Darren Balsley, the Padres' brilliant pitching coach, considers himself a behind-the-scenes guy who shouldn't be celebrated. But sorry, Darren, you are my Unsung Baseball Man of the Year.
Coaches are by their very nature unsung, so only coaches will be considered for this first-time honor. Folks need to finally take notice of what many coaches are doing in both leagues, and in particular, they need to start singing Balsley's praises.
Balsley will have none of it, which is typical of him.
"As far as being unsung, no. I think I get too much credit,'' Balsley said by phone the other day. "Our pitching is very talented.''
A 20-minute conversation with Balsley yielded praise from him for all the "great" and "smart'' and "athletic'' pitchers he's had the privilege to coach with the Padres. He pointed out how former GM Kevin Towers "has an eye for pitching,'' and how new GM Jed Hoyer knows quite a bit about it, too. But he said almost nothing about himself.
Balsley, 45, is used to blending into the background as a pitcher who toiled for six years in the minors before being derailed by injuries. However, he has done enough with San Diego to deserve accolades. The Padres' team ERA was 4.70 when he was given the job by Towers and former Padres manager Bruce Bochy in 2003, and is a major league-best 3.28 now. It's the reason the Padres are the biggest surprise in baseball, in first place at 63-46 in spite of all predictions to the contrary. Their $38 million payroll is the second-lowest, their big winter pickups were steady veteran righthander Jon Garland, plus bargain pickups Yorvit Torrealba, a catcher, and Jerry Hairston Jr., a utilityman who's played a big role. Nobody figured they'd be a contender, much less the leader of the NL West. Balsley is a big reason.
Manager Bud Black, who probably has the Manager of the Year award just about wrapped up by now, cited every aspect of a pitching coach's job when asked about Balsley's strengths, from providing a game plan to the pregame meetings to side sessions to personal communication. Balsley and bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, who was 9-10 in his major league career with Philadelphia and Cleveland, make an inspiring tandem. "They work together in a very unselfish manner,'' Black said. Black cited Balsley's work with young right-handed star Mat Latos and fine lefthander Clayton Richard, in particular. But Balsley seems to have developed a rapport with everyone.
"He's able to keep pitchers going confidently when they are pitching well," said Black. "And if a guy needs a tweak, he's able to do that, too. He's able to iron things out. Black said.
Balsley exudes confidence without being a chest beater (obviously). Regarding the Padres' incredible season, he said, "I'm pleased, not surprised.'' Black had some inspiring spring messages, apparently. "The guys are playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,'' Balsley said. They carried over a good finish to 2009 into a productive spring training.
Balsley said he's lucky to have had many special and smart pitchers in his Padres tenure, such as Greg Maddux, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, among others. But the fact is, they all loved him, as well. Plus, all the young kids have thrived. The Padres have three pitchers who are 25 or younger in their rotation, and all of them are pitching beyond their years. Balsley has to get the credit for that, too.
Nobody is more prepared, they say. "I have to be,'' said Balsley. "It's my job. I don't want to let the staff down.''
He never does.
• Akerfelds. Padres bullpen coach. He leads easily the top bullpen in baseball.
• Clint Hurdle, Rangers hitting coach. The Rangers haven't missed Rudy Jaramillo as much as everyone figured. Under Hurdle, the Rangers' hitters have thrived. And they've become more patient. Elvis Andrus leads AL leadoff men with 4.20 pitches per at-bat and also leads in sacrifice bunts, which shows how unselfish he's become. The ex-manager Hurdle has excelled in his new role.
• Mike Maddux, Rangers pitching coach. Back in Texas after a stint in Japan, Colby Lewis is like a new man. Pitchers generally improve under Maddux, who appears to be as smart as his brother Greg. A 3.78 team ERA is excellent, especially with home games in Arlington.
• Dwayne Murphy, Blue Jays hitting coach. Toronto has been on a homer tear all year; eight homers Saturday lengthened the Jays' big lead in that department (they have 175; Boston is second with 147). The hitting coach has to get the credit for that.
• Dave Duncan, Cardinals pitching coach. An amazing coach. Not really unsung, but in a way any coach fits that category. Typically, their 3.42 ERA is third-best in the bigs.
• Dave Eiland, Yankees pitching coach. If it's possible to be unnoticed with the Yankees, Eiland manages to do that (except for his TV commercial with CC Sabathia). Eiland -- so unrecognized as a pitcher in the late 80s in New York that Rickey Henderson once admitted he didn't know who Eiland was when they were teammates in 1989 -- had three starters go to the All-Star Game (Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Sabathia). While Eiland was taking a personal leave of absence for a month, A.J. Burnett was completely lost.
• Kevin Long, Yankees hitting coach. This may not be the hardest job in the world, but he does it well. Robinson Cano has thrived, Mark Teixeira has come around and Alex Rodriguez raves about Long. The Yankees once again lead the majors with 591 runs.
• Don Cooper, White Sox pitching coach. He has a good staff and gets decent pub for a pitching coach, but it's still not enough. He's one of the best, year in and year out. A 3.84 team ERA is very good, with home games at U.S. Cellular.
• Dave Righetti, Giants pitching coach. A great staff and great pitching coach make a pretty good match. Normally ex-stars don't get into the coaching business. But Righetti has thrived in it. Barry Zito started getting back to his old self midway through last year. Overall, San Francisco's team ERA is second-best in the majors at 3.41.
• Jim Hickey, Rays pitching coach. He seems to occasionally find an unwanted headline, but he does an excellent job.
• Dave Magadan, Red Sox hitting coach. Despite an inordinate number of injuries, they are second with 571 runs. Pretty amazing.
• Roger McDowell, Braves pitching coach. Nobody's mentioning Leo Mazzone these days. The Braves' pitching has been excellent (3.50 ERA)
• Dan Warthen, Mets pitching coach. Pitching isn't the Mets' problem. Their ERA is 3.81, eighth-best in the bigs.
• Bryan Price, Reds pitching coach. He's helped mold a young staff, and their 3.98 ERA is very good when you factor in Great American Ballpark. Since June 17, the Reds' ERA is 3.01, second-best in the majors. In six of the last eight games, the starters have allowed either no earned runs or one earned run.
• Rich Dubee, Phillies pitching coach. Their 3.94 ERA is very good considering home games are at Citizens Bank Ballpark.
• Greg Gross, Phillies hitting coach. He just started, but the Phillies have started hitting and are 13-3 through Sunday since he was installed.
I'm not the first to say it -- MLB and the White Sox have already weighed in -- but Ozzie Guillen was way off base in saying MLB is better to Asian players than Latin players.
His own team is used to this sort of silliness, but this diatribe was a bit startling, even for him. Guillen was a talent as a player and is a very good manager, but he should realize how fortunate he is, rather than complaining about nonexistent biases. He causes a lot of angst and makes unnecessary work for his employers, who have been exceedingly supportive considering his nonstop mouth.
If Asian players have their own interpreter more often, as Guillen said, it's because they usually come in as established players, whereas Latin players work their way up. Beyond that, every team has at least one Spanish speaker who can be used as an interpreter if need be.
Latin players do have some disadvantages in that many are poor. But they also have one big advantage in not being subject to the draft. That's not to suggest any group is favored over another. (Asian players are also not subject to the draft.)
In weighing Guillen's complaint, consider:
• Most teams have academies in the Dominican Republic and many in Venezuela.
• The academies provide education in English.
• English as a Second Language courses are offered.
• Drug Program documents are in Spanish and English.
• There are career development programs for assimilation in the Dominican and Venezuela.
The list could be 10 times longer, as MLB takes this very seriously.
Guillen is a bright man and there surely are some inequities in any system, but MLB does not favor one group over another. In reality, baseball has done a terrific job in Latin America and is now trying to clean up the mess that surrounds the recruiting and signing process.
• No surprise that Mets owner Fred Wilpon came out in support of another year for Omar Minaya as GM. Minaya has two years left on his contract and he has been a loyal employee. Manager Jerry Manuel is another matter. His contract runs out after the season. Bob Melvin has been seen as the heavy favorite (including here), but Wally Backman can't be ruled out with the affinity for 1986 heroes. Backman would seem to be a long shot, though.
• Carlos Delgado is worth a shot for the Red Sox, who made a trade for him in 2004 that he vetoed. This time, he is happy to be aboard after so much time away. He should have agreed last time, too. No surprise the White Sox also considered Delgado.
• It's been quite an amazing job by the Red Sox to stay in contention with all their injuries. Terry Francona deserves major consideration for Manager of the Year.
• Hard to believe Andres Torres, a career minor leaguer until last year, is fourth in the NL in extra base hits behind Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols and Jayson Werth.
• Incredible start for Toronto's J.P. Arencibia, who had a two-homer game in his debut. The Blue Jays love the long ball. Arencibia, the 21st overall pick in 2007, became the first player in modern baseball with four hits and two homers in his debut.
• Good for the Royals to designate Jose Guillen, the slumping slugger with the bad clubhouse rep who was their highest-paid player (though not so good they gave him a $12 million-a-year contract in the first place). The Giants were the ones most closely scouting Guillen before the deadline. In terms of clubhouse appeal, one exec said of Guillen, "The only one worse is Milton Bradley.''
• One scout said the Mets made the right call not surrendering Class A pitcher Robert Carson for Octavio Dotel. "(Carson) has a chance. He could be another Jonathon Niese.''