as their third base coach. As noted in this column three Sundays ago, the longtime Cleveland Guardians staff member won’t be part of that organization for the first time since 1990.
Willie Hernandez, a left-handed reliever who played for the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, and Detroit Tigers in a career that spanned the 1977-1989 seasons, died this past week at age 69. Hernandez won the American League MVP and Cy Young awards in Detroit’s 1984 World Series-championship season, going 9-3 with 32 saves and a 1.92 while appearing in a junior-circuit high 80 games.
Preston Hanna, a right-handed pitcher who played for the Atlanta Braves and the Oakland Athletics in a career that spanned the 1975-1982 seasons, died this past week at age 69 (per Baseball Player Passings). Hanna appeared in 156 games and was credited with 17 wins and one save.
The answer to the quiz is Matt Stairs, with 23 regular-season pinch-hit home runs. The New Brunswick, Canada native also had a pinch-hit homer in the postseason
Misinterpreting a Mike Petriello joke-tweet a few days ago, I thought that the St. Louis Cardinals had acquired Jordan Lyles in a trade. What intrigued me about the didn’t-actually-happen deal is that Lyles had a 6-17 won-loss record with the Kansas City Royals this past season (his ERA and FIP were likewise substandard) and I happened to know that Don Larsen had a remarkable W-L turnaround early in his career. Prior to his 1956 World Series perfecto, the right-hander went 9-2 with the Yankees in 1955 after being acquired from the Orioles as part of a 17-player (yes, 17) trade. In 1954, Larsen had gone 3-21 with a 100-loss Baltimore club.
Is going from a 3-21 season to to 9-2 season following a trade the biggest won-loss-record turnaround for a pitcher in big-league history? If not, it must be darn close.
I’m not a big fan of free-agent and trade rumors, as they are all too often floated out there for click-bait reasons. That’s not to say some don’t have a certain amount of validity, and that said speculation won’t actually come to fruition. As much as in-the-know sources tend to be stringently tight-lipped, legitimate interest in certain players, often driven by team need, is sometimes fairly obvious.
Those things said, I’ll offer my own take — this with the caveat that I have zero inside knowledge — on the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes.
The Toronto Blue Jays would be a perfect fit for the 29-year-old superstar. While many are of the belief that he would far prefer to play on the West Coast (and he very well may), Toronto is a large multi-cultural city that just so happens to have a baseball team that already possesses enough talent to win the World Series in 2024 and in seasons to follow. Moreover, Blue Jays ownership is deep-pocketed and reportedly willing to spend big. (They won’t spend to send their radio team on the road, but that’s because they don’t care about the quality of their broadcasts, not because they can’t afford to.)
Are the Blue Jays a likely destination for baseball’s most exciting and talented player? I have no idea, but Ohtani calling Ontario home makes a lot of sense.
Patrick Murphy has reportedly signed with NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters. The 29-year-old right-hander — first interviewed by FanGraphs in 2017 when he was with the then-Low-A Lansing Lugnuts — spent last season with Minnesota’s Triple-A affiliate. Murphy’s MLB experience comprises 23 games with the Toronto Blue Jays and 12 with the Washington Nationals.
Dan Altavilla is 4-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 10 appearances comprising nine innings for the Dominican Winter League’s Tigres del Licey. The 31-year-old former Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres right-hander pitched in the Boston Red Sox system this past season before being released in August.
Michael Toglia is slashing .242/.348/.505 with five home runs in 118 plate appearances for the Mexican Pacific Winter League’s Sultanes de Monterrey. The 25-year-old first baseman/outfielder has a .572 OPS over parts of the last two seasons with the Colorado Rockies.
Kendall Simmons is 9-for-26 with four doubles and one home run for the Australian Baseball League’s Adelaide Giants. The 23-year-old infielder in the Philadelphia Phillies system slashed .267/.362/.494 and went yard eight times for High-A Jersey Shore this season.
Lachlan Wells has allowed three hits and a pair of walks while striking out 19 batters in 11 scoreless innings for the Giants. The 26-year-old southpaw from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia pitched in the Minnesota Twins system from 2015-2019.
Torii Hunter played in 2,372 games and had 2,452 hits, including 488 doubles and 353 home runs. He had 4,087 total bases, 195 stolen bases, and a 110 wRC+.
Andruw Jones played in 2,196 games and had 1,933 hits, including 383 doubles and 434 home runs. He had 3,690 total bases, 152 stolen bases, and a 111 wRC+.
Jones has a clear advantage in fWAR — the margin is markedly smaller by WAR — largely because of his glove. It is no secret that the Willemstad, Curaçao native was an elite defender — arguably the best ever at his position — before seeing his skills rapidly erode after age 30. That said, Hunter won nine Gold Gloves as a centerfielder, one fewer than Jones was awarded. Was the gap in their defensive prowess truly as wide as the metrics suggest? Color me skeptical. The more I peruse their numbers, the less I’m convinced that Jones had the better career.
Both players are on the Hall of Fame ballot I will filling out in the coming weeks.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
The KBO announced on Friday that it has asked MLB to post 25-year-old outfielder Jung-hu Lee, who is ranked No. 4 among international players on The Board. Jee-ho Yoo has the story at Yonhap News Agency.
At Bless You Boys, Jacob Markle wrote about how the strength of this year’s Rule 5 draft is starting pitching, with the likes of Taylor Dollard, CJ Liu, and Cole Wilcox available to teams in search of promising young arms.
The Triple-A Salt Lake Bees are hiring Tony Parks to replace longtime radio voice Steve Klauke, who has retired after nearly three decades in the team’s broadcast booth. Gordon Monson has the story at The Salt Lake Tribune.
Former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees reliever Zack Britton, who I first interviewed for FanGraphs during his 2011 rookie season when he was still a starter — announced his retirement early this week. Brittany Ghiroli wrote about the erstwhile closer and two-time All-Star for The Athletic (subscription required).
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The current ages of the last three World Series-winning managers are 68 (Bruce Bochy), 74 (Dusty Baker), and 68 (Brian Snitker). The World Series-winning managers in three of the four preceding seasons — Dave Roberts, Alex Cora, and A.J. Hinch — were all in their 40s when their teams took home the title. The fourth, Dave Martinez, was 55.
Juan Soto slashed .307/.422/.604 with 23 home runs in road games this year. He slashed .240/.398/.429 with 12 home runs in home games.
Cody Bellinger slashed .311/.358/.502 with 12 home runs in away games this year. He slashed .302/.354/.548 with 14 home runs in home games.
Jimmy McMath slashed .388/.460/.597 in 224 plate appearances for the Midwest League’s Quincy Cubs in 1968. He went 2-for-14 with the Chicago Cubs that September while playing in the only six games of his big-league career.
The Detroit Tigers signed Victor Martinez as a free agent on today’s date in 2010. The switch-hitting catcher/first baseman/DH proceeded to slash .321/.381/.487 with a 137 wRC+ for the Motown club from 2011-2014.
On today’s date in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s drafted 20-year-old outfielder Jimmy Wynn out of the Cincinnati Reds organization (A rule at that time allowed for “first-year” players to be drafted by other teams if they weren’t on their organization’s 40-man roster.) The Toy Cannon made his MLB debut the following summer and went on to log a 130 wRC+ with 291 home runs and 225 stolen bases over 15 seasons.
Players born on today’s date include Jorge Orta, a second baseman/outfielder who logged 1,619 hits, including 130 home runs, while playing for five teams from 1972-1987. An All-Star with the Chicago White Sox in 1975 and the Cleveland Indians in 1980, the Mazatlan, Mexico native won a controversial 1985 World Series with the Kansas City Royals. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6, first base umpire Don Denkinger incorrectly called Orta safe, and the Royals proceeded to plate a pair of runs to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1. They won the franchise’s first-ever title the following day.
Also born on today’s date was Hanson Horsey, whose big-league career comprised one game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1912. Pitching in relief, the right-hander allowed 12 runs over four innings in a 23-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A year earlier, Horsey went 22-10 with the Tri-State League’s Reading Pretzels.