The list of first-timers on the baseball writers’ 2020 Hall of Fame ballot includes two notable names with Mississippi ties: Cliff Lee and Bobby Abreu, both of whom figure to get decent support. Neither, however, is likely to be named on 75 percent of the ballots to earn election. The real question is, will they get enough support to stay on the ballot for a second term? A player needs to appear on at least 5 percent of the ballots to do so — a bigger hurdle than you might think. Consider: Weir native and Holmes Community College product Roy Oswalt and former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the 2019 ballot, and none of them came close to making it for 2020. Both Lee, who pitched at Meridian Community College before going on to Arkansas, and ex-Generals star Abreu have some eye-catching numbers. Lee, a four-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, went 143-91 with a 3.52 ERA over 13 seasons. Abreu, a two-time All-Star, batted .291 with 288 homers, 400 steals and eight 100-RBI seasons. But it’s a very crowded field. Still on the ballot is Billy Wagner, another ex-Gens star who has lasted five years. The little left-hander, who has 422 career saves (sixth all-time), got just 16.7 percent of the votes in 2019. The only Mississippi-connected players enshrined in Cooperstown are former Negro Leagues stars Cool Papa Bell and William Foster.
Following up on a fairly dominant 2019 season in Texas’ system, Demarcus Evans has posted seven scoreless outings in nine appearances in the Dominican Winter League. The big right-hander out of Petal High has a 2.60 ERA with nine strikeouts and seven walks in 10 innings for Escogido. In his fifth pro season, the 23-year-old Evans started 2019 in high Class A and finished it with Double-A Frisco, where he had an 0.96 ERA, six saves and 60 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings. He was, according to Baseball America, the only minor league pitcher to record triple-digit strikeouts in 60 or fewer innings. BA named Evans as the relief pitcher on its all-classification Minor League All-Star team, and he also made MLB Pipeline’s Prospect Team of the Year. Oddly enough, Evans, who became a fulltime reliever in 2017, is not currently among the Rangers’ Top 30 in MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings. He has a career 2.53 ERA and has averaged 13.7 punchouts per nine innings. … Ole Miss alum Chris Ellis has been extremely effective out of the bullpen for Monterrey in the Mexican Pacific League. He has a 0.50 ERA in 18 one-inning appearances. Ellis, 27, made one MLB appearance (for Kansas City) last season and spent the rest of the year with Triple-A Memphis in St. Louis’ system.
Of the many home runs he has hit in many different ballparks, the blast Brent Rooker struck in Japan’s Tokyo Dome on Friday is one that will likely stick with him. The Mississippi State product hit what was described as a “mammoth” homer that lifted Team USA to a 3-2 win over Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament. The victory in the must-win game kept Team USA in the hunt for a bronze medal in the event and a berth in the 2020 Olympic Games. Rooker’s third homer of the tournament was a two-run bomb in the seventh inning that gave his team its 3-2 lead. He reportedly punctuated the homer with an emphatic bat flip. “I had been holding my breath for about three innings,” Team USA manager Scott Brosius told The Japan Times. “So, he allowed me to breathe a little bit.” Rooker, a top prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization, has batted .353 in six games in the Premier 12 event. In his third pro season, the former SEC Triple Crown winner hit .281 with 14 homers in 65 Triple-A games, missing a chunk of time with injuries. He’ll likely make his big league debut in 2020.
Lance Lynn might have been an under-the-radar free agent signee by Texas last off-season, but his performance in 2019 did not go unnoticed. Former Ole Miss standout Lynn, a 16-game winner for the Rangers, finished fifth in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award won Wednesday night by Houston’s Justin Verlander. Coming off a rough 2018 campaign split between Minnesota and the New York Yankees, Lynn signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers and quickly emerged as the staff ace. In 33 starts, the 32-year-old right-hander went 16-11 with a 3.67 ERA and worked 208 1/3 innings, striking out 246 batters, fourth-most in the AL. His most memorable moment might have come in the Rangers’ final game ever at Globe Life Park on Sept. 29. Lynn went 7 1/3 for the win, holding the Yankees to two hits and punching out 10. (An aside: In the first game at that Arlington stadium in 1994, Mississippi State product Will Clark hit the first Rangers home run.) … Three former Mississippi Braves hurlers got Cy Young votes: Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, one of the three AL finalists, finished third and Lynn’s Texas teammate Mike Minor eighth in the AL voting, while Atlanta’s Mike Soroka was sixth in the National League tally.
As baseball has become awash in new-age statistics, batting average has somehow been devalued. Yet even in this era of WAR, OPS+, hard-hit rate, et al., there remains something special about a batting title. Tim Anderson, the former East Central Community College standout, won one this year in the American League, adding his name to a list that includes, just from this decade, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts and Josh Hamilton. Good company. Myriad Hall of Famers own batting titles: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Rod Carew and Wade Boggs, to name a few. There is nothing fluky about batting average. Anderson hit .335 in 2019, becoming the first Mississippian (native or college alum) to earn a batting crown since Dave Parker won the second of his two in the National League in 1978. The only others to do it: Buddy Myer (1935) and Harry Walker (1947). Anderson, a shortstop in his fourth MLB season for the Chicago White Sox, also hit 18 home runs, drove in 56 runs, stole 17 bases and scored 81 runs. For the record, he posted a 4.0 WAR. It was the kind of season that deserves to be recognized with a Cool Papa Bell Award, given here for the most outstanding performance by a Mississippian in MLB. Previous winners of the award, which honors Negro Leagues legend Bell, the first Mississippi native to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, include Corey Dickerson (twice), Mitch Moreland, Brian Dozier (twice), Desmond Jennings, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Chris Coghlan.
All that glitters isn’t gold – sometimes it’s silver. Three former Mississippi Braves were awarded their first Silver Slugger awards on Thursday: Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Those three figure to represent the core of Atlanta’s lineup for years to come, something Braves fans, disappointed at how the 2019 season ended, can feel good about this winter. First baseman Freeman, 30, batted .295 with 38 homers, 121 RBIs and 113 runs, MVP-type numbers. (Hard to believe he hasn’t won a Silver Slugger before this.) Outfielder Acuna, at age 21, also had an MVP kind of season: .280, 41 homers, 101 RBIs, 127 runs and 37 steals. And all second baseman Albies, 22, did was bat .295 – leading the National League with 189 hits – with 43 doubles, 24 homers, 86 RBIs and 102 runs. … There may be more hardware coming for M-Braves alums. Mike Soroka, who went 13-4 for Atlanta this past season, is a finalist for NL rookie of the year honors, and Brian Snitker, manager of the inaugural M-Braves team in 2005, is a finalist for NL manager of the year, an award he won in 2018. The ROY winner will be announced on Nov. 11, the manager award on Nov. 12. … Cristian Pache, an M-Braves star last summer, has been pegged by mlb.com as the Braves’ best NL rookie of the year candidate for 2020. Pache, 20, a center fielder by trade, batted .278 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in Mississippi before earning a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. Pache could have “Acuna-like impact in 2020” – if the Braves can find a spot for him, of course. … Love this quote (in an mlb.com story) from Chuck James, a soft-tossing former M-Braves ace who went 24-19 over five big league seasons: “I grew up in a small town and my college (Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Alabama) had a picket fence in the outfield. I had no expectations, because I didn’t know what to expect. But I got to be a kid longer than most, and it was everything they make it out to be.”
So many iconic college coaches have worked in Mississippi over the years that the legacy of Willie E. “Rat” McGowan can get lost in the shuffle. McGowan, who died on Tuesday, was the Alcorn State coach for parts of four decades (1972-2009). When you start reeling off the names of the state’s coaching greats — Ron Polk, Boo Ferriss, Hill Denson, Bob Braddy, Mike Bianco, Mike Kinnison, Bobby Halford, Jim Page, et. al — McGowan belongs in the conversation. He accomplished impressive things at a small school with relatively limited resources for baseball. McGowan, who doubled as a football assistant coach during much of his time in Lorman, is Alcorn’s all-time leader in baseball victories with a 720-663-7 record. His last two teams each won 29 games, the school record. He was a four-time coach of the year in the SWAC and is in the conference’s Hall of Fame. The school’s baseball stadium bears his name. The only Alcorn player to make the big leagues – Al Jones, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1983-85 – played for McGowan, as did a dozen others who were drafted. A McComb native, McGowan played baseball and football for the Braves in the late 1950s.
Kendall Graveman rolled into the free agent market on Monday when the Chicago Cubs declined a $3 million option on the former Mississippi State standout. He pitched – very briefly — in the Cubs’ minor league system last season on a one-year, $575,000 deal while recovering from 2018 Tommy John surgery. Graveman is 23-29 with a 4.38 ERA over five big league seasons, four with Oakland. … Taylorsville High alumnus Billy Hamilton also became a free agent after Atlanta declined a 2020 option on the 29-year-old center fielder. Hamilton finished the past season with the Braves after being waived by Kansas City, with whom he had signed as a free agent last off-season. He is sitting on 299 career steals. … Former Ole Miss standout Mike Mayers was claimed on waivers by the Los Angeles Angels, where the new pitching coach is UM product Mickey Callaway, fired as the New York Mets manager after two seasons. Mayers, 27, a right-handed reliever, posted a 6.63 ERA for St. Louis in 2019 and was not on the Cardinals’ postseason roster. … Ex-Ole Miss star Drew Pomeranz will sign as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers and McComb native Corey Dickerson with San Diego, according to predictions by MLB Trade Rumors staff. Left-hander Pomeranz is ranked No. 23 among available free agents and outfielder Dickerson is No. 25. … MSU product Brent Rooker and Mississippi Braves alum Drew Waters helped Team USA advance out of group play in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament in Mexico. Rooker, a Minnesota prospect, and Waters both homered in a Game 1 win vs. the Netherlands on Saturday. In an elimination game win on Monday against the Dominican Republic, Waters played as a defensive replacement in center field, while Rooker did not get in the game. Team USA now goes to Tokyo next week for the Super Round of the Premier 12 event, a 2020 Olympics qualifier. … Grenada native Dave Parker is one of 10 candidates announced by the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday for inclusion on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era (1970-87) ballot. A 16-member panel will vote and announce potential electees on Dec. 8 at the Winter Meetings. Candidates must receive votes from at least 75 percent of the ballots to gain election to the Hall. Parker– a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, two-time batting champion, two-time World Series champ and one-time National League MVP — lasted the maximum 15 years on the baseball writers’ ballot before falling off in 2011. “(W)hen Parker was at his best, he was elite at just about everything a player can do on the field,” an ESPN writer recently noted.
Though he has yet to pitch in a World Series game, Mississippi native Tony Sipp, a free agent since August, figures to collect a second World Series ring in the last three years as a result of the Washington Nationals’ stunning takedown of the Houston Astros. Sipp, a veteran left-handed reliever, was a member of the Astros — but not on their postseason roster — when they won the 2017 title. He appeared in 36 games for the Nationals this season but was released in August when they restocked their bullpen at the trade deadline. The former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star had an uneven season, posting a 4.71 ERA. He had signed with Washington as a free agent coming off a resurgent 2018 season with the Astros, for whom he pitched in the playoffs. In 2017, Sipp endured the worst of his 11 big league campaigns (5.79 in 46 games) and was left off Houston’s postseason roster. Still, he got a ring – his first – after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series. At age 36, Sipp’s playing days may be behind him.
There are always many storylines that develop in any World Series game, and umpires do not want to be one of them. In Game 5 on Sunday night, there was a missing ace, an ace on a mission, three big home runs and a clutch double play. There were also issues with balls and strikes. Brookhaven native Lance Barksdale was behind the plate at Nationals Park in Washington, where Houston completed a three-game sweep with a 7-1 victory that takes the Astros back home with a 3-2 series lead. The two most contentious ball-strike calls came in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was 4-1 with two outs, and Astros starter Gerrit Cole, very sharp on this particular night, went to a full count on Ryan Zimmerman. The 3-2 pitch was high and away but appeared, on replay, to be a strike. Cole and catcher Martin Maldonado certainly thought so. Barksdale called it a ball. Cole again went full to Victor Robles. The 3-2 pitch again was high and away — but this time, on replay, was clearly a ball. Barksdale emphatically called it a strike, ending the inning. Robles couldn’t believe it and jumped in the air. The Nationals bench went nuts. If it had been a regular season game, people likely would have been ejected. It was Cole’s final pitch — and his ninth punchout — and the Nationals never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The Astros put the game away with a run in the eighth and two more in the ninth. No one blamed Barksdale for Washington’s loss. You give up three two-run bombs, you’re going to lose most of the time. But there has been lots of buzz about the ball-strike calls and how much they can impact the game. Pedro Martinez made some excellent points on the issue on MLB Network’s postgame show. Some are saying it’s time to institute an electronic system for calling balls and strikes, which would be a fundamental change in the grand old game. Will we look back someday on Game 5 of the ’19 Series — the Barksdale game — as the tipping point in that debate?