Play Ball: Jewish baseball roundup 2022

By Bill Simons 

Baseball 2022 featured a robust Jewish presence. Over a dozen Jewish players notched Major League Baseball roster spots, and most committed to joining Team Israel for the March 2023 World Baseball Classic. Two Jews received All-Star Game invitations. For the first time, three Jews hit 20-plus home runs in the same season. A lefty, nicknamed “Maximus,” made a strong case that he is the best Jewish pitcher since Sandy Koufax. An observant Orthodox pitcher labored in the minors, keeping alive his longshot hopes of playing big league ball. In Flushing, a big-spending owner turned a long-suffering team around. Jewish general managers and field managers led prominent franchises. And a player who proclaimed MLB ambitions at his bar mitzvah batted cleanup on baseball’s newest dynasty. 

Despite injuries, including an on-field tumble that resulted in a concussion, lefty Max “Maximus” Fried, the Atlanta Braves All-Star pitcher and Cy Young Award runner-up, recorded an impressive 14-7 won-lost record for the second consecutive season. At 2.48, his 2022 ERA ranked third in the National League. A past participant in the Maccabiah Games, the 28-year-old Fried currently has a higher career winning percentage – .684 to .655 – than his hero, Sandy Koufax. Although the comparison is facile, Fried is probably the top, post-Koufax Jewish hurler. 

Winning their fourth pennant and second World Series championship in the past six seasons, the 2022 Houston Astros merit the designation dynasty. The Astros’ cleanup hitter, third baseman Alex Bregman, announced major league aspirations at his bar mitzvah. With his batting average dipping to .259, Bregman has not yet regained the form that led to him finishing second in the 2019 MVP voting. But his 23 home runs, 38 doubles, 93 RBIs and stellar fielding, pacing third basemen in assists, contributed heavily to the 2022 Astros championship.  

Even without his famous pearl necklace, leftfielder Joc Pederson was named to the NL All-Star team. A fan favorite, the colorful Pederson paced the weak-hitting San Francisco Giants in batting average (.274), home runs (23), RBIs (70) and slugging percentage (.521). Pederson spurned free agency to accept a $19.65 million qualifying offer to return to the Giants in 2023. 
For Pederson’s manager – and fellow Team Israel alum – Gabe Kapler, the 2022 season was disappointing. Kapler, deft at tactics and motivation, led the 2021 Giants to more regular season victories (107) than any other team, garnering him National League Manager of the Year honors. In 2022, Kapler’s Giants fell to a mediocre 81-81 won-lost record. For the baseball savvy Kapler, the most politically progressive and physically imposing manager in MLB, expectations run high for a Giants rebound in 2023. 

In addition to perennials Bregman and Pederson, a third Jew hit 20-plus home runs in 2022. Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Rowdy Tellez led the Jewish contingent with 35 round trippers. Although the 6’4”, 260-pound slugger strikes out too much and fails to hit for average – .219 in 2022 – his power is well documented. During his career, more than 46 percent of the balls Tellez has put into play have had an exit velocity of 95 mph or more. And yes, his real birth name is Rowdy, a testament to prenatal exuberance. 

Traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the New York Yankees in early August, Harrison Bader, one of the game’s premier defensive outfielders, created quite a buzz with an unexpected display of power hitting, walloping five home runs in the post-season. As a metropolitan New York City native, Team Israel enlistee and Yankee centerfield, a position made iconic by predecessors Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Bader will prove a big draw amongst Jewish fans. 

The son of Israeli parents who held his bar mitzvah in the Jewish homeland, pitcher Dean Kremer went 8-7 with a 3.23 ERA for the Baltimore Orioles.

Pitching in relief for the Cleveland Guardians, Eli Morgan posted five wins, lost three and recorded a 3.38 ERA. 

Spotting a 3.55 ERA, Miami Marlins pitcher Richard Bleier made 54 relief appearances.
Landsman Scott Effross, Jake Fishman, Kevin Pillar, Garrett Stubbs and Zack Weiss played major league ball in 2022. 

Jacob Steinmetz, the first observant Orthodox Jew ever selected in the MLB draft, struggled in 2022 to gain traction is his quest for a major league berth. Playing for the Diamondbacks affiliate in the Arizona Complex League, the 18-year-old pitcher lost seven games, failed to win any and endured a 7.88 ERA. 

A minor leaguer in 2022, pitcher Ryan Sheriff, the grandson of Holocaust survivors and an MLB journeyman in parts of four seasons past, battled to return to the majors.  
Although NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt (.317 BA, 35 HRs, 115 RBIs) respects his paternal Jewish heritage, he identifies as an evangelical Christian. 

Former catcher and longtime respected field manager Bob Melvin, the son of a Jewish mother, neither observes nor identifies with Judaism. His 2022 San Diego Padres went 89 and 73. 
In 2022, Jews remained prominent in the operational end of baseball. The on-field deconstruction of the Red Sox put the job security of Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom in jeopardy. Philadelphia General Manager Sam Fuld, a former MLB and Team Israel player, helped President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski create a Phillies resurgence. Spending considerable money and making good personnel decisions, Mets owner Steve Cohen ignited a baseball renaissance in Queens. 

In 2022, Theo Epstein, now an MLB consultant and formerly the wunderkind GM who enabled the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs to exorcize their curses, announced a campaign to help the faltering game regain its status as the national pastime. Epstein, once a prime exponent of the new analytics, now recognizes that the best of baseball lies in its past and that over reliance on metrics has made the game more efficient and less interesting. 

Years from now, chroniclers might deem the selection of former MLB second baseman Ian Kinsler as the rookie manager of Team Israel the milestone event in Jewish baseball 2022. Kinsler faces the dual challenge of growing baseball in Israel and facilitating his team – still largely composed of assimilated Jewish-American ballplayers, dual citizens and scions of interfaith families – coming to terms with Jewish identity.   

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.