Steve Sparks had a solid playing career. The now Houston Astros broadcaster debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers two months before his 30th birthday, in 1995, and went on to toss butterflies in the big leagues through 2004. His best season came with the Detroit Tigers in 2001 when he logged 14 wins and posted a 3.65 ERA over 232 innings.
Sandwiched between the knuckleballer’s stints in Beer City and Motown were a pair of seasons in Anaheim, where his teammates included Orlando Palmeiro. According to Sparks, the left-handed-hitting outfielder wasn’t always a left-handed-hitting outfielder.
“He was originally a right-handed second baseman, but he broke his arm,” the pitcher-turned-broadcaster explained prior to a recent game at Fenway Park. “He was ambidextrous to begin with, so he started playing the outfield throwing left-handed, and that’s how he remained. I played with Orlando, but he never told me that. Joe Maddon was a minor league field coordinator with the Angels, and he’s the one who told me.”
Sparks proceeded to point out that Palmeiro made the final out of the 2005 World Series against the Chicago White Sox while playing for the Astros.
Meanwhile, an outfielder whose best big-league seasons came with the Boston Red Sox played with Sparks on the rookie-level Helena Brewers in 1987.
“He was very gifted,” Sparks said of Troy O’Leary, who was just 17 years old at that time. “We knew that he was going to get through the system pretty quickly because of his bat. He was also one of the nicest, most popular guys that we had in the system. Troy had a heart of gold from day one. He actually reminds me of Rafael Devers. Their body language, the loose whippy swing. Every time we play Boston and I see him, I think of Troy.”
O’Leary wasn’t as good as Devers — his career numbers include 1,100 hits, 127 home runs, and a 97 wRC+ — but he did have a lot of success against Sparks. The Compton, California native went 9-for-12 with a double and a home run against the Tulsa, Oklahoma-born right-hander.
“I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Sparks said of their head-to-head record. “And it’s funny, because when I look back at guys I’d played with previously, many had a fair amount of success against me. I guess Troy is one of them.”
Dave Nilsson was 17 years old and a handful of months removed from signing with the Brewers out of Brisbane, Australia when he played alongside O’Leary and Sparks in Helena. He never got a chance to bat against Sparks, but the two do have an engaging history together. Following Sparks’s 1995 rookie season, Nilsson, who by then was Milwaukee’s’ primary catcher, asked him to be the pitching coach for the team he’d be managing in Brisbane that winter. Sparks accepted, and proceeded to spend four months Down Under where, as the old Foster’s Beer ad informed us, people “speak Australian.” Having roomed with Nilsson in the minor leagues, he was already familiar with the language.
“Dave would get really frustrated when he’d call Domino’s Pizza,” recalled Sparks. “They couldn’t understand his accent, because it was so thick. He ended up making me place his orders, because they couldn’t understand what kind of pizza he wanted. But he could really hit. I think he batted .390 in the Pioneer League. He came out swinging, right from the get-go, at a young age. He went on to have an All-Star season and was one of the best hitting catchers in the major leagues.”
Nilsson played eight MLB seasons, all with the Brewers, and all before celebrating his 30th birthday, finishing with a .284/.356/.461 slash line and a 108 wRC+. He subsequently represented his country in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, and in the 2006 WBC. Nilsson is now the head coach of Team Australia.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
The Los Angeles Dodgers have played every team this season with the exception of the Detroit Tigers and the Seattle Mariners. Last weekend, I asked LA manager Dave Roberts which opponent, with the exception of the powerhouse Atlanta Braves, he has been most impressed with. He named two.
“The Orioles are very impressive,” replied Roberts, whose club won two out of three from the AL East leaders in mid-July. “It’s a shame they’re losing Félix Bautista. I really like that shortstop [Gunnar Henderson]. [Adley] Rutschman is special. That team really impressed me.”
“The way that the Reds have played, consistently holding on and continuing to grind… I really like [Matt] McLain. [Elly] De La Cruz is a human highlight film. He’s like the Dominique Wilkins of baseball. Those two teams have really stood out to me.”
Dusty Baker had a longer list when I asked him the same question this past Monday.
“It depends,” said the Houston Astros manager. “I was impressed with this team [the Red Sox] when they beat us 17-1. I was impressed with Seattle the last time we saw them [August 18-20]. I was impressed with the Braves, even though we swept them. I was impressed with the Dodgers; they beat us two out of three when we played them out there. But I try not to be over-impressed by anybody. I also try not to underestimate anybody.”
Following up, I asked the future Hall of Fame manager what had impressed him about the Mariners. His response included mention of two other clubs.
“Their pitching and the fact that they were hot as hell,” Baker said of Seattle. “And Cincinnati came in and swept us as a hot team… They’ve got a lot of speed. A lot of speed. They’ve got some young guys who can hit. And Texas. Those two teams are really improved.”
Only two pitchers in MLB history have allowed 500 or more home runs. Who are they?
The answer can be found below.
Ned Yost was officially inducted in the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame yesterday. Yost managed the club from 2010-2019, a ten-year period in which they went 746-839 and captured a World Series title in 2015.
The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) has honored Mark Armour with its first ever lifetime achievement award. The founder and director of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, Armour currently serves as SABR’s president.
Registration is now open for SABR’s Women in Baseball conference, which will be held virtually from on September 29-October 1. More information can be found here.
Pat Corrales, a catcher who appeared in 300 games while playing for four teams from 1964-1973, and later managed the Rangers, Indians, and Phillies, died on August 28 at age 81. The last of the backup backstop’s four career home runs was a ninth-inning, three-run shot that gave the Reds a 3-1 win over the Braves in 1970. Corrales had one at-bat that October when Cincinnati lost to the Orioles in the World Series.
Ryan Lefebvre isn’t unique in having gone from the playing field to the broadcast booth. The way he made the transition is somewhat unique. Now in his 25th season behind the mic for the Kansas City Royals, Lefebvre hung up his spikes two-plus weeks after being drafted out of the University of Minnesota, having playing just six professional games. Moreover, he’d just helped lead the Gophers to the 1993 Big 10 title, and his slash line over four collegiate seasons was a rock solid .344/438/.443.
I asked the son of former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jim Lefebvre — along with Wes Parker, Maury Wills, and Jim Gilliam, part of MLB’s only all switch-hitting infield — why he opted not to chase his boyhood dream.
“My dad, in addition to being a player, coach, and manager, was also a farm director,” replied Lefebvre. “For years, his organization had to put an end to more dreams than they saw kids’ dreams realized. I was drafted in the 27th round [by Cleveland] and knew it was going to be a difficult road, that I wasn’t a real prospect. I went to college wanting to be a major league player, but I realized that I needed to have a solid Plan B too.”
Lefebvre earned a degree in Speech Communication, Sociology, and American Studies at Minnesota, working at the campus’s two radio stations along the way. He also had an internship at a Falmouth, Massachusetts station while playing in the Cape Cod League. It was there that he began to seriously consider an on-air career. He also came to realize that while he could compete against his peers on the diamond, “they cared about it a lot more than I did.”
A big-league broadcasting job was right around the corner. The Twins hired the then-24-year-old in 1995, and he spent four years calling games in Minnesota before moving on to Kansas City. Shortly after taking the Twins job, he had an interesting encounter with Cleveland GM John Hart.
“I introduced myself to him,” recalled Lefebvre. “I wanted to say hello, because the Indians had been great to me when they realized I didn’t want to play anymore. He was probably just trying to be nice, but John Hart said to me, ’Ryan, good luck to you; we sure wish we had you in our outfield.’ I remember thinking, ‘Really? With Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and Albert Belle? What exactly would I be doing in your outfield?’ I think I made the right choice.”
The Australian Baseball League has released its 2023-2024 schedule, with the season set to begin on November 17. The Adelaide Giants are the defending champions in the six-team circuit.
Kazuma Okamoto leads NPB hitters in home runs (35) and total bases (254). The 27-year-old corner infielder is slashing .298/.393/.615 for the Yomiuri Giants.
James Marvel is 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in 20-and-two-thirds innings with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. The 29-year-old right-hander signed with the NPB club after being released by the Texas Rangers in June. Marvel’s MLB experience comprises four appearances with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019.
Seunghwan Oh is 3-4 with 23 saves and a 4.28 ERA for the KBO’s Samsung Lions. The 41-year-old right-hander logged 16 wins and 42 saves pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, and Colorado Rockies from 2016-2019.
Ronnie Dawson is slashing .357/.429/.479 with three home runs in 163 plate appearances for the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes. The 28-year-old outfielder played for the independent Atlantic League’s Lexington Counter Clocks earlier this season after previously getting cups of coffee with the Houston Astros in 2021 and the Cincinnati Reds in 2022.
Kiwoom’s Woo-Jin An will reportedly undergo Tommy John surgery. The right-hander, who turned 24 earlier this week, has a 2.24 ERA over 54 starts in the past two seasons. He led the KBO in strikeouts last year and was in line to do so again this year.
Spencer Jones has faced a lot of quality arms this season. Drafted 25th overall last year by the New York Yankees out of Vanderbilt University, the 22-year-old outfielder has logged 485 plate appearances between High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A Somerset. The nastiest pitcher he’s stood in the box against?
“Last night I had a pretty nasty at-bat against their closer,” Jones said in response to that question on Thursday. “I mean, he went back to back splitters and I was like, ‘all right.’ Then he went 99 [mph] at the top of the zone and I walked back to the dugout. That was pretty fun. The guy’s got an electric arm. ”
Described by Eric Longenhagen as “an arm strength maven whose stuff overpowered hitters in the lower minors,” Luis Guerrero was ranked No. 28 with a 40 FV when our Boston Red Sox Top Prospects list came out in mid-June. The 23-year-old right-hander has a 1.81 ERA to go with 59 strikeouts, 30 walks, and 26 hits allowed in 49-and-two-thirds innings with the Portland Sea Dogs. He has 18 saves.
Carter Aldrete homered three times on Thursday as the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels outscored the Hartford Yard Goats 17-10. The 25-year-old infielder/outfielder in the San Francisco Giants organization is the nephew of former big-league outfielder, and current Oakland Athletics first base coach, Mike Aldrete.
Ben Rice is slashing .323/.428/.625 with 18 home runs in 278 plate appearances across Low-A Tampa, High-A Hudson Valley, and Double-A Somerset. The 24-year-old catcher/first baseman was taken in the 12th round of the 2021 draft by the New York Yankees out of Dartmouth College.
Jett Williams is slashing .260/.429/.440 with 11 home runs in 475 plate appearances between Low-A St. Lucie and High-A Brooklyn. No. 8 on our New York Mets Top Prospects list with a 45+ FV, the 19-year-old shortstop/outfielder was drafted 14th overall in 2022 out of Texas’s Rockwell-Heath High School.
Colson Montgomery is slashing .298/.470/.494 with six home runs in 238 plate appearances across the Arizona Complex League, High-A Winston Salem, and Double-A Birmingham. No. 1 on our Chicago White Sox Top Prospects list coming into the season, the 21-year-old shortstop was drafted 22nd overall in 2021 out of Huntingburg, Indiana’s South Ridge High School.
Luke Little is 5-2 with a 2.12 ERA, one save, and 105 strikeouts over 63-and-two-thirds innings across High-A South Bend, Double-A Tennessee, and Triple-A Iowa. The 22-year-old southpaw was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 draft by the Chicago Cubs out of San Jacinto College.
Marc Church is 8-3 with two saves, a 3.38 ERA, and 73 strikeouts in 53-and-a-third innings between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock. The 22-year-old right-hander out of Georgia’s North Atlanta High School is No. 20 on our Texas Rangers Top Prospects list with a 40+ FV.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Purple Row’s Renee Dechert looked at how effective the Colorado Rockies are on the bases.
Why has Minnesota Twins closer Jhoan Duran been scuffling? John Foley delved into that question at Twinkie Town.
The Chicago White Sox have produced a documentary “highlighting the team’s rebrand in the ’90s and its intersection with hip-hop, pop culture and fashion.” Brent Maguire has the story at MLB.com.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The average time of a nine-inning MLB game this season is 2:39, down from 3:04 a year ago. Nine-inning postseason games averaged 3:23 last year.
Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners starters have thrown 762 innings this year, tied for the most in the majors. San Francisco Giants starters have thrown 611-and-two-thirds innings, the fewest in the majors.
The San Diego Padres are 0-11 in extra-inning games this season. The 1969 Montreal Expos, who finished their ninnaugural season 52-110, went 0-12 in extra-inning games.
Heavy Johnson slashed .406/.471/.722 with 20 home runs in 429 plate appearances for the Negro National League’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1923. A year earlier, the Atchison, Kansas native slashed .406/.450/.715 will 11 home runs in 263 plate appearances.
On today’s date in 1917, Grover Cleveland Alexander logged a pair of complete-game wins as the Philadelphia Phillies swept a double-header from the Brooklyn Robbins by scores of 5-0 and 9-3. The Hall of Fame right-hander went on finish the season 30-13, his third consecutive year with 30 or more wins.
St. Louis Cardinals southpaw Bud Smith threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on today’s date in 2001. The rookie went on to finish his brief MLB career with a record of 7-8 and just the one complete game.
Players born on today’s date include Katsy Keifer, a left-handed pitcher whose big-league career comprised a complete-game win for the Federal League’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1914. The California, Pennsylvania native’s 10-year minor-league career included stints with the Traverse City Resorters, Battle Creek Crickets, St. Joseph Drummers, and Worcester Boosters.
Also born on today’s date was Weldon West, a southpaw who went 3-4 with a 4.29 ERA pitching for the St. Louis Browns in 1944 and 1945. St. Louis’s starting centerfielder in all three of West’s wins was one-armed Pete Gray.