Category Archives: Jeff Kunkel

Helping out the Sox, and the Drew Smyly who wasn’t.

illustrations by Samara Pearlstein

You know, the Red Sox have been scuffling. They had been losing a fair amount, and were falling fast in the highly competitive (and currently upside-down) AL East. The papers were starting to get all agitated about the pitchers and Bobby Valentine was starting to get some especially virulent radio call-in stalkers– the usual Bostonian downward spiral stuff. On top of that, Dustin Pedroia, in many ways the lifeblood of the team, got hurt. Oh, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia just now came down with some sort of draining illness.

So this– this series right here– is precisely what the Red Sox needed. How nice of the Tigers to supply it so easily, so readily! So very accommodating of them! And the sad thing is that I would have been perfectly happy to see this happen with any other team… anyone but the Tigers. Thanks guys.

Poor Drew Smyly. He actually did not pitch that badly– and didn’t even get tagged with the loss, for whatever that’s worth– but that one bad inning was enough. He got the first two outs of the fourth quickly, after having given up only one hit in the previous three innings combined, but then Adrian Gonzalez hit a ground-rule double… and then David Ortiz homered… and Youkilis singled, and Will freakin’ Middlebrooks homered…

Just like that the Red Sox had four runs and Avila was having to go out to tell Smyly that he wasn’t a bad person, really, and everyone would still love him at the end of the day, and Jim would only yell at him a little bit and Miggy could give him so many hugs in the clubhouse after the game but could he please get out of this inning, please, right now, insert comforting butt-pat here.

As I said, he didn’t get the L, because the offense was not completely incompetent in this one, and he didn’t walk anyone so that was nice, but it still was not pretty. With Mister Fister going on the DL (SHRILL SCREAMING), that sort of inning is not what we really want to see from one of our starters. Maybe I am just reacting to the fact that it was particularly painful to see in person, but whatever.

Other things:

–The only two Tigers who spent significant time signing for fans before the game were Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. That’s kind of weird, right? That the two biggest names in the lineup would spend the most time signing for (mainly) Red Sox fans? It was kind of weird. But they were both super nice about it, which made me happy in my black little heart.

–Relatedly, PRINCE FIELDER SIGNED MY SKETCHBOOK. There’s a story behind this but it is long and probably sort of boring. The main thing is, PRINCE FIELDER SIGNED MY SKETCHBOOK.

–At one point during BP, Don Kelly came over to go into the dugout. A little kid (wearing a Sox hat) started begging for an autograph, yelling, “Mister Fister! Mister Fister!” I suppose all tall-ish skinny white dudes look the same when they’re not on your team.

–There were lots and lots of Tigers fans in the park, including a dude in a neon orange tiger-striped floppy hat that I coveted immediately.

–It was encouraging to see Andy Dirks moving around at least a little bit, even though he is supposed to be hobbled with a wonky Achilles right now. The fact that he got a single in his pinch hitting appearance was nice, even if he had to be pinch run for immediately. Still nice. Nice-ity nice nice.

–Gerald Laird was hitting 9th and DHing, because that’s the quickest and best way to jumpstart your offense, as everyone knows. So once Dirks had come in, and Santiago ran for him, the entire Tigers bench consisted of Don Kelly and Omir Santos. I believe the correct phrase for this is “OMG LOL”.

–For whatever reason I finally noticed Laird’s arm tattoos during this BP. They’re on his forearms, although inside and not outside like Inge. I could have sworn one read ‘Boston’, which seemed a bit odd, so I brought it up on Twitter earlier today and had it fan-firmed. He’s got BOSTON on one arm and BERLIN on the other and we believe these are the names of his children. I got nothin’. Thanks for being you, G-Money.

–A four-hit day for Miggy, with three doubles, is encouraging to see.

–Another BP story. A young-ish-looking dude in Tigers gear came running towards the dugout from the outfield. I took a few photos automatically, because that’s what I do, then looked to see who it was… and was so startled that I actually yelled, “JEFF KUNKEL?!!?” Because that is who it was. Jeff Kunkel, Michigan Wolverine, wearing a Tigers BP jersey and trotting about on the field at Fenway.

I immediately turned to the Twitters, who informed me that Mr. Kunkel had retired (or something) and was now one of the Tigers’ bullpen catchers, and henceforth would be traveling with the team. On the one paw, I am saddened that he has given up on the idea of catching in the big leagues. On the other paw, this is almost certainly a smart move for a whole host of reasons (not least of which is the ability and age of Our Savior Avila), and this way JEFF KUNKEL, MICHIGAN WOLVERINE of the RotT at Michigan Era, gets to stay with the Tigers in some capacity, which of course FILLS ME WITH GLEE.

You rock on with your wicked baseball self, Jeff Kunkel.

–You know what’s funny? The Tigers and Red Sox had exactly the same number of hits. But the Sox had three home runs and the Tigers had zero, and the Sox had more runs in the end. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? I AM LAUGHING SO HARD RIGHT NOW. THIS GRIMACE, IT IS ME LAUGHING.

–Seriously why did we call up Omir Santos, why did that happen

a thought on baby catchers

photo by Samara Pearlstein

So I’m sitting here watching the Red Sox/Mariners game, and Matsuzaka is being all kinds of careful with Kenji Johjima. I get to thinking, you know, Johjima hit him really well in Japan League, and is hitting really well right now, all of which is probably contributing to Matsuzaka’s tentativeness (Daisuke went on to strike him out, but ignore that for now).

This got me thinking about my favorite pet whine topic: BABY CATCHERS.

This is a whine topic because, to put it simply, we don’t have any. I mean, obviously that’s a literal lie; we have a minor league system, and they have catchers on all those teams. The Whitecaps even have Jeff Kunkel, a baby Tiger catcher whom I adore because he’s a Wolverine (I do not say former…. once a Wolverine, always a Wolverine) (and while I’m watching a Mariners game, my mind often turns to another Wolverine, JJ Putz, who’s makin’ good in the Majors out there in Seattle).

But none of our baby catchers are tearing the snot out of the minors or anything like that, and so none of them are making the kind of clamorous noise that would convince the Tigers’ front office that they’re ready to slide into Pudge’s place when his battered ancient catcher’s body finally explodes into a million pieces (each of which will still insist that it’s good to go and can totally play in tomorrow’s game).

Now, some of them could be pretty good defensive catchers, and some of them could be pretty good at calling games and handling pitchers. I’d assume most of them are, or they wouldn’t even be in the minors. But you HAVE to hit to some degree to get to the majors. You just have to. If you’re some super magical amazing Gold Glove style defender, maybe you’ll make it without hitting much, but… well, unfair as it may be, the Tigers have become accustomed to having the catcher’s spot in the lineup filled with someone who is, in addition to all the defensive wonders and the unmatched skill in pitcher groping, a very accomplished hitter.

I mean, look at the superbasicidiot current stats for the starting catchers (or top two play-time-getting catchers per team, in the case of AA and A squads) of our minor league teams:

Dane Sardinha, Toldeo Mudhens (AAA): .258/.288/.318 with 1 HR, 3 BB and 18 SO in 23 games.
Steve Torrealba, Erie Seawolves (AA): .265/.294/.286 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 9 SO in 15 games.
Joel Roa, Erie Seawolves (AA): .222/.250/.370 with 1 HR, 0 BB and 6 SO in 11 games.
Dusty Ryan, Lakeland Flying Tigers (A): .180/.241/.420 with 4 HR, 3 BB and 20 SO in 14 games.
Adrian Casanova, Lakeland Flying Tigers (A): .256/.293/.333 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 6 SO in 11 games.
James Skelton, West Michigan Whitecaps (A): .304/.328/.321 with 0 HR, 2 BB and 10 SO in 15 games.
Jeff Kunkel, West Michigan Whitecaps (A): .132/.195/.158 with 0 HR, 3 BB and 9 SO in 11 games.

…. aaaaand I can’t seem to find the ’07 stats for the O-Tigs (short season A), so, eh (probably because they haven’t started playing yet this season… aaaaand I’m an idiot).

(On a sidenote, I was wondering what on earth had happened to Maxim St. Pierre. He was definitely a Tiger in ’06… he was on the Team Canada provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic… he somehow ended up on the Royals, and the Royals sent him to the Brewers for a pitcher, Ben Hendrickson. I can’t find him on any of the Brewers’ minor league rosters, though. He has basically disappeared into the baseball ether. Anyone know more?)

Obviously all these numbers are suffering from small sample sizes, but they’re still not incredibly encouraging. What I see is a bunch of guys struggling to hit for average (James Skelton temporarily excepted), with little or no patience at the plate, and with no power to compensate for these bad habits (Dusty Ryan temporarily excepted). None of those numbers leap off the computer screen and scream readiness to start ascending rapidly through the ranks. Jeff Kunkel’s numbers actually made me WINCE when I saw them. To put it bluntly, there ain’t no Cameron Maybin in this group here.

This problem isn’t something that the Tigers suffer alone. Most teams have little or nothing in their minor league systems when it comes to catching prospects. The teams that DO have catching prospects, then, are going to want to hang onto their guys, or else demand insane lots of things for them. It’s not something that can be easily addressed via trade.

Our backup catchers are Vance Wilson, who is a hundred years old and on his way out just like Pudge, and Mike Rabelo, who is good enough to backup, but who is unlikely to ever rise above that (perfectly respectable) role. This is not something that can be addressed with what we already have.

So we come back to the start of this post, when I was thinking about Kenji Johjima.

What about those other leagues?

Mightn’t there be another pretty good catcher over there, or at least a catcher who is better than Mike Rabelo or Dane Sardinha? Someone in the Japanese League… maybe even someone in the Korean leagues? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think the Japanese League is packed chock full of Kenji Johjimas; he’s a damn good player, not someone you find every day, but… it’s a possibility, right? I assume someone in the Tigers’ front office is looking into it. It might turn out to be the only possible solution when Pudge finally has to bow out.

Or Jeff Kunkel can start hitting and become the next great Michigan catcher. You know. Whichever.

(The baby catcher in the photo at the top of this post is my cousin Sam. He plays for the Walled Lake Central Vikings. Right now he is hitting much better than most of the Tigers’ catching prospects.)

Typing “O-Tigs” makes me crack up

In case you were unaware (I’m not sure how much it was bruited around outside of New England), there was an event called Futures at Fenway today. It was a double-header, the morning game featuring the single-A Red Sox affiliate and the night game featuring the triple-A Red Sox affiliate. They could do this because the Sox are on a west coast road trip and the channel that televises their games could therefore show a game at 2pm, a game at 8 pm, and the regular Sox game at 10 pm, and because this is Red Sox Nation, a lot of people would go to both minor league games (they were on the same ticket), and most people would watch at least parts of all 3 games on TV.

The reason I bring this up is because the first game, the NY-Penn League matchup, was the Lowell Spinners vs. the Oneonta Tigers and I, being the sick kitten I am, watched it to see what there was to be seen.

I took notes on the game and a lot of them had to do with the Spinners, and the fact that Dave McCarty was announcing, but what I took down about the O-Tigs is as follows:

Tom Thornton out of Marlboro, MA starting for the O-Tigs. Oh gross, he’s a Notre Dame kid. I will now take a moment to resent Brad Lidge for little reason.

Crudnuggets, Ronnie Bourquin (out of tOSU) is playing third but Jeff Kunkel (out of U of M) isn’t starting. Ronnie Bourquin has ham hands. I’m guessing he gets moved somewhere else if he advances beyond this level; probably first base if they’ve got room to stash him there.

Best name so far: Deik Scram, the leadoff hitter for the O-Tigs. It;s pronounced Deek Skram. I love it.

Ha ha, Ronnie Bourquin got pump-faked into running for home, got stuck in a rundown and was the last out of an inning-ending double play. Yeah, good Buckeye fundamentals. I realize that a lot of guys would have gotten stuck in that play and I have absolutely no basis for trashing on Buckeye fundamentals, but it looks pretty in type, so I’m gonna go with it.

Thornton has a real high kick. His arm… he’s not coming way over the top with it? Almost a 3/4 slot. McCarty points out that when he throws his changeup he fans his glove a little. In fact, McCarty managed to pick this up after seeing him throw the changeup, uh, twice. Ruh roh.

Thornton’s delivery is a little jerky too, but at a different point [than that of Spinners starter Kristofer Johnson]. For Johnson the pause comes right when he lifts his front leg up and his glove and ball hand are still together. Thornton’s pause is inconsistent, sometimes he doesn’t do it, and it comes when his pitching arm is extended backwards and his front leg is in the air. Because of this it looks a little awkward when he comes down on that front leg; the stress on his knee looks slightly above average. He comes down on it hard and there’s a slight twist to it. The twist probably offsets some of the shock of coming down that hard but it can’t be good for the tendons in there; the knee is not a joint that’s really meant to move in any direction other than straight up and down.

Almost everyone on the field is wearing high socks. Minor league baseball is hotness.

Esposito, #23, of the Spinners, hits a ball hiiiiigh off the Monster. Good for him, in another ballpark, even a ML ballpark, that’s gone. McCarty notes once again that Thornton had thrown the changeup and fanned his glove. Although it’s not too likely that Esposito picked up on that, it’s possible he did, since the information was there for the taking. Maybe one of his coaches tipped him to it. Either way, not good, kid’s gonna hafta clean that up right quick, even in a short-season league.

Oh, 9th inning, pinch hitter, it’s Kunkel! Sweet! I haven’t seen him play since the Wolverines season ended, of course. This is wicked cool. Won’t be able to tell much about his swing from one at-bat, of course, but it’s encouraging to see him get in here. Nothing quite like playing at Fenway, I reckon. Although this is gonna be rough. He’s facing BabyPapelbon, and there’s nothing Boston likes so much as a Papelbon right now.

Kunkel ROBBED of a hit by a great LEAPING catch from, um, the shortstop, number 7 I think. Amazing balletic leaping catch. Jeter would be lucky to get so far off the ground.

O-Tigs lose, but it wasn’t a blow out or anything like that. Wish I coulda gone; I had an offer of tickets, but I ended up working this morning so I wouldn’t have been able to go. Alas.

You’ll notice I am pointedly not paying attention to what Verlander just did. I swear to cats, if someone says anything that rhymes with the words “Fi Plover Purse”, I’m going to beat them with the Papelbon scream page.

well, that was better

I’m still keeping a furious eye on Fernando, though. I’ll post the image of your head getting eaten by a tiger again, Fernando. Don’t for a second think I won’t.

We need to start winning series again, and not just ‘salvaging’ them.

But on a markedly happier note:


Yes. Yes, he was drafted last year, and came back to Michigan to finish out his (5th) senior year. Good thing he did too, what with WINNING THE BIG 10 and all. If he hadn’t signed he would have re-entered the draft… maybe his stock would’ve risen with his performance this season and he would have been drafted before the 37th round (where he went before), maybe not. The kid’s a Cubs fan, but I expect 5 years at U of M might have softened his views towards the Tigs. In any event he was happy enough with them to put pen to paper the night before this summer’s draft and get himself signed up all official-like.

There are some very attractive footsteps for him to follow in. Michigan produced Gold Glove catcher of awesomeness Mike Matheny, and it also produced former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. Take that, Michigan State! What have you given us, other than Mark Mulder and his goofy fratboyness? Yuh huh. I thought so. I know we signed some kid outta MSU. Cram it.

Of course I realize full well that he’ll be starting out in low-A ball and could easily change organizations a thousand times before making it to the bigs, if he ever does. No one has a straight shot up from signing to the parent team, unless you’re Jeremy Bonderman. BUT LEAVE ME MY DREAMS OK.

If nothing else, it delights me in a thousand dorky ways that guys I photographed in college ball are now, or will soon be, paid members of MLB organizations.

Apparently we also drafted Michigan pitcher Paul Hammond. And, most unfortunately, we’ve chosen to sully our hands with a Buckeye. Ronnie Bourquin. He played third base at OSU, but fear not, Brandon Inge fans, he’s totally not MLB-ready at 3B, and he’ll probably get moved to some less strenuous position where his ham hands won’t be as obvious before he gets up to the lofty Comerica heights.

In any event, here he is:

Now. Let’s get everyone on the big squad hitting again, and let’s stop crying at night over Mike Maroth, and let’s get back to that winning thing, whaddya say?