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By Scott Barancik, editor

When the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted catcher Sam Finfer out of high school in 2013, nabbing him in the 29th round, the Bellevue, WA, native took a pass. Thus began a collegiate odyssey that took him from Seattle University and Bellevue College to Marshall University.

After a lackluster junior year at Marshall, where Finfer hit .218 with 7 HRs, 27 RBIs and 4 doubles, MLB teams ignored him in the 2016 amateur draft.

Then came 2017. Splitting his time between outfield and catcher, the 22-year-old supersized nearly all of his stats, finishing the season with a .338 batting average in 201 at-bats, 18 HRs (tied for 13th-most among all NCAA Division I players), 51 RBIs, 17 doubles, and 8 thefts in 9 tries. Finfer’s average, on-base and slugging percentages (.338/.410/.692) were even better with runners in scoring position (.393/.500/.714).

Sam Finfer's senior year at Marshall University upped his profile for the June 2017 MLB draft

Sam Finfer’s senior year at Marshall University upped his profile for the June 2017 MLB draft

The 6’2″, 205-pounder was even more of a home-run threat in 2017 than his overall total suggests. Finfer ranked 8th among D1 players in HRs per game (0.35), thanks in part to three multi-homer outings. No wonder he was named All-Conference First Team last week by Conference USA.

How high Finfer will go in next month’s draft is unclear. Baseball America did not include him in its recent ranking of of top 200 draft prospects. But the Dodgers are starting to look pretty smart.

 

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By Scott Barancik, editor

Jewish Baseball News recently updated its page devoted to all-time Jewish batting leaders. Following are some highlights from the stats, which are current through the end of the 2016 season:

  • It’s been nearly 70 years since Hank Greenberg last swung a bat in the major leagues, but he remains the most dominant player in Jewish hitting statistics, and not just in the power categories you might expect. Yes, Greenberg remains the all-time leader in career (331) and single-season (58) home runs, home-run frequency, RBIs (including 6 of the top 7 seasons ever) and slugging percentage. He also owns the records for most career and single-season doubles, triples and walks, the best career and single-season on-base percentage, and the most doubles in a season (he ranks #2 in career doubles). In addition, Greenberg is #2 in career batting average and has recorded 3 of the top single-season averages. You might think a man with all that power would have struck out a lot, but at his worst, Hammerin’ Hank struck out just 101 times, in 1937. Of course, hitters struck out a lot less back then. Only 3 major leaguers fanned more than 100 times that year, while 139 players did so in 2016.
  • Although more than 160 Jews have played in the major leagues, the very first Jewish player, Lipman Pike, retains the title for best career (.322) and single-season (.346) batting average. Pike also remains the hardest to strike out, fanning just 2.9% of the time in nearly 2,000 career at-bats.
  • No Jewish player has been more controversial than Ryan Braun, thanks to his 65-game suspension in 2013 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. But Braun has hit 80 home runs since returning and ranks high in power-hitting categories. His career totals rank him 2nd in slugging percentage and 3rd in home runs, home-run frequency and RBIs, and he is poised to surpass 300 career home runs and 1,000 career RBIs in 2017. Possessor of one of the top power-speed combos of his time, Braun also ranks 2nd in career and single-season stolen bases.
  • Ian Kinsler already holds the career record for stolen bases and ranks 4th in career home runs. He also has a good shot at becoming the all-time Jewish doubles king. Through 2016, Kinsler ranked 3rd with 353 two-baggers, and he only needs 27 this season to surpass #2 Hank Greenberg.
  • Kevin Youkilis was known as the Greek God of Walks, but in reality he ranks 7th in career bases on balls, a category dominated by Hank Greenberg. If anything, Youkilis should be known as the Greek God of Hit by Pitches. Youk holds the career record with 104 — #2 is a surprising Mike Lieberthal, with 84 — and the top three single-season totals.
  • Hank Greenberg documentarian Aviva Kempner is working on a film about Moe Berg, who was better known as a spy and polyglot than as a hitter. Hopefully Kempner will find a moment to note that Berg was the second-hardest Jewish player to strike out of all time.
  • Just two full seasons into his MLB career, Joc Pederson already has climbed his way onto the leader boards. Pederson ranks 2nd to Hank Greenberg in career home-run frequency, and the 92 walks he drew in 2015 are tied for 8th most of all time. Some of the center fielder’s stats are less than optimal. His 170 strikeouts in 2015 and 130 in 2016 ranked the 1st and 5th most of all time.
  • Not all of the statistical contenders are household names among today’s fans. Sid Gordon, who played from 1941 to 1955 and finished 4th in voting for National League MVP in 1948, ranks 5th in career home runs (202) and 4th in career RBIs (805). Phil Weintraub (1933-45) ranks 2nd in career on-base percentage (.398) and 4th in career batting average (.295). Sammy Bohne (1916-26) — who twice led National League second baseman in fielding percentage — had 16 triples in his first full season (tied for #1 with Hank Greenberg) and is #3 in that category career-wise. Bohne also ranks 3rd in career strikeout ratio (6.7%) and 6th in career stolen bases.

Click here to see the batting leaders for yourself. We’ll let you know when pitching stats are ready.

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(Note to readers: Jewish Baseball News invited author and JBN contributor Ron Kaplan to write about his new book on Hank Greenberg and how it came together.)

By Ron Kaplan, contributor

When I first began work on my new book, Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War, it was going to be a fairly straightforward look at his assault on one of the biggest records in sports, sprinkled with a bit of pop culture.

Just 11 years earlier, Babe Ruth – who had “saved” baseball in the wake of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal with his oversized personality and heretofore unheard-of power hitting – smashed 60 home runs, more than any other team in the American League. Jimmy Foxx, aka The Beast, came close with 58 blasts in 1932 as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, but that was it. Then Hank Greenberg comes along to open up discussion about a possible new home run king.

Things started off slowly for the Tigers in 1938 after they had finished the previous four seasons first or second in the junior circuit. Greenberg, too, wasn’t breaking down any doors early on; at one point that June, he went 12 straight games without a home run. Although he had 22 by the end of the month, that still didn’t raise too many eyebrows.kaplan greenberg

Over the last three months of the season, however, Greenberg distributed 36 round-trippers: 15 in July, slumping a bit with only nine in August, and making a run of it with 12 in September and October (but none over his final five contests). And with the Tigers pretty much out of the pennant picture all season, fans embraced his individual performance. The more times Greenberg crossed the plate on his own, the wider the notoriety spread. Newspapers ran charts and illustrations showing where he stood in relationship to Ruth at any given point of the campaign.

In the end, Greenberg just ran out of time, literally and figuratively. Early season rainouts had to be rescheduled as late season doubleheaders. Since none of the stadiums in the league had lights yet, several of those nightcaps were halted early as darkness descended, depriving Hammerin’ Hank of precious at-bats, and as we know, he just couldn’t catch the Babe, finishing the season with 58 homers. The final game, a meaningless 10-8 win over the Indians in Cleveland on a cold afternoon in October, was called after seven innings. The home plate umpire was apologetic when he informed Greenberg, “I’m sorry, Hank. But this is as far as I can go.” The ballplayer responded without anger. “That’s all right. This is as far as I can go, too.”

While it was fascinating to scour digitized versions of old newspapers – they just don’t write ‘em like that any more – the narrow focus of the topic of this book gradually expanded from the sports pages to the front pages. As the title plainly states, this isn’t an overall biography of Greenberg. There’s no competing with John Rosengren’s excellent Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes or Greenberg’s own memoir, reverently “rewritten” with the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning Ira Berkow. Not to mention Aviva Kemper’s award-winning documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. I was tasked by my publisher to specifically address what else was going on in the United States and the world in that seminal year of 1938. The U.S. was still in the grasp of the Great Depression and Hitler and his cronies were flexing their fascist muscles. Baseball was a welcome distraction.

There’s a line from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life in which a character defends George Bailey’s not serving in World War II (he was actually unfit for service because of deafness in one ear). “Not every heel was in Germany and Japan,” he says. This is where some unfortunate parallels between Greenberg’s era and modern-day circumstances come into focus, issues that had not yet been a consideration as I worked on the manuscript for an October deadline.

In 1938, the United States (as well as other countries) was extremely reluctant to accept Jewish refugees trying to flee Nazi oppression. Compare that with the current administration’s policy on Syrian refugees.

In 1938, the United States did not want to enter into another international fracas. Isolationism was a watchword and its slogan was “America First.” Sound familiar?

Finally, Greenberg worked in a city that “boasted” two of the most notorious anti-Semites of all time: Henry Ford and radio fire-and-brimstone preacher Father Charles Coughlin. After the 1919 World Series scandal, Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, wrote that the problem with America’s national pastime could be summed up in three words: “Too much Jew.” Coughlin had referred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s massive infrastructure programs as “the Jew Deal.” Since the current president took office in 2017, there has been an uptick in hate crimes.

Pundits have suggested that anti-Semitism might have been the reason Greenberg didn’t break Ruth’s record, that there was a conspiracy to prevent a Jewish man from achieving such glory, just as there was another “gentleman’s agreement” to keep black players out of organized baseball. To his credit, Greenberg never used that as an excuse. He just chalked it up to fatigue and wear-and-tear: he only missed two innings over the course of the year, both of those coming in the same game.

According to the song title, “Everything Old Is New Again.” Unfortunately, that seems to go for the bad as well as the good.

Ron Kaplan (@RonKaplanNJ) hosts Kaplan’s Korner, a blog about Jews and sports. He is the author of three books, including The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games and the forthcoming Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War.

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By Scott Barancik, editor

With Team Israel’s surprising run at the World Baseball Championship behind us, Jewish Baseball News turns to that beloved annual rite: Spring Training.

A total of 19 Jewish players were invited to MLB Spring Training camps this year, either as part of their teams’ active roster, 40-man roster, or non-roster invitee list. Here is how they’re doing through games played March 17.

Danny Valencia (Mariners)

  • In the first Spring Training with his new team, 32-year-old Valencia is hitting .184 with 1 HR, 3 RBIs, and 5 walks in 38 at-bats. Although he’s a career .321 hitter against righties (and .246 vs. lefties), he has struggled equally against both so far.
  • Seattle has Valencia playing first base almost exclusively. Last season with Oakland, Valencia had no errors at first base, one in the outfield, and 13 at third base.

Richard Bleier (Orioles)

  • Traded to Baltimore by the Yankees last month, Bleier has performed well this Spring, delivering a 1.50 ERA across four outings and six innings overall, and yielding six hits and one walk while fanning four.
  • Bleier is among several pitchers still fighting for a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen.

Max Fried (Braves/minors)

  • A 1st-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2012, Fried — who missed the entire 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery — was impressive in his first MLB Spring Training, yielding a hit and three walks in three outings (and four innings overall) while striking out five.
  • Atlanta not only has promoted Fried to Double-A but added him to the Braves’ 40-man roster, meaning he will be eligible for call-up during the regular season.

Ryan Braun (Brewers)

  • Braun has seen limited action in Spring Training, going 3-for-11 with a HR, double, three RBIs and a walk while striking out three times. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old has remained something of a lightning rod for criticism, most recently for his complaints that Spring Training lasts too long.

Kevin Pillar (Blue Jays)

  • Pillar has been hot this Spring, hitting .355 with six extra-base hits, one RBI, and a .444 on-base percentage. He’s also been batting leadoff, a privilege largely denied him in past seasons due to a dearth of walks.
  • In prior Springs, Pillar’s average has ranged from .111 to .264.

Rowdy Tellez (Blue Jays/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee with a reputation for power — he hit .297 with 23 HRs last season at Double-A — Tellez has hit .259 this Spring with no home runs, two doubles, two RBIs, four walks, and 10 strikeouts.
  • No word yet on which minor-league team Tellez will be sent to after Spring Training ends.

Brad Goldberg (White Sox/minors)

  • In addition to playing for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Championship, Goldberg pitched well for Chicago during Spring Training. In four appearances and 4.2 innings overall, he delivered a 0.00 ERA and earned a save while yielding two walks a hit and striking out one.
  • Earlier this week, the White Sox sent Goldberg back to Triple-A but placed him on the Major League club’s 40-man roster. He’s likely to make his MLB debut this season.

Ian Kinsler (Tigers)

  • Normally a strong Spring Training performer — through games played March 17, his career average was .328 with 30 HRs and 117 RBIs — Kinsler has hit .263 this year, with one HR and one RBI in 19 at-bats.
  • Kinsler also has played for Team USA in the WBC, hitting .294 in 17 at-bats.

Craig Breslow (Twins/minors)

  • Breslow, who has adjusted his pitching form in a data-driven bid to revive his stalled career, earned a minor-league contract with the Twins and an invitation to Spring Training. So far, so good: in five appearances and 4.1 innings overall, Breslow has yielded no earned runs and just one hit while striking out four. On the down side, he’s walked five.
  • Breslow is likely to begin the 2017 regular season in Triple-A.

Alex Bregman (Astros)

  • In addition to playing for Team USA in the WBC, Bregman has hit .304 in Spring Training, stroking two doubles and a walk while striking out once in 23 at-bats.

Garrett Stubbs (Astros/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee who hit a combined .304 in High-A and Double-A last season, Stubbs didn’t get a chance to play with Houston this Spring due to a problem with his throwing arm. He was later assigned to minor-league camp, but manager A.J Hinch said the Astros were “excited” about Stubbs, whom he called “really good behind the plate.”

Michael Barash (Angels/minors)

  • Barash, a 2016 draft pick, was perhaps the most unlikely non-roster invitee this Spring, having topped out at Single-A his rookie season (and hitting .240 there after batting .314 in rookie-league ball). The 22-year-old catcher went a perfect 2-for-2 with the Angels, singling and doubling in two pinch-hit at-bats.

Ryan Lavarnway (Athletics/minors)

  • Despite a non-roster invite, former major leaguer Lavarnway has seen limited play during Spring Training, having instead spent his time starring for Team Israel in the WBC. The 6’4″ catcher went 2-for-3 with a double for the Athletics before joining Team Israel.

Scott Feldman (Reds)

  • Signed to a one-year deal during the offseason, the 34-year-old Feldman is 0-1 this Spring with a 4.50 ERA. In eight innings spread across the starts, he’s yielded seven hits (including 3 HRs) and two walks while striking out seven.
  • Feldman has secured a spot as a starter in Cincinnati’s rotation and might start the team’s Opening Day game.

Jared Lakind (Pittsburgh/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Lakind has recorded one save this Spring and held opponents scoreless over three relief appearances. He has yielded two walks and two hits over three total innings while striking out two.
  • Lakind also played for Team Israel in the WBC.

Corey Baker (Cardinals/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Baker made his MLB Spring Training debut before playing for Team Israel in the WBC. In a 2.2-inning relief stint, he gave up 2 hits and a hit batsman but struck out one and yielded no runs.

Ryan Sherriff (Cardinals/minors)

  • A non-roster invitee, Sherriff has made the most of his first MLB Spring Training, going 0-1 with a 1.35 in six appearances and 6.2 innings overall. The 28th-round 2011 draft pick yielded six hits and one walk while hitting one batter and striking out an impressive eight.

Joc Pederson (Dodgers)

  • In a familiar pattern, Joc Pederson is hitting .242 this Spring with both a lot of home runs (4) and a lot of strikeouts (10). But that’s not giving him credit for advances he made in 2016, his second full season in the Majors. Pederson raised his batting average 36 points last year (to .246) while reducing his strikeouts, hitting more doubles, and slightly improving his home-run frequency.

Ike Davis (Dodgers/minors)

  • Davis, a former major leaguer who signed a minor-league contract with Los Angeles during the offseason, went 2-for-2 as a non-roster invitee before joining Team Israel in the WBC. He has been assigned to the Dodgers’ Triple-A team.

Ty Kelly (Mets/minors)

  • Kelly, who played for Team Israel in the WBC but does not identify exclusively as Jewish, is 2-for-8 this Spring with two RBIs and a .500 on-base percentage. He made his MLB debut in 2016.

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By Scott Barancik, editor

You had to rise at 4:30pm ET today to watch underdog Team Israel play Korea live in the 2017 World Baseball Classic opener, but seeing Israel triumph 2-1 in 10 innings was worth missing some sleep.

There were a few ulcer-inducing moments. Israel — which knocked out 8 hits and drew 10 walks — squandered multiple scoring opportunities, including leaving the bases loaded three times.

But the highlights were far more memorable.

Starting pitcher Jason Marquis, 38, got Israel off on the right foot with three scoreless innings, yielding 2 hits and a walk while fanning 3. He stayed below 50 pitches, which under WBC rules means he can pitch again in 2 days.

Sam Fuld was rock-solid in center field, including a diving catch in the 4th to rob Dae-Ho Lee of extra bases. He also contributed two sharply-hit singles while batting leadoff.

Second baseman Tyler Krieger drew a bases-loaded, full-count walk in the 2nd to put Israel up 1-0.

Ike Davis hit a pinch-hit double in the 8th inning, and his 9th-inning walk helped set up the winning run. After the base on balls, the not-fleet-of-foot Davis somehow hoofed it from first to third on catcher Ryan Lavarnway‘s soft liner to center. Mike Meyers came in as a pinch-runner and scored the go-ahead run two batters later.

Scotty Burcham, who starred for Israel in the September qualifiers, struck out three times but was stellar at shortstop and stroked two singles, including a two-out infield hit with a 1-2 count in the 10th that proved to be the game-winner.

Burcham, Krieger, and first baseman Nate Freiman completed two double plays together, including an inning-ending one with 2 men on base in the 6th inning.

With two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, the score tied 1-1, and a man on first, Lavarnway’s laser throw to second base erased a stolen-base attempt and sent the game into extra innings.

While Marquis opened the game with three scoreless innings, reliever Josh Zeid did the same at the end, yielding one hit and 2 walks while fanning 4, including a game-ending strikeout of slugger Dae-Ho Lee.

Israel plays Chinese Taipei tonight (Monday, March 6) at 10pm ET on the MLB Network cable station.

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