Sunday, February 26, 2012

Do you believe Ryan Braun?

For the first time ever, the results of a drug test in Major League Baseball have been thrown out. Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who had a sample taken at the beginning of the post season, showed results from that test that passed the threshold for testosterone – as in “blasted through the threshold and into the next state” above. Apparently, the test reported levels were “insanely high, the highest ever for anyone who has ever taken a test, twice the level of the highest test ever taken.” (Teri Thompson, New York Daily News)

Braun immediately denied having taken any performance-enhancing drugs. Again, according to unnamed sources, the test showed the levels were not caused by a drug or a steroid. He had a second test done immediately by an independent laboratory that came back with normal testosterone levels.

The original testing (of A & B samples: results the same) was done by the Olympic testing labs in Montreal, probably the best in the world and the results showed “the presence of synthetic testosterone”. (T.J. Quinn, ESPN) At this point, MLB decided that a suspension was in order and proceeded to implement it. Braun filed an appeal.

[Let’s call a time out: All of the current behind-the-scenes information is from “unnamed sources”. When you have to rely on this sort of information, all kinds of things can go on. You would hope that the reporters know and trust the people supplying the information, but that might not be the case. Why we don’t already have the report from the arbitration panel who heard Braun’s appeal is disturbing. The baseball public deserves to know what went on. Also, right from the beginning, all sorts of information was leaked. That’s not a good thing. Why did it happen? If I were in charge of MLB’s testing program, I’d certainly want answers to that one and pronto! And I would also want them relayed to the public.]

Clearly, something is going on here well past your basic failed drug test. How did synthetic testosterone get into the urine sample? From this point, it gets really muddy. The sample was not sent to the lab right away. It sat on the collector’s desk at home for the weekend because he said that he couldn’t get it out immediately on FedEx (who handle all shipping). Braun and his lawyers have seized on this fact, saying that the sample was tampered with.

I’m willing to bet that this is the reason the arbitrator’s report will give for overturning the suspension. MLB’s testing program is clearly on thin ice here. They can’t say for sure that the sample might not have been tampered with – even though “the seals were apparently intact when the sample arrived at the lab”. (T.J. Quinn, ESPN) In short, not getting the samples “into the mail” promptly has compromised their case for suspension.

MLB is angry about the outcome of Braun’s appeal, Dick Pound (the drug-testing guru for the Olympics) has indicated his disapproval, and after the long line of athletes who have tested positive, vociferously protested their innocence, and much later said that they did indeed cheat, a lot of the media and public think that Braun has gotten off on a technicality.

What do you think? Not guilty? Guilty and lucky? Or guilty and lying?

However, above and beyond that, I come back to who leaked all the information and what’s being done about it? I’d like to know why protocols weren’t followed and what’s being done about it. I’d like to know what the hell is in the report and why it’s taking so long to get it out. Surely, if the arbitrator can come to a conclusion and lift the suspension, why can’t he tell us his reasons? My guess is that there’s stalling going on while a phalanx of lawyers and PR people scramble behind the scenes, trying to package this mess into something the public will find palatable.

So maybe they’re having to let a guilty man off because of their own screw-ups.

Friday, February 24, 2012

AA,YU & JM's

It is so great to read Rick and Will’s posts this week. It’s all about being a fan and the hope that each spring brings to each club. As a fan, I feel the Jays have a good chance to make the wild wild (??) card playoffs. I want to feel this way. However, it certainly depends on a number of ifs in the player ranks, but that is for next time. Today I want to rant a little about some moves Alex Anthopoulos made.

For the most part Alex Anthopolous has done a great job putting the Jay’s house in order in the minor leagues and making positive trades and call-ups for the big team. In this past off-season he made a couple of what I think are goofs.

From the fan side it was the Yu Darvish bid. Did we or didn’t we go for him? I don’t know. Did we or didn’t we make a competitive bid? We may never know. I would like the Jays and AA to come clean. They should have at the time. The deal would have made no impact on the rest of the team picture of free agency or trade deals. So it would have been an off the shelf pick. Yes, the asking was a huge price and if AA did not want to play that game he should have said so. I would have been happy with that. AA saw Yu Darvish and others play in Japan last season. A smart idea if you might make a move. (I think he still has ideas that would come out of those trips to Japan.)

My point is that the coy response from AA about Yu got the fan’s expectations up and was a poor PR move. He could have said they were in it or not. The let down was not that the Jays lost out on the bid but that AA seemed not to care whether the fans (taken in by media reports) understood or could understand the deal, good or bad. AA’s thinking is unclear. Did AA think Yu Dervish a tier one or tier two type of pitcher? Did they make a real bid? Would he have been a fit for the Jays? Was he worth it? All these questions are left unanswered. All this by the guy who wants us, the fans, to back him up by putting our bums in the seats. Probably too late now, but AA should have kept the fans in the loop on this one.

Now for the other oops. Catcher. It seems that the Jays thought so little of Jose Molina that they let him go without much fight, or so it seems. The resultant hole is now filled by Jeff Mathis. Ultimately it will probably be Travis d'Arnaud who will come in next season, but not yet. I think if AA offered Molina something halfway decent he would have stayed for another year. His 2011 salary was 1.2 million and it’s now 1.5 for the Rays. AA is paying the same 1.5 for Mathis 9 (last year was 1.7 million from the Angels). But what do we really get from the number two catcher?

Mathis’ strong point is his ability to handle young pitching. Molina did a pretty good job of that too. Mathis threw out only 24% caught steeling second and Molina 40%. Neither are the best at going down on balls in the dirt. This is something I will pick up shortly. But here is the kicker, Mathis has just a .194 BA while Molina is career .241 and last year .281 in a backup position off the bench.

So in the space of eight days AA lets Molina go, picks up Mathis and then signs the new closer Sergio Santos. Santos has great movement on his pitches. Batters can’t pick up the late movement on the ball. This is great for a closer but hard on the catcher who must have a best guess on where the ball will wind up. There are many examples of Santos getting a strike out and the ball goes in to the dirt and the catcher is all over the place trying to cover it. This could be very problematic if a close game.

I hope Mathis is up to the role. He will have to show much more than he has to date to stay in a Jays uniform beyond June.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will Your Team Have the Greatest Season Ever?

As Rick recently wrote, all baseball fans are hoping their team will have an amazing season, with most of their players having career years. Well, there is always hope. As you will read below things didn't look very promising for the 1927 Yankees – often regarded as the greatest team ever – but they did okay. Check out the players' nicknames as you read. (Life is too politically correct for many of the nicknames nowadays.)

Okay, granted, the Yanks had won the pennant the year before, but not in '24 or '25. In '24 they finished second, two games behind Walter Johnson's Washington Senators. (Of course the Senators won – Goose Goslin – at right- hit 12 home runs that year.)

But in '25 the Yankees finished second last! They had just 69 wins and ended up 28 1/2 games back of the Senators. (Goose hit 18 that year – thanks to Ruth lots of guys were swinging from the end of the bat now.) Bob Meusal, the big Yankee left fielder, hit 33 home runs, but slick-fielding Earle Combs was the only man to hit over .300. The Babe hit just .290, with only 25 home runs. None of their starting pitchers was over .500.

In '27 their prospects weren't all that good. Their pitching, catching, and infield were all suspect – and Ruth, at 33, was showing signs of age along with their best pitchers Herb Pennock and Urban Shocker. Ruth had hit 47 homers in '26 but had a habit of following great years with poor ones – for him that is.

The Yankee pinstripes had not yet achieved the status of legend, the '26 pennant was seen as a collapse by their competitors and the Yankees had lost the Series (on hungover Grover Cleveland Alexander's relief appearance in which he'd struck out Tony Lazzeri – after Lazzeri had crushed a pitch that was just foul). Their improvement from '25 to '26 was the biggest in baseball history to that point but there was a feeling that the pendulum might swing right back.

In his third year at first base Columbia Lou Gehrig, a.k.a Biscuit Pants (Ruth, who couldn't remember anyone's name, called him Buster) had hit .313 in '26, with 16 home runs and 107 runs batted in. (He'd break Ruth's record of 170 with 172 in '27.)

At second was "Poosh 'Em Up" Tony Lazzeri. In his first year in organized ball he'd been struggling and a fellow Italian, a restaurant owner, cooked him a spaghetti dinner and encouraged him to push 'em up (get hitting). He did. He drove in 222 runs in the Pacific Coast League. '26 was his rookie year and he impressed with 18 home runs but hit just .275, well below what he'd hit the next several years.

Like Lazzeri, shortstop Mark Koenig was in his second year. He'd hit .271 in '26 but he led the league in errors with 52. He'd also been the goat of the Series hitting into three double plays, committing three errors, and striking out seven times, often in crucial spots.

At third was Jumping Joe Dugan. In his mind his first team, the Philadelphia Athletics, didn't pay him enough and he jumped, i.e. left the team, 36 times. (Talk about a record that may never be broken!) Dugan could hit, field (especially bunts), run, and throw. He was one of the best third basemen in the league but now he was suspect because of an old knee injury.

Speedster Earle Combs (he was clocked at 10 seconds flat over 100 yards at Churchill Downs) covered a lot of ground in Yankee Stadium's cavernous center field (490 feet). Combs hit a lot of triples into it. Combs was a .325 lifetime hitter but had hit just. 299 in '26.

The aforementioned Bob Meusal was usually in left, but when the sun was in the right fielder's eyes the Yankees often switched Ruth and Meusal – no sense endangering the babe's vision. Long (6 foot 3) or Languid (he often took it easy) Bob had the best arm in baseball and hit for average and power. Ben Pascal, the backup outfielder hit .360 in 89 games in '25 but how do you break into that outfield? 

The catchers included 145-pound Benny Bengough who was being visited by quacks and eccentrics because doctors hadn't fixed his throwing arm after he was hit by a pitch; Pat Collins, who'd hit .600 in the Series (.275 for the season) but also had a damaged throwing arm (he claimed that bowling repaired it); and John 'Nig' Grabowski who had come over from the White Sox after hitting .262.

The biggest question about the Yankees was their pitching. Their ace was Herb Pennock, the Squire of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, who bred silver foxes. He knew every hitter's weakness but at 33 he was in his fourteenth big league season. 
Next was Waite Hoyt (at right) who pitched 27 shutout innings in the '21 Series (Mathewson shares the record with him). Still called Schoolboy though in his tenth year, he had never won 20 games and was 16-12 in '26. 

At 37 Urban Shocker was nearing the end. He was one of seven pitchers still allowed to throw the spitter but had such an assortment of curves and other dirty tricks he often didn't need to use it. 

Unruly (he drank a lot) Walter "Dutch" Reuther was in his eleventh season and was still considered one of the game's best lefties. He'd been accused of being drunk when he started against Ed Cicotte in the 1919 World Series. He won the game, which was later accepted as having been fixed. "I thought I'd worked a tight game," Dutch said later (probably over a beer). 

To shore up the aging staff the Yankees added rookies George Pipgras, a Minnesota farm boy, "the Dutch Viking", who had a common minor league label – great stuff, no control, and Wilcy Moore, a 30-year-old dirt farmer from Okmulgee, Oklahoma. His wrist had been broken two years earlier and he'd developed a sidearm sinker. It worked. In '26 he was 30-4 with Grenville in the Sally League.

So a pennant and a 4-0 World Series was anything but a sure thing in '27. On April the Yankees opened the season in front of 73,206 fans (a record) and Waite Hoyt outdueled A's ace Lefty Grove 8-3. 

On September 22 they were down 8-6 to the Tigers in the bottom of the ninth when Babe Ruth chipped a piece out of a seat in the 64th row of the bleachers (six rows from the top) with a two-run homer, his 56th. Unable to contain his excitement a young boy who had been praying all afternoon that the Babe would hit one jumped out of his seat, ran across the diamond, and caught up to Ruth as he rounded third. Ruth still had his bat in his hand. The boy crossed the plate together with his hero and followed him right into the the dugout. The win put the Yankees (who would finish with a .714 record) 16 1/2 games in front.

Not a bad year for the Babe or the Yankees. To see how they did, go to http://retro.bb-ref.org/teams/NYY/1927.shtml 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kicking the tires

I love spring training. First, because it’s the end of a very long dry spell for baseball fans. Yeah, MLB gives us the winter meetings and then those are followed by various free agent signings and trades, but it soon becomes something akin to throwing crumbs to a starving person (unless your team signs Albert Pujols or something). When February finally rolls around, we’re all really ready for something meaningful to happen, teams as well as fans.

If you’re a fan of a particular team, you’ve probably listened to all the news from them over the off season. Since their marketing departments never have an off season, you know that this will be a good year because a) “we’re finally ready to compete”, b) “we’ve fine-tuned the team and expect to be in the post-season once again”, or c) “out rebuilding efforts are going to make this team really exciting to watch this season”. Or some such sales talk like that.

But second, I also love spring training because you finally get to see your team’s 40-man roster in action. You can begin to make a more accurate assessment of what their potential is for the upcoming season, see if you’ve been given a hollow sales pitch or have gotten the straight gen. Sure, everyone says that spring training records don’t mean a thing once the starting bell rings in April, but if you’re a savvy ball fan you can begin to assess where the team’s strengths and weaknesses really are.

One fond wish I’ve had for many years is to go down to spring training. February and March are pretty gloomy up here north of the 49th, and a little Florida sunshine would go down pretty easily. But I think it would be fantastic to be down there, see the Jays of course, and also visit some of the other teams’ ballparks to see where they’re at. You know, play “advance scout” a bit and kick the tires on the forthcoming baseball season, not having to rely on the baseball pundits, but on my own two eyes.

So starting next week, we get to find what just may happen once baseball hits April. I can’t wait, even if I can’t be down south.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is everyone drinking electric kool aid or something?

I’m as anxious as everyone to see spring training get started, and so to get my daily taste of the upcoming baseball season, I’ve been reading a lot of baseball journalism over recent weeks. Normally, at this time of year, everyone’s optimism is on display, and why not? No practice pitches have yet been thrown, no drills have taken place, and there have certainly been none of the spring training sister-kissing games to show that [name of team here] is going to [a) enjoy their long-awaited breakout season, or b) continue their dominance in their division/league].

But this year it has been ridiculous. It seems as if nearly every team is bound to win 100 games and go to the post season where they will crush all opposition – if you believe what journalists are saying.

In recent days we’ve been treated to journalistic prognostications indicating that “Toronto could be East’s newest beast” (Spencer on mlb.com), or “Royals’ bumper crop of talent ready to ripen” (Justice on mlb.com), just to mention two that caught my eye. Arizona has apparently the best pitching in the NL west. Cleveland is on the verge of a big season. And it goes on. Of course, the Angels, Rangers, Marlins, Nationals, and Detroit have made huge commitments to winning now. The Yankees, even though they didn’t get involved in the off-season sweepstakes haven’t lost a jot according to many, and are stronger now than they were at season’s end. Ditto for the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Rays. Even the lowly Mariners are getting some journalistic action (“Wedge, Mariners full of promise for new season”—Johns on mlb.com).

You’ll notice that all of the above quotes come from the Major League Baseball website where they certainly have a stake in heightening each teams’ fans’ expectations, but I could find other examples from other sports journalists with nearly any publication. You could, too. All you have to do is look. At this time of year, every baseball journalist is going to give his view of each teams’ chances for the season, but based on what’s being written in 2012, you’d think at least 20 teams have a realistic chance of going winning it all.

Obviously, everyone is being far too optimistic. However, the thought does occur to me that it would be a terrific thing if they were all right. Can you imagine the baseball we’d see with so many teams that good, battling it out over 162 games?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The importance of the 2012 season for the Blue Jays

Since I haven’t been a season ticket holder for well over 10 years now, I don’t get to go to the January feature the Jays have put on for that august group. I can watch it on clips, though, and I’ve always found it informative, but maybe not in a way the team’s brass would like.

First and foremost, it’s a marketing exercise. They want to sell more tickets, so those of us on the outside can watch, our noses pressed against the glass, what special things people who lay down a wad of cash are treated to. Since it is about marketing, there’s not much said of substance. Sure, season ticket holders can air their grievances, but there never is much of that. How can there be? These people have already indicated their support of what the team is doing by plunking down their cash.

However, some grumbling occurred at this year’s “state of the union” address, and that’s a good thing. Those of us on the outside are still waiting to see what’s going to happen, and holding back our unfettered support while we keep our wallets firmly in our pockets.

Two years ago, Alex Anthopoulos, boy wonder, promised us a different way of doing things. He announced the Jays were going to build from within by making savvy draft choices, beefing up an ailing farm and scouting system, only making trades with a big upside and only signing major free agents when the team was ready to make a serious run at the post season. The proposed formula was promised to give the Jays sustainable, first-rank teams over a number of years. So far, he has stuck to his guns, diligently, rigorously, nearly to the point of obsession.

And the team has prospered modestly. It’s been above .500 both years AA has been on board – and through some significant injury adversity. Like many, I have been waiting as patiently as possible during the off-season to see what the Jays actually have when they hit the field. And I am one of the patient ones.

So what we have is a team on the cusp. Will they need one or two significant players to make the post season? Most likely. I do like what’s been done under AA’s tenure. What I don’t like is the fact that the team seems to be trying to distance themselves from being willing to try to go all the way this year. The 2013 season is what they’re now hinting at.

I don’t think that’s good. Sure, there are a lot of promising players on this team. If enough of them break out and some of the established players (Bautista, Lind, Escobar, et al) have solid seasons, the Jays could go pretty far. But ownership all of a sudden hinting that they want to see bums in seats before they’ll shell out big bucks for a big stud player is very troubling.

Should they have gone after Fielder? No. The price and length of contract required precluded that being a good fit. Darvish? No. Way too expensive. So deals were not made for big free agents. A lot of fans are objecting. Those fans will sit back further and take even more of a wait and see attitude. The result for 2012 may well be that enough bums won’t be in seats for the team’s owner to be willing to pony up cash for free agents after the season ends, free agents that the team may well desperately need in order to compete.

So it falls on the 2012 team to play way above their heads to get the fans hot and bothered again, and showing up at the ball park in far more increased numbers that has been the case in the past 10 seasons. I’m thinking that the average needs to be 30,000 per game for Rogers to reach for its wallet.

And that’s a tall order. I’m hoping to be very surprised by this year’s team – or AA’s plan could really be in trouble.