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“It Was Moneyball Before ‘Moneyball"


Danny Kelly

Staff Writer, The Ringer


‘Major League’ Is Baseball

How Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, and the rest of the fictional Cleveland Indians present the most accurate version of the sport to ever hit the big screen

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,The Ringer is exploring why Cleveland matters.

It was 1988. The Cleveland Indians hadn’t come close to winning a pennant in 34 years. So when Major League director David S. Ward set out to make a movie about the team he’d grown up rooting for from his hometown of South Euclid, Ohio, he realized it would have to be a comedy for anyone to take the concept of the Indians being part of a playoff race seriously.

Yeah, Major League is absurd at times, and for some reason Jake Taylor (played by Tom Berenger) can just walk into any apartment at any time. (Several times throughout the movie, he just enters private residencesuninvited, like some sort of antivampire.) But even with a few plot holes, it’s still one of the best baseball movies of all time. And despite Ward’s reasoning behind making it a comedy, Major League is also the most accurate baseball movie ever made. The Sandlot is a classic, but it’s told through the lens of fantastically distorted childhood memories. Field of Dreams is about a bunch of ghosts that came out of a cornfield. The Bad News Bears and Bull Durhamare certainly in the conversation, but they don’t depict the sport at its highest level. Moneyball is amazing, but it’s told through a narrow lens; it just can’t match the scope of what Major League got so right.

‘Major League’ Captured the Spirit of Every Downtrodden Fan Base

One of the defining elements of fandom is hope. Every season ushers in a new opportunity: Maybe, just maybe, this could be the year.

This flicker of expectation exists at the beginning of every baseball season, but the 162-game schedule tends to iron out the surprises you get in other sports. So, there’s a unique kind of mistrust among the fans of hard-luck franchises.

Despite the length of the season, though, you’re still going to watch. You know it’s not going to work out because it never does, but some vague, reluctant obligation — or maybe just boredom — keeps you tuning in.

Anyone who’s lived through lean years knows the feeling, and Major Leaguesets the tenor. The fans aren’t falling for the team’s attempts to create opening day excitement. The beat writers are settling in for another long slog covering a terrible team, and even the faithful radio play-by-play announcer knows that no one really cares. They’re all bound to this team, but they’re not exactly happy about it.

It Was Moneyball Before ‘Moneyball’

Granted, it has a slightly different tone than the Brad Pitt film, but Major League illustrated the Moneyball approach to building a winning roster almost a decade before Billy Beane’s revolutionary sabermetrics-based method took hold. It proposed that even if you’re stuck in a midsize market with limited resources, a shitty stadium, and ownership that doesn’t much care about winning, you can compete for a pennant with a little creativity.

Instead of spending big money on players with five tools, general manager Charlie Donovan, manager Lou Brown, and bench coach Pepper Leach went about finding players with one or two marginally special skills: Willie Mays Hayes and his ridiculous speed, Pedro Cerrano and his power against fastballs, Ricky Vaughn’s amazing velocity, Eddie Harris and his junk balls, and Taylor’s game-calling and trash-talking wizardry.

It Showed Baseball From Every Angle

In part, HBO’s The Wire was compelling because it delved into every perspective of crime in Baltimore, exploring the relationships between drug organizations, police, the judiciary, city leadership, unions, and everyone in between. Major League … is not The Wire. (Although Jimmy McNulty and Ricky Vaughn do share some things in common.) But Major League celebrates baseball from all perspectives. It examines the relationships between ownership and the front office, the front office and the coaching staff, and the coaching staff and the players.

Donovan has to put together a coaching staff and spring training roster while being actively sabotaged by the Indians’ new owner, Rachel Phelps, who wants to move the team; Brown has to go about cutting down the roster, then coaching up a bunch of players with obvious deficiencies, all while testing their boundaries and seeing what they’re made of. He uses the threat of push-ups to get Mays to hit the ball on the ground, brings Roger Dorn to heel by literally taking a piss on his contract, and figures out that Vaughn’s faulty eyes can’t see far enough for him to know where to throw his fastball.

The movie also explores the dynamics between players, whose perspectives vary greatly: You’ve got the vets mailing it in on their big contract, the over-the-hill former stars trying for one last shot at a ring, the midlevel players just looking to keep their job, and the rookies trying to break out. These players come from different backgrounds, cultures, and creeds. Maybe they even practice voodoo:

Taylor, the veteran catcher and team glue guy, is ostensibly the main character, but Major League is really more of an ensemble cast. Ward supposedly cut out Taylor’s wedding scene from the ending to drive this point home. The movie is about the team — the off-field stuff the players go through; the grind of being on the road in dumpy planes, buses, and hotels; what it’s like to deal with fans and the media; and how difficult it is to deal with the pressure of performing on the highest stage. It captures the anxious pregame tension, the nerve-racking calm before the storm: players fidgeting at their lockers, getting lost in their thoughts as they stave off the creeping self-doubts. The entire closing scene, which takes place during the Indians’ one-game playoff with the Yankees, reproduces the internal battle athletes go through in the biggest moments of their career.

It’s Not Too Serious About Baseball

No, a hitter, third-base coach, manager, and runner on second base probably couldn’t have a long, wordless discussion about a zany idea for a bunt hit-and-run. But Major League gets baseball right when it comes to a lot of the eccentricities and nuances of America’s national pastime. Harris bends the rules with little tricks of the trade (using Vagisil, Crisco, and snot to load up his curveball). Cerrano’s (and later Harris’s) belief in the powers of Jobu do a great job of illustrating the tradition of extreme superstition in baseball. (The real-life Cleveland Indians offered a raw chicken to Jobu just this week).There’s hazing. There are fights with teammates, umps, other teams, and even the manager.

The examples are often over the top, but still feel strangely authentic. Much like how Veepportrays a more realistic version of Washington, D.C., than House of Cards does, Major Leaguereminds us that baseball is a game that many people care about — but most of those people are huge goofballs. Wearing stretch pants with a belt and swinging a piece of wood for a living is absurd in some way, so why wouldn’t a movie about baseball be just as ridiculous?

This makes the depiction of the players themselves feel genuine, too. Whetherthey’re in the major leagues, or just playing softball on Friday nights, a good amount of players still respect and uphold one of the most important, time-honored traditions of the sport: carte blanche to be a disgusting dirtbag.

Major League’s de facto villains are the Yankees (as they should be). Their leader? AL Triple Crown winner and the awesomely gross Clu Haywood, whose favorite pastime, apart from hitting dingers, is to call rookies Hayes and Vaughn “meat” whenever he gets the chance. Clu is played by former real-life major leaguer Peter Vuckovich, an 11-year veteran pitcher, most notably for the Brewers. The “how’s your wife and my kids?” line was improvised by Vuckovich, who was told by Ward to say something that a big leaguer might say in that situation. Baseball players are the best.

It Nails the Importance of the Radio Play-by-Play Announcer

Major League’s de facto narrator is Harry Doyle, played by the real-life Hall of Fame Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker. The whiskey-swilling play-by-play announcer ties everything in the movie together, waffling between weary dejection and relentless positivity during the most beautifully euphemism-laden narration of baseball you’ll ever hear.

Uecker’s “juuuuuust a bit outside” call was also an off-script improvisation — and probably became the most ubiquitous line from the movie — but it just scratches the surface of the importance of the radio play-by-play caller to a franchise’s fans. Baseball play-by-play guys have to be storytellers, and they have to be bullshitters. It’s not the fast-paced world of basketball or football with a few fleeting breaks in the action; it’s three hours of yarn-spinning punctuated by a couple of moments of exhilaration. Whether it’s Harry Caray,Vin Scully, Dave Niehaus, or any number of legendary broadcasters, the game’s biggest moments — a team’s most legendary plays — are inextricably linked to their calls. Major League gets this just right with Uecker as the voice of the Tribe.

It Recreates the In-Game Experience

If you’re lucky, you’ve had the chance to experience a crucial postseason game for your team. The scenes from Cleveland’s one-game playoff with the Yankees capture the raw emotion of that type of crowd. Most famously: Ricky Vaughn’s slow, epic walk to the mound to the chorus of “Wild Thing.” Although it’s a comedy, Major League — with the help of 27,000 extras filling the stands — still manages to create that feeling of electricity in the stadium:

It Reminds Us That Sometimes a Division Title Is Enough

The ending of the movie is a freeze-frame of the players celebrating their glorious one-game playoff win, giving them the city’s first the AL East title in decades. Left unclear is whether or not they’d go on to win the ALCS or the World Series — because who cares? It doesn’t matter what happened next.

Only one team wins a championship each year, and we’re only on this rock for a limited amount of time; you’ve got to take your glory where you can.

As a lifelong Mariners fan, I saw my team recreate the fictional Indians’ late-season pennant run just a few years after Major League was released. The 1995 season didn’t end in a World Series for the Mariners, but it will nonetheless go down in history for the team, which still hasn’t won it all. The Mariners’ magical “refuse to lose” hot streak erased the then-California Angels’ 13-game divisional lead , setting up a one-game playoff with the Angels for the AL West division title. After winning that, the Mariners faced the Yankees in the divisional round, and after falling being in the series 2–0, they rallied to force a decisive Game 5 showdown. It went to 11 innings, and then:

The play has a name: the ’95 Slide. Edgar Martinez’s double is burned into the collective memories of every Mariners fan alive. The image of Ken Griffey Jr.on the bottom of a dogpile is iconic. Niehaus’s call of the play is legendary, and it didn’t matter what happened after that.

But if you have to know, the Mariners went on to the ALCS, and they lost. To whom? The Indians.





"And that’s bad news for opposing hitters."





Not So Fast: Three Pitchers Surprisingly Building Success on Breaking Balls

Standard operating procedure on the mound dictates that a pitcher should throw a fastball for strike one, then another fastball for strike two, and then switch to a breaking ball as his “out pitch” for strike three.

But not every pitcher is blessed with a heater that supports that sort of scheme, and the unfortunate arms that lack one have the choice of remaining constrained by their imbalanced skill sets or embracing the unorthodox by — wait for it — using their best pitch more.

As The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently detailed, Oakland’s Rich Hill has enjoyed a late-career surge by pivoting to rely predominantly on his curveball in lieu of a fastball-oriented approach.

The veteran Hill isn’t alone in inverting his plan of attack; some younger pitchers have adopted a similarly intuitive strategy of using their best pitch as both hammer and anvil. Here are three more starters who have enjoyed an extreme shift in approach and whose breaking balls are taking them — and their strikeout totals — to new heights in 2016.

(Note: All pitch usage numbers in this piece come from Brooks Baseball.)

Lance McCullers, Astros

Considering how many headlines he generated last year, McCullers is having a rather understated sophomore season. Which is strange because the Astros’ right-hander has spent his year essentially alternating between striking out and walking every batter in sight.

Currently, both his strikeout rate (11.52 K/9) and walk rate (5.37 BB/9) are the second highest in baseball (min. 60 innings pitched). Over a full season, those figures would be unprecedented; the only pitchers in history to come close are Nolan Ryan and the hatchling versions of Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

The walk totals are skewing high because McCullers’s fastball command has abandoned him in 2016. In response, he’s scaled back his use of the four-seamer and is throwing a knuckle curve on around 50 percent of his pitches — he’s nearly flipped his fastball-to-curveball ratio from a year ago.

The knuckle curve averages more than 85 mph, making it the fastest curveballfor any starter over the past decade, and opponents can’t seem to touch it. The pitch dives low and away from righties and in on lefties’ hands. That kind of placement is what makes an All-Star like Robinson Canó look like this.

Canó had no chance at this pitch the entire way. When he started his swing, the ball was already well off the plate (it’s the blurry white dot just above his knee in the below screenshot) — but thanks to McCullers’s velocity, he can mask what’s just average movement on the pitch.

Only Miami’s José Fernandez has earned more strikeouts with his curveballthis season. Overall, McCullers’s opponents are hitting .136 and slugging .181in at-bats ending in a curve; against all other pitches, those rates balloon to .422 and .606, respectively. That’s the difference between the average pitcher’s performance at the plate and the production of Ty Cobb at his peak. With that kind of split, even if McCullers can regain command of his fastball down the stretch, he might do well to stick with the curve as his primary pitch.

Aaron Nola, Phillies

Another second-year pitcher spinning curveballs for Ks, Nola spent the first two months of the season conjuring images of Roy Halladay, collecting a 2.65 ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning and avoiding walks. Even after a rough stretch before the All-Star break, Nola remains a top-10 pitcher in the NL and still projects as a top-of-the-rotation arm.

In his rookie season, Nola used a typical mix of pitches: a four-seam fastball 40 percent of the time, with a sinker, curve, and changeup rounding out the rest. But he’s dropped his fastball frequency to 15 percent this year, largely replacing his worst pitch with an improved sinker and an elite curve, which Nola tosses more than any pitcher aside from the aforementioned Hill.

All curveballs are technically breaking balls, but Nola’s is the sort for which the term “break” should be reserved — and not just because it breaks batters’ spirits. Per Baseball Prospectus’s PITCHf/x leaderboard, among starting pitchers, Nola’s breaker has the most horizontal movement of any curve or slider over the past decade.

Look at this pitch dance away from Kurt Suzuki’s bat. It seems to sit in the strike zone, inviting the Twins catcher to swing, before floating just beyond his reach.

Nola has notched strikeouts in 45 percent of the at-bats that he has ended by throwing curveballs, and even when opponents don’t swing and miss, they struggle to square up a pitch featuring such extreme movement. Batters hit Nola’s curveball about as hard as they hit Clayton Kershaw’s, which means a lot of weak grounders for the Phillies’ infield and a lot of easy outs for their budding ace.

Last year, even when he was ahead in the count, Nola threw a four-seamer more frequently than his curve; when he trailed in the count, he barely ever tossed a breaking ball. But this season, he has grown more confident with the pitch and uses a curve more than a straight fastball regardless of the ball-strike situation. And he relies on it even more with runners in scoring position; it has become his clear go-to offering.

And that’s bad news for opposing hitters.

Matt Shoemaker, Angels

Blind résumé comparisons can be a silly exercise, but in this case it’s illuminating: Which 2016 pitching line belongs to Matt Shoemaker — a pitcher with a career 101 ERA+, meaning he has been almost perfectly average — and which belongs to $217 million–man David Price?

Pitcher A: 9.19 K/9, 1.84 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, 1.24 WHIP, 3.29 FIP in 112.2 innings

Pitcher B: 9.62 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, 1.06 HR/9, 1.28 WHIP, 3.36 FIP in 135.2 innings

The innings totals might give away that Price is the second guy, but the rest of the numbers look positively identical. Considering Shoemaker’s ERA sat above 9 until mid-May, the Angel has come a long way in the past two months — and he’s done it with a splitter whose development represents the only positive for Los Angeles’s staff all season.

In 59 career games before his start on May 16 — which came soon after he was recalled from Triple-A, where he tinkered with his pitch sequencing — Shoemaker had thrown more than 30 splitters in a contest once. In 13 starts since, he’s failed to surpass that number once; over that span, he’s posted a 2.56 ERA and the four highest-strikeout games of his career.

While the specifics of Shoemaker’s splitter are nothing special, the pitch’s subtler by-products are fueling his success. Before May 16, he rarely threw his splitter to open at-bats, but it’s been his most common pitch in a 0–0 count since, and he’s getting ahead of hitters better than any other qualified starter.

The splitter’s evolution has also allowed him to throw both his fastball and his other off-speed stuff less. Instead of attempting to fool batters with those lackluster offerings, he can throw his splitter — which fades back toward right-handers, unlike the other pitches on this list — to escape tough spots.

In at-bats ending with a Shoemaker splitter, opponents are hitting .184 and slugging .274 on the year; against all other pitches, those numbers jump to .318 and .519, respectively.

The Angels haven’t actually found right-handed David Price. But until Shoemaker’s arm falls off — between his splitter-heavy approach and the Angels’ recent luck, that date might be close — Mike Scioscia will be happy to have at least one arm in his rotation that can get batters out.



"For the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career,"




July 22, 2016 Mike Vorkunov


The lawsuit filed by current and former minor league baseball players against Major League Baseball for higher and fairer wages received a significant setback in a San Francisco court on Thursday, VICE Sports has learned. The minor leaguers, headlined by former player Aaron Senne, had their class action certification stripped away after having received a provisional class status last fall when they sued MLB under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"We're exploring all avenues, even the possibility of appeal right now," Grant Broshuis, the plaintiff's lawyer, told VICE Sports on Friday. "We'll certainly continue to represent our clients and pursue the litigation."

The decertification is the latest news in what has become a growing and heated battle for better treatment of minor league players from MLB. Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher serves as counsel for the Senne suit against MLB and also one brought by a former scout who was also suing MLB for increased pay.

Broshuis says he does not know yet if his St. Louis-based firm, Korein Tillery, will represent each plaintiff individually or how it will proceed exactly. After the original provisional certification last year, the plaintiffs had been given until February 11 to get other minor league players to opt into the class action suit. More than 2,200 former and current minor leaguers chose to join the class, according to court documents.

The decision to decertify was delivered on Thursday by judge Joseph C. Spero in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

"While the Court finds that many of the issues raised in this case (including issues relating to defenses) may be addressed on a class-wide basis, the collective members are not similarly situated," Spero wrote in his ruling. "Rather, as discussed above, the disparate factual and employment settings of the class members make collective adjudication of Plaintiffs' FLSA claims unmanageable and potentially unfair to Defendants. Most significantly, the Court finds that there are wide variations among the players as to the types of activities in which they engaged and the circumstances under which they engaged in them, which will give rise to a plethora of individualized inquiries relating to the determination of the amount of compensable work Plaintiffs performed. Adjudication of Plaintiffs' FLSA claims will also involve numerous individualized inquiries regarding the amount of compensation received by class members and the applicability of various defenses, including the amusement exemption and the creative professionals exemption."

Since the lawsuit against MLB was first filed, the discussion over what constitutes fair wages for minor leaguers, and if they deserve them, has only grown louder and more complex. Last month, the Save America's Pastime Act was introduced in the House of Representatives. It intended to exempt minor leaguers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill maintained that minor leaguers were not in the same position as those who had "traditional hourly-rate jobs." Originally introduced by two members of Congress, Rep. Cheri Bustos pulled her support after the bill was filleted in the media. Rep. Brett Guthrie continues to back the bill.

While the bill was surprising and hugely unpopular, MLB's response in support of it created even more controversy with its odd and dubious categorization of minor league players.

"For the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career," MLB said in the statement. "But a short-term seasonal apprenticeship in which the player either advances to the Major Leagues or pursues another career."

But that hardly rose to the level of rhetoric espoused by Stan Brand, Minor League Baseball's vice president and chief lobbyist in Washington D.C. He turned the minor league suit into a life or death referendum for his sport during an address at baseball's winter meetings in 2014, the first after the lawsuit was filed. He also promised to lobby Congress for minor leaguers to be excluded from overtime pay and minimum wage salaries under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"I will you ask you to heed the clarion call," he said, according to Baseball America. "Man the battle stations and carry the message to Congress loudly and clearly: The value of grassroots baseball and our stewardship of the game needs to be protected against the onslaught of these suits."



“It’s one of the hardest things to do in baseball”





Home groan: Twins have trouble drafting and developing starting pitchers

When it comes to drafting and developing starters, the Twins have work to do 

By La Velle E. Neal III Star Tribune  

JULY 14, 2016

It’s one of the hardest things to do in baseball, and the Twins are a shining example of what happens when you don’t.

The team’s woes of 2016 are a direct result of their failure to develop quality starting pitching.

To understand how glaring that failure has been, consider:

Despite efforts by the organization to improve its scouting, drafting and development of starters, the Twins have not seen one of their draft picks blossom into a capable starter since Matt Garza, who was selected in 2005.

And some would say Garza’s 82-91 record and 4.02 career ERA don’t stamp him as a success. If not Garza, then you have to go back — way back — to Brad Radke, the righthander who is the last pitcher drafted and developed by the Twins to appear in an All-Star Game.

Radke was drafted in 1991 — which means there’s a generation of Twins fans who have not seen the organization draft a starter who has enjoyed a productive career.

 “Every team in the game wants homegrown pitching,’’ General Manager Terry Ryan said. “It gives you a little bit more affordability in other areas. It gives you some comfort level in knowing where they are.”

Or aren’t.

The Twins are aware of their track record and, in recent years, have altered their strategy in their quest to build a deeper pool of in-house pitching prospects. Righthander Jose Berrios, who debuted earlier this season, could be the first of a wave of homegrown starters the Twins hope will end the development drought.

“It is something that has been an organizational void for a long time,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ director of player personnel. “We try to put it in perspective. We did the research on other clubs, and not a lot of them are doing great.”

Not much to show

To get an idea of where the Twins stand with developing their own starters, look at their drafts from 2002 to ’12. This period was selected because players in this range should be pitching in the majors today.

Examining the statistic called Wins Above Replacement — which is used to determine a player’s overall contribution to a club — it reveals an organization struggling to build a rotation from within.

During that period, the Twins have developed only two starters with a career WAR in the double digits — Scott Baker (14.7) and Garza (14.1). They went through a period from 2006 to ’08 in which they received 0 WAR from the starters they drafted.

That gap led to free-agent signings of Carl Pavano, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and others.

“We got to the point where we were like, ‘Where are our holes?’ ” Ryan said, “and it was in the rotation.”

The Twins aren’t the only team that has struggled to develop starting pitching depth. Just look at the AL Central.

The White Sox, like the Twins, have had two pitchers who have posted double-digit WAR ratings during the same period — but they are Chris Sale (28.9) and Gio Gonzalez (20.2). Gonzalez no longer is with Chicago, but he became a quality commodity who was dealt to land talent at another position.

The Royals developed Zach Greinke (51.2 WAR), who was dealt to Milwaukee for a package that included outfielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar — two pieces of last year’s World Series-winning club.

Detroit boasts Justin Verlander (45.9) and Rick Porcello (13.2). It shows how developing starters is a challenge, but all these teams have hit on at least one star who can change the fate of a franchise.

This exercise doesn’t factor in international signings — but keep the following in mind:

Since 2002, the Twins have had only four foreign players signed by the club start a game for them. Liam Hendriks (28), Yohan Pino (11), Juan Rincon (three) and Carlos Pulido (one). And Pulido was in his second tour with the team when he joined them in 2003. Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Francisco Liriano were signed by other clubs before they came to the Twins in trades.

Twins second-half begins Friday 7:10 p.m. vs. Cleveland • Target Field (FSN)

“No surprise,” Radcliff said. “We have been staring at [a lack of international help in pitching] for a long time.”

What are they doing about it?

Within the past five years, the Twins changed their approach. Because of losing records, they received higher draft picks and a better chance to land top-end arms.

They focused on power potential — as well as more inventory.

“We did our research,” Radcliff said. “We didn’t select enough [pitchers]. We didn’t even give ourselves a chance in the ’90s and 2000s.

“The attrition rate, how they fall off either by not being very good or getting injured, You never have enough pitching.”

They also have drafted some pitchers — such as Tyler Duffey in 2012 and Tyler Jay in 2015 — who were relievers in college but showed potential to develop into starters.



“It’s easier,’’ Ryan noted, “to find relievers.”

The Twins have taken great pain to shield their pitching prospects from overuse. At the lower levels of the minors, Twins teams use six-man rotations, and as a general rule don’t allow for more than a 20 percent increase in innings pitched from year to year.

The past few years, Duffey, Berrios, Kyle Gibson — who led the Twins in WAR last season — Pat Dean and Logan Darnell all have reached the majors as homegrown talents. Fans clamored for Berrios to be called up last season, but the Twins didn’t want to add to the 166 innings he threw between Class AA Chattanooga and Class AAA Rochester.

The Twins did roll the dice with Duffey, who was in the majors during the second half of the season and contributed to a playoff chase. He jumped from 149 innings in 2014 to 196 innings in 2015.

“There’s a history in young pitchers coming up here and then extending them beyond the increments you are talking about,” Ryan said.

In the pipeline

The Twins like their current stable of starting pitching prospects. Berrios had a rough baptism when called up in May but has made adjustments at Rochester and is close to a promotion.

Jay, a lefthander taken sixth overall last year; Kohl Stewart, a righthander drafted fourth overall in 2013; and lefthander Stephen Gonsalves, taken in the fourth round in 2013, all have been promoted to Class AA Chattanooga.

Internationally, righthander Felix Jorge recently was promoted to Chattanooga. Righthander Fernando Romero is at Class A Fort Myers and throws a mid-90s fastball with a good slider. Lefthander Randy Rosario hit 96 in spring training and is making progress at Fort Myers.

Australian lefthander Lewis Thorpe has a lot of promise but has been slowed by Tommy John elbow surgery last year and, more recently, mononucleosis.

Overall, it’s a group the Twins believe could make up the majority of the rotation in the coming years — a homegrown splash for which they are desperate.

“I think you’d probably have to go back to the Liriano, Garza, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Anthony Swarzak group in 2005 for a good comparison [to the current class of minor leaguers],” Twins minor league director Brad Steil said. “I don’t know if we have anyone right now that has the pure stuff that Liriano had before his injury, but our depth might be a little better now than it was back then.’’



“Now, more experts are beginning to believe we may have been thinking wrongly about cramps all along.”


A New Way to Prevent Muscle Cramps

Nobel Prize winner Rod MacKinnon found that pungent and spicy tastes can hinder neurological misfires that cause cramps




Could there finally be a way to prevent muscle cramps?

As long as people have played sports, unexpected muscle cramps have been an Achilles' heel for everyone from aspiring Olympians to weekend warriors.

For decades physicians and other experts in sports medicine have theorized that a cramp was the result of a muscle that was dehydrated, or starved of electrolytes, or suffering tears in its micro-fibers and cell membranes. These caused pain and spasms that could only be alleviated with water and electrolytes, conventional wisdom held.

Now, more experts are beginning to believe we may have been thinking wrongly about cramps all along. A shot of spicy liquid—think wasabi or hot chilies—may be a far more effective treatment than an energy drink or a banana. All it took was a Nobel Prize winner experiencing some untimely cramps while sea kayaking a decade ago for people to begin to understand that the causes of muscle cramps may not have much to do with muscles at all.

“The primary origin of the cramp is the nerve, not the muscle,” said Rod MacKinnon, the kayaker and Nobel Prize winning scientist who studies molecular neurobiology and biophysics at Rockefeller University and has led the new thinking on cramps.

With the Olympics scheduled to begin in Rio in a little more than three weeks, the new understanding of cramps couldn’t be more timely. Athletes spend four years training for their moment at the Olympics, and few things are more frustrating than a freak event like a cramp that can wipe out years of preparation.

Paula Radcliffe, still the world record holder in the marathon, famously cramped up at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and failed to finish the race. Earlier this month, tennis player Madison Keysexperienced cramps during the third set of her fourth round match at Wimbledon and lost to Simona Halep.

While both Ms. Radcliffe’s and Ms. Keys’s muscles were indeed taxed, that doesn’t necessarily explain why they experienced the pain we associate with cramps. If muscles cramp simply because they are weary and poorly nourished, why do our muscles cramp when we are lying in bed doing nothing? Why would an elite triathlete like Craig Alexander, a former Ironman world champion, occasionally suffer from leg cramps in the first minutes of a race, when he was fully hydrated and the opposite of exhausted?

“You feel so helpless when it happens,” Mr. Alexander said, “and the explanation flew in the face of logic.”

Dr. MacKinnon’s hands and arms dangerously cramped up a decade ago when he was kayaking with colleague Bruce Bean, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School, roughly 7 miles off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Hydration and electrolytes weren’t issues in that case either.

After making it back to shore, Dr. MacKinnon and Dr. Bean began hunting for an answer. Rather than focusing on his muscles, Dr. MacKinnon and his friend hypothesized that something might have caused the impulses the nervous system sent to his muscles to misfire and his muscles to cramp. Perhaps, they thought, people might be able to avoid cramps by regulating excessive firing of motor neurons, which they saw as the origin of muscle cramping.

Exercise science isn’t generally an area that winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry indulge in. Dr. MacKinnon won the Nobel after he and his colleagues provided the first atomic structures of the protein molecules that make electrical signals in living organisms.

Nevertheless, cramps were on Dr. MacKinnon’s mind. After perusing the existing research he and Dr. Bean hypothesized that they could modify the nervous system, including the motor neurons controlling muscle, by applying a strong sensory input and by stimulating receptors in the mouth and esophagus—which is how scientists describe ingesting pungent tasting foods. The pungent-taste overloads nerve receptors, producing a kind of numbing effect.

Or, as Dr. MacKinnon explains it, “The strong sensory input causes inhibition of the motor output.”

Might this be dangerous? Does the pain from a muscle cramp have a purpose, like the pain that makes us pull our hand away from a hot stove?

After considering this possibility, Dr. MacKinnon concluded there is no benefit to a muscle cramp. The debilitating pain we experience doesn’t prevent injury. We experience it not to help us survive but because the human body isn’t a perfectly evolved machine.

Using himself as a lab rat, Dr. MacKinnon began concocting spicy drinks in his kitchen with varying amounts of ginger and cinnamon and trying to induce cramps with electrical impulses. Over the course of the next decade, he grew convinced his hunch was correct. It was harder to induce the cramps after indulging in the spicy concoctions.

A series of randomized, scientific studies followed. The subjects produced results similar to what Dr. MacKinnon had experienced. Those studies were presented last year at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The great irony of all this is athletes for years had already been trying to avoid cramps not simply with water and bananas but also with pungent liquids, such as juice from pickles, beets or sour cherries. They drank the pickle juice believing its high sodium content would replace an important electrolyte, and they drank the beet and cherry juice because they are rich in antioxidants that athletes thought could help prevent cramping.

The idea was to get those ingredients into the bloodstream and muscles. In some cases, the pickle, beet and cherry juice worked, but in the view of Dr. MacKinnon and a growing number of other scientists, not because the nutrients were reaching their muscles since research showed their blood content was largely unchanged.

“We often find in science we are doing the right things but for the wrong reason,” said Philip Skiba, the director of sports medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., who has worked closely with Olympians both in the U.S. and Great Britain to develop training programs. “The sensory experience may have been what was having the effect on the legs.”

Dr. Skiba said he has noticed a significant number of endurance athletes who are indulging in spicy drinks before races now. To try to take advantage of that, Dr. MacKinnon, working with biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal, launched the company Flex Pharma Inc., which went public in 2015.

Earlier this year, the company brought to market Hotshot, a mix of ginger, cinnamon and capsicum—spicy pepper plants—that comes in 1.7 ounce bottles. It is currently available in select stores in Boston, Los Angeles and Boulder, Colo., and can be ordered online.

Dr. Skiba said more testing of Hotshot and other similar products is needed and that the nature of testing the products, or any pungent tasting substance presents an inherent difficulty. Because the taste is so strong, it is very difficult to create a placebo, so subjects invariably know they have ingested something and that can affect whether they experience a cramp.

Even Dr. MacKinnon acknowledges that drinking Hotshot before a stressful workout, especially first thing in the morning, can feel counterintuitive. This isn't ice-cold, citrus-flavored water. The taste is hardly refreshing, and it packs a jolt more commonly experienced around a table covered with South Asian food rather than a training table.

That is the point though. It is about shocking the system, not replenishing it.




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