Caleb Durbin is an underdog’s underdog in an organization that boasts big-time star power. Acquired along with Indigo Diaz by the New York Yankees from the Atlanta Braves last December in exchange for Lucas Luetge the 23-year-old infield prospect is a former 14th round draft pick out of a Division-3 school. Moreover, he’s never going to be mistaken for Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. Listed at 5-foot-6 (he claimed to be an inch taller when I talked to him earlier this week), Durbin looks like a stockier version of Jose Altuve.
He’s currently hitting not unlike the diminutive three-time batting champion. In 112 plate appearances — 97 with High-A Hudson Valley and 15 with Double-A Somerset — Durbin went into yesterday slashing .319/.446/.385. His bat-to-ball skills have been impressive. The Lake Forest, Illinois native has fanned just nine times while drawing 15 walks.
Durbin’s numbers at St. Louis’s Washington University were even more eye-opening. With the caveat that D-3 isn’t exactly the SEC, the erstwhile WashU Bear batted .386 with 42 walks and 10 strikeouts in 439 plate appearances over his three collegiate seasons. Since entering pro ball in 2021, he has 70 walks and 62 strikeouts in 631 plate appearances.
“Low strikeout rates are something I’ve always had,” said Durbin. “That’s kind of been my elite tool, if you want to call it that. I feel like that’s always going to be there, so it’s just a matter of building on my contact quality.”
Hitting balls harder has been his primary focus this season, and as the numbers suggest, he’s been doing just that. Swing decisions and mechanical adjustments have each played a role. Not going after pitches that are difficult to barrel “decreases the amount of times the contact quality isn’t as good,” and the right-handed swinger is “launching more from [his] back hip and having [his] hands ready at the release of the pitch.”
But again, he’s no Judge or Stanton, nor is he likely to approach Altuve’s surprising-for-his-size power production. Knocking down fences will never be part of his modus operandi. While Durbin did go deep eight times last year between two A-ball stops, he’s sans a dinger in the current campaign.
Power-projection aside, Durbin has received his fair share of Altuve comps over the years. Ditto Dustin Pedroia comps — “I heard that one a lot growing up” — and he’s not averse to likening his game to similarly-undersized players. He cited Nick Madrigal and Steven Kwan as contact-oriented hitters whose profiles are not unlike his own.(A good comp Durbin may not be familiar with is Stubby Clapp, who was generously listed at 5-foot-8 and had a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001.)
Pedroia in particular had a chip on his shoulder that helped drive his success. Durbin doesn’t possess the same degree of edginess that the erstwhile Red Sox infielder brought to the field every day, but he nonetheless strives to dispel any notion that he’s too small to excel against high-level competition.
“Coming out of a D-3 school and being my size, there’s definitely a part of me wanting to prove to people that I can play ball,” said Durbin. “There’s definitely that fire inside of me.”
The skeptics stretch back to his days as a Chicago-area prep. Despite a record-setting high school career — he was also an accomplished wrestler — college programs showed little or no interest. Durbin reached out to a number of Division-1 schools, and what he heard back was crickets. “I guess I just didn’t have the tools,” Durbin told me — this on the heels of a Double-A debut that saw him stroke three hits and swipe the same number of bases.
The Braves were the only team that showed serious interest during his draft year at Washington University. Atlanta’s area scout initially passed along that they were looking at him between rounds 15 and 20, and a few days before the draft he circled back to say rounds 10 and 15. More than other organizations, they saw potential that belied his undersized frame.
As Durbin came to learn, another team was also intrigued by his potential. Driving home from his offseason workout facility, a few days before the calendar flipped to 2023, he got a call that “came out of nowhere.” When he reported to spring training, it wouldn’t be with the Braves, but rather with the New York Yankees.
Six weeks into the minor-league season, Durbin’s performance with his new organization — one that includes 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts — has been nothing short of impressive. As for whether he can keep it up, let’s just say he’s used to people doubting his ability. When you’re 5-foot-6 (give or take an inch either direction) it comes with the territory.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
James Naile is unique. A 30-year-old right-hander who spent seven years in the Oakland Athletics system before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals prior to last season, he features a high-spin curveball and a sinker that hardly spins at all. The former averages over 2,700 RPMs and has reached 3,000, while the latter hovers around 1,600 RPMs and has dipped much lower. Per Statcast, Naile — this in a small sample size 11-and-a-third big-league innings — ranks in the first percentile for fastball spin.
I asked the Cape Girardeau, Missouri native when he learned about his atypical spins profiles.
“Early on in pro ball,” replied Naile, whom the A’s took in the 20th round of the 2015 draft out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “In college, I had no idea. I’d developed a one-seam sinker early on, and once I got to pro ball, I transitioned to a more traditional two-seam. But yeah, they were kind of telling me, ‘Man, your spin rate is insanely low; it’s kind of like a changeup, or almost like a split.’ I’ve thrown fastballs with spin rates below 1,200, so I’m definitely a little unique. I don’t know how I do it.”
Naile likewise doesn’t have an answer for why he spins his curveball as well as he does. It’s a pitch he’s had since high school, although he has begun tweaking the shape this year, “chasing a little more horizontal” and making it more like a sweeper. If anything, the spin has ticked up slightly with the increased right-to-left movement.
Naile has also chased vertical, this with his low-spin four-seamer, a pitch he rarely throws. The results were negligible. Curious as to what might be possible, he even experimented with pine tar a few off-seasons ago. Again, the results were nothing to write home about. As the righty put it, “For whatever reason, I’ve just never been able to spin a fastball.”
The single-season record for shutouts is held by Pete Alexander, who had 16 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1916. The highest single-season total since that time is held by which pitcher?
The answer can be found below.
Larry Foster, a right-handed pitcher who appeared in one game for the Detroit Tigers in 1963, died earlier this month at age 85. The Michigan State University product allowed three runs over two relief innings in a 10-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Grover “Deacon” Jones, a first baseman who appeared in 40 games and logged 14 hits in 49 at bats for the Chicago White Sox from 1962-1966, died on May 7 at age 89. The Ithaca College alum was a scout, coach, and minor-league manager following his playing career.
The answer to the quiz is Bob Gibson, with 13 shutouts in 1968.
Much as pitchers remember their first strikeout and first win, they also remember their first gopher. I most cases, they also recall their second. For Mark Gubicza, the names make those memories easy.
“The first one was Darrell Evans, at Tiger Stadium,” Gubicza said of the May 7, 1984 blast, which came when he was a 21-year-old rookie with the Kansas City Royals. “I remember thinking I could get inside on him, but he had a quick bat and got me pretty good. He hit it out to right-center field. And it’s funny, because then Dwight Evans got me [at Fenway Park a few weeks later]. It went over the Green Monster. I remember thinking, ‘What, am I just going to just give up home runs to Evans’s?’”
Darrell Evans was in his 16th big-league season when he took the rookie deep, while Dwight Evans was in his 13th big-league season. To say that Gubicza had been familiar with both would be an understatement.
“As a baseball fan growing up, I had their Slurpee cups, and their baseball cards in the spokes of my bicycle,” said Gubicza. “All of that stuff. It was pretty cool to be able to face them, and I did end up having some success against both guys.”
Dwight went 11-for-53 with three home runs against Gubicza. Darrell went 5-for-24, also with three home runs.
Munetaka Murakami is slashing .218/.365/.412 with six home runs in 148 plate appearances for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The 23-year-old third baseman dominated NPB last year with 56 home runs and a .318/.458/.711 slash line.
Shoki Murakami has pitched in five games and allowed just 10 hits and one run in 32 innings with the Hanshin Tigers. The 24-year-old right-hander has fanned 31 batters and issued two free passes.
Shunpeita Yamashita has pitched in four games and allowed 15 hits and one run in 24-and-a-third innings with the Orix Buffaloes. The 20-year-old right-hander has fanned 33 and walked seven.
Dillon Peters is 1-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 13-and-two thirds innings for the Yakult Swallows. The 30-year-old left-hander is in his first NPB season after spending the last two years with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Si-hwan Roh is slashing .352/.423/.598 in 137 plate appearances with the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles. The 22-year-old third baseman has seven home runs.
Chih-Jung Liu is emerging as a prospect of note in the Red Sox system. Signed by Boston as an international free agent in October 2019 out of Tainan City, Taiwan, the 24-year-old right-hander went 11 consecutive innings without allowing a hit over his last two starts. The first of those outings was especially notable. On May 5, Liu threw a seven-inning no-hitter for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs against the Akron RubberDucks. On the year, he has a 3.60 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 30 innings.
His growth as a pitcher has been both steady and uneven. A two-way player growing up in Taiwan — he was also a shortstop — Liu didn’t learn the nuances of his craft until coming stateside to play professionally.
“Back in high school, I would go out to the bullpen and get my work in maybe twice a week,” explained Liu, with Sea Dogs coach Mickey Jiang providing translation assistance for some of his responses. “After I got here, I learned how to be a pitcher, a full-time pitcher. I learned a routine and how to enhance my pitches.”
Liu’s repertoire, which has subsequently undergone changes, produced mixed results prior to this season. After the pandemic wiped out what would have been his debut campaign, he went a combined 9-12 with a 5.42 ERA in 2021-2022. Last year was particularly tumultuous. Pitching primarily at High-A Greenville, he went 4-11 with a 6.10 ERA.
Pitch-design sessions resulted in a meaningful repertoire tweak in the latter months of last season. Liu began throwing a sweeper — a baby sweeper if you will — that typically gets 8-10 inches of horizontal movement. He considers it his second-best pitch, behind a mid-90s four-seam fastball that gets ride. A conventional slider is no longer part of his arsenal, nor is a curveball.
Another notable tweak has been the reintroduction of a splitter, which he threw during his high school and college days in Taiwan. The Red Sox had him switch to a traditional changeup when he joined the organization, but this year they reversed course and decided he should go back throwing a split, a pitch the right-hander told me is popular in his homeland. Liu’s four-pitch mix also includes a cutter.
The Norfolk Tides have the best record in the minors; Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate is 28-9. The Stockton Ports have the worst record in the minors. Oakland’s Low-A affiliate is 7-25.
Matt McLain is slashing .346/.457/.714 with 12 home runs in 162 plate appearances for the Triple-A Louisville Bats. The 23-year-old infielder was drafted 17th overall in 2021 by the Cincinnati Reds out of UCLA.
Heston Kjerstad is slashing .300/.384/.645 with nine home runs in 125 plate appearances for the Double-A Bowie BaySox. The 24-year-old outfielder was drafted second overall in 2020 by the Baltimore Orioles out of the University of Arkansas.
Sterlin Thompson is slashing .463/.513/.746 with three home runs in 78 plate appearances for the High-A Spokane Indians. The 21-year-old outfielder/third baseman was drafted 31st overall last year by the Colorado Rockies out of the University of Florida.
Brandon Birdsell has a 0.73 ERA and a 3.15 FIP in six appearances comprising 24-and-two-thirds innings for the High-A South Bend Cubs. The 23-year-old right-hander was drafted in the fifth round last year out of Texas Tech University by the Chicago Cubs.
Nick Frasso has a 1.01 ERA and a 2.03 FIP in six appearances comprising 26-and-two-thirds innings for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers. Taken in the fourth round of the 2020 draft out of Loyola Marymount University, the 24 year-old right-hander was acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers last August via trade.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Hindsight being 20/20, MLB.com’s Jim Callis did a redraft of the 2013 MLB draft.
Also at MLB.com, Michael Clair wrote about the long, strange history of the baseball cap.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Pittsburgh Pirates have 49 stolen bases, the most in the majors. The Minnesota Twins have 10 stolen bases, the fewest in the majors.
Jose Abreu has homered once since August 3 of last year, that coming on September 13. The 36-year-old first baseman has 271 plate appearances over that span.
Jim Edmonds went 7-for-14 against three different pitchers — Josh Beckett, Dave Bush, and Nelson Figueroa — with 20 of the 21 hits going for extra bases. Edmonds had a combined 11 doubles, eight home runs, one triple, and one single against the trio. He had four home runs and three doubles off of Bush.
Ron Taylor made the last of his 491 big-league pitching appearances on today’s date in 1972, working an inning-and-two-thirds for the San Diego Padres in a nondescript 9-3 loss to the Montreal Expos. His MLB debut, which came on April 11, 1962, was anything but nondescript. On the mound for the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park, Taylor incurred a complete-game, 4-0 loss when he surrendered a 12th-inning grand slam to Red Sox outfielder Carroll Hardy, who is best known as the only player ever to pinch hit for Ted Williams. Taylor had two hits on the day, including the only one Boston starter Bill Monbouquette allowed over the first nine innings.
On today’s date in 1977, Jim Colborn tossed a no-hitter as the Kansas City Royals topped the Texas Rangers 6-0. Steve Busby (2) and Bret Saberhagen are the only other Royals pitchers to throw a no-hitter.
On today’s date in 1927, the Chicago Cubs scored five times in the top of the 18th inning to beat the Boston Braves 7-2. Guy Bush went the distance for the win.
The Atlanta Braves scored twice in the top of the 19th inning to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 7-5 on today’s date in 1988. Infielder José Oquendo pitched four innings and was tagged with the loss.
Players born on today’s date include Wimpy Quinn, whose big-league career comprised three relief appearances comprising five innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1941. Primarily a first baseman in the minors — he homered 27 times for the Western International League’s Vancouver Capilanos in 1940 — Quinn had one hit in two at-bats as a Cub.
Also born on today’s date was Kevin Melillo, who played in one game for the Oakland Athletics in 2007. Melillo walked as a pinch-hitter in his lone big-league plate appearance.