Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Tigers Take the Central Division

Well, at least they should this year. The White Sox have fallen off their perch and the rest just don’t stack up to the Tigers. Last season the Tigers went 95-67 and lost in the ALCS. With the additions they have made and their depth of pitching, they not only could improve on last year’s wins but play through to the World Series. However, the very improved Angels will have a lot to say about that.

The Position Players:
The Tigers have done well with hitting and fielding over the past few years. Prince Fielder is the new kid on the block and came with a $214 million dollar price tag and maybe five year’s worth of quality hits. But for now, he is the man at first and brings a tremendous amount of pop to the equation. He could add another 3 wins by himself. Have they overpaid? If the Tigers win the WS during Fielder’s tenure, then it was worth it, big time. At 3rd is Miguel Cabrera (switched from 1st) and his career .317 BA. He hit 197 hits last year and is a horse by playing 161 games in 2011. At SS is Jhonny Peralta and his .299 BA and 21 HR and 86 RBI. Alex Avila is catching and hitting well with 19 HR and a .295 BA for 2011. For 2nd base we have Ryan Rayburn who is better by far than Brandon Inge, who no longer has the stuff to be a starter (has not for a while) and hits well below the Mendoza line.

In RF we have Brennon Boesch, the quick fielding second year man, that is doing great in spring training. He is taking the position of the much worn out Magglio Ordonez (38) who has not been signed for this year. Ordonez had an OBP of .634 and Boesch had .798. Hopefully Boesch will add to his 115 starts last year by staying healthy. His BA was .285 with 10 HR and 25 2Bs. He had surgery on his thumb in September, but appears to be healthy now. He is an improvement over Ordonez. It has been rumored that Magglio Ordonez is ready to retire. In LF, we have Austin Jackson, who had 147 hits last year and a BA of .271. He is similar to Curtis Granderson, with his fleet footed fielding. Delmon Young is in LF. He appears to be getting stronger. He went to the Tigers in August to shore up a much-used up outfield and to add some pop with the bat. He now seems to have settled with the Tigers. Last year he hit .302 and is .413 in spring training. He is just 25 years old and has a lot of years left to add to Tiger goals (if he stays healthy), but still might wind up as a DH.

In summation, the position players must stay healthy. Only Andy Dirks and Brandon Inge are the utility guys and are not nearly enough backup, if needed.

The Pitching Staff: With the seemingly indomitable Justin Verlander in the lead, the staff is very strong. You need pitching to win and the Tigers have most of what they need.
Following Verlander are Doug Fister (ERA 1.79), Max Scherzer e (WHIP 1.35) and Rick Procello (14/9) . This makes a very nice one thru four starters. Jim Leyland wants a fifth starter and has several to choose from that are both young and raw at the same time. They may just not be ready yet for a full time position. They are Andy Oliver, Duane Below, Drew Smyly and Adam Wilk. Leyland will probably have to look outside the Tigers to find a fifth starter.

Relief is also strong at the top with Jose Valverde still showing good form this spring. The Tigers also have Joaquin Benoit for long relief with Phil Coke and the lefty, Daniel Schelereth, taking the seventh and eight innings. Also on the list is the much traveled Oliver Dotel who appears with the Tigers for his, what, 16th team? He will take short relief. Dotel is a one or two out short-term guy. But he can go in anywhere, like he did in the WS in the fifth inning and got an out. Leyland wants a flexible player and Dotel may just fit the bill again. With Al Alburquerque out for at least half the season, Dotel is what they need now.

There have been many positive comments made this year about both the Tigers who are 15/6 and especially the Jays who are a league leading 21/4. Spring training is that time when specialized work needs to be done in game situations. It means nothing in the real scheme of things. Pitchers work on what they need to throw and hitters get used to hitting it. Delmon Young said this about the subject; "You can get hits in Spring Training, especially early," Young said. "You could see with [David] Price and [Jeremy] Hellickson, they're just working on fastball location right now. They weren't mixing in breaking balls or anything. Spring stats can be misleading when you have guys that can come up in the first week against a lot of fastballs and hit the cover off the ball. Then when the season comes around, when they mix it up and the lights come on, then you see the real hitters." I could not agree more. However, I do hope that the work done in spring training does translate to the season.

The Tigers are poised to take the Central Division. They must handle the Angels and whatever the East may bring to get through to the World Series, but they have a fair chance.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sizing Up the Yankees

As I have said already, I don’t put a lot of stock in Spring Training statistics as indicators of how players will perform during ‘the regular year’. So, when I see that Hiroki Kuroda has brought his ERA down from over 14.00 to just 3.07 I take into consideration the fact a lot of the hitters he’s facing may never play in the Major Leagues. It will be interesting to see how Kuroda does going from a big park in a low scoring division to a hitters’ park in the highest scoring division in baseball. He is credited as having worked hard to improve himself while with the Dodgers (and again this Spring) and his ERA did go down in each of his years in America.

Phil Hughes allowed six hits and two runs over six innings in a minor league game on Monday. His March ERA is 2.03. Hughes slumped from 18 wins in 2010 (in spite of a 4.12 ERA – sure is nice to have run support) to 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA in 2011, but he was pitching with shoulder problems. Apparently his changeup is showing improvement and he should be better this year.

Joba Chamberlain, who was coming back from elbow ligament replacement surgery and wasn't expected to pitch until June anyway, hurt his ankle bouncing on a trampoline last week and will be in a cast for six weeks. Who knows how he'll do when he returns.

David Robertson’s bruised right foot (he missed a step walking down the stairs on March 7) is apparently okay after running and fielding drills. He threw ten pitches in one inning of work the other day and then threw some more in the bullpen afterwards.

Michael Pineda apparently did not report in top notch condition after the winter off. He allowed one run and five hits in five innings in a split-squad game on Sunday and got his fastball up to 94 mph for the first time this Spring. He says he is not throwing full throttle yet and is working on pitch placement. His slider looked good in the 87-pitch outing. Russell Martin said he “seemed like he was putting it all together” – but then what else is he going to say about a second-year pitcher whose confidence he is trying to boost?

Andy Pettitte is already throwing well (though not in actual games of course). As for having too many starters with him returning, the Yankees are apparently trying to deal Freddy Garcia. He is on a one-year contract and cannot be traded before June 16 without his permission – which he says he would consider giving. The Yankees apparently offered him to the Miami Marlins in return for a reliever but the fish wouldn’t bite. (Sorry, I could not resist.)

It was a surprise to me that the Yanks were going after a reliever. They already have Rafael Soriano (7th inning), Robertson (8th inning), and Rivera (9th inning). It’s possible that Chamberlain may get back in form and they could use Garcia himself in long relief. (Not Pettitte though.) There are other priorities if you ask me. (See below.)

Derek Jeter is apparently fine after missing a week because of a stiff left calf. He had a homer and a double on Sunday but isn’t running full tilt yet. (Do any of the regulars go full tilt in Spring Training? I wouldn't.)

Alex Rodriguez, who is fine after getting drilled in the ribs with a pitch, is hitting well in Florida and the Yankees are hoping for a 2007 type season from him,. But he hit well last Spring (.388 with 6 HRs) before having an injury-plagued regular season. Look for Eduardo Nunez to get lots of at bats again this year as the Yankees rotate Jeter, Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano through the DH spot to keep them rested and healthy.

Nick Swisher has had just one at bat since pulling a groin on March 7. The 39-year old Raul Ibanez, who is slated to be the DH against right handers, was hitting .051 before ripping a home run last Sunday. Joe Giradi thinks he may have been pressing in an effort to make a good impression.

Mark Teixeira is reportedly trying to hit the other way more in an effort to negate the shift and raise his batting average – though his home run and RBI totals have been excellent since he came to the Yankees. Whether he hits the other way more or not, I think it's time to move Cano, who’s hit over .300 five of his six years and is one of the best hitters in baseball, into the number three slot and move Teixiera to fifth.

More importantly – for me at least – the Yankees need to get stronger in left and right field. Swisher's numbers over the last three years are okay – 29, 29, 23 home runs; 82, 89, 85 RBI; and .249, .288, .260. But he has hit .128, .176, and .211 in the playoffs. Ouch.

Brett Gardner is just as big a weakness, whether he’s leading off or batting second. He’s a great outfielder but he plays left, not center. Gardner can worry pitchers with his base running but his average in his four years with the Yanks is .264, and his on base percentage is a less than remarkable 353.

As any Yankee fan will know, Gardner takes a lot of pitches and was getting awfully predictable. At least he went after a few more last year. He swung 35% of the time as opposed to 30% in 2010. Only Bobby Abreu swung less often. (The league average is 45%). Sure he made contact 91% of the time, sixth in the league, but with what results?

If you're really into statistics you definitely want to know that his IFFB% (infield flyball percentage) was crazy high, the third highest in baseball. At least his home run totals are improving though – 0, 3, 5, 7! At that rate he should be into Ruth – Gehrig – Dimaggio – Mantle – Jackson – Rodriguez type bomb numbers by the time he’s 100.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

One up, one down

In watching what the Jays were doing over the off-season, and now past the halfway point of spring training, I’ve been struck by one thing: Alex Anthopoulos and his staff really know what they’re doing. Here’s why…

1. On free agents, they didn’t pony up huge bucks on players who might bring short-term gain, but long-term financial pain. Poster boy: Prince Fielder. He would have been (based on his personal history) as good a fit here in Toronto as he seems to be in Detroit. He can hit, his skills at first base aren’t as bad as some profess, and he can hit. That’s why Detroit got him: for his bat. The downside is, he’s not going to be around in 9 years. The Tigers are most likely paying for a 4- or 5-year lease over 9 years. From his body shape, Prince is going to get as seriously heavy as his dad as time goes on. That’s not a good thing. As for other free agents (pitching), there was no one who was worth the price. I wouldn’t have shelled out the bucks for Darvish, either.

2. On the trade front, AA made one really solid move: he gave up a very promising pitcher for a very promising closer. Great move, born out by the fact the baseball’s prognosticators have said the trade amounted to grand theft. Elite closers are harder to come by than starters. The Jays desperately needed a really good closer. Santos is very likely just that. What do the Jays have an abundance of: promising starting pitchers. A big plus is that Santos had just signed a contract extension. By the end of 6 years, this trade could be right up their with Gillick’s trade for Carter and Alomar. As for trading for another starting pitcher, the other teams always wanted too much. Let’s get Michael Pineda from the Mariners. Great acquisition, right? That’s until you find out they wanted Brett Lawrie. Any wonder deals couldn’t be made? I’m thinking every team AA spoke with started with the words, “Well, sure, but we want Lawrie.”

3. On accurately assessing the parts the team did have at the beginning of spring training, it’s all shaking down the way it’s supposed to. Read between the lines and it was easy to see that if they both had good springs, Travis Snider would go back to Triple A and Thames would get the job. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Thames will get the nod. Why? Because Snider has torn up the Grapefruit League before. I believe he has what it takes to be an excellent acquisition for some team, but like Colby Rasmus, it may not be this one.

The Jays bullpen is rounding into shape in the same sort of fashion. It was easy to predict that Villanueva and Perez would get those last two spots. For starting pitching, the five (Romero, Morrow, Cecil, Alvarez and McGowan) will make the cut. They can’t not take McGowan because you can be he’ll be snatched up on waivers and he deserves the chance since both team and player have extended such effort to make it happen. The Jays have some great starting pitcher prospects just in the wings. Cecil makes the cut only because of his experience, but he’ll be on a short rope. If he falters, he’ll be gone and you should expect Drabek to take his place in that event.

So in the case of Snider and Thames, Cecil and Drabek, one will go up and the other will go down. All of them probably deserve to be on the Jays, but that’s baseball.

One last thing, I would so love to see Omar Vizquel make this team. You’ve got to feel bad for Mike McCoy, but Vizquel would add so much to the team, not just on the field but on the bench and in the club house. He’s just the guy the Jays need at this point in time – and he’s proven he can still do the job.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
I was speaking with my friend Reete (boy, I hope I’ve spelled his name correctly) down at the St. Lawrence Market and he brought up the idea of Escobar being trade bait for some sort of upgrade. That’s kind of interesting. Hech is nearly ready. Wonder what the team could get for an excellent shortstop with some pop in his bat?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Last Boy

I have just finished this book by Jane Levy about Mickey Mantle. The book is both a biography and interview. It is very well written and covers my boyhood hero in all his glorious and inglorious personifications.

From the time I was seven and up, the Mick was on everyone’s lips with his outrageous play. He was considered a perfect baseball player and the most wholesome of people. He had blond hair, blue eyes, a wide toothy smile and was on the cover of my Wheaties box, the Breakfast of Champions. In those years, no one ever knew anything of his life outside the lines. The press did not reveal the personal lives of the players at that time. Between the lines he was untouchable, even in the mid-west and Tiger town. He was the AL leader year after year in many categories.

Jane Levy’s book goes into the usual areas of his high level skills on the field and debauchery off it. It goes into the many surgeries and rehabs the Mick went through just to keep playing. It was a very different scene with an ACL in the 1950s. Will Carol, of SI, talks a little of this and of the book itself. It is a good read and brings up the lost possibilities that only advanced surgical techniques of today can correct. Please check it out at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/will_carroll/09/21/fantasy-baseball-injuries/index.html

I saw Mantle play the Tigers at Briggs Stadium. It was June 17, of 1961. I saw Roger Maris in the middle of his first big spurt of homers. In the early part of the year, Maris did not have too many, but in this stretch in June he went over 20 HRs. On Saturday, June 17 in 1961, I saw his 23rd homer. Mantle was nearly equal at that time with his 20th. The Tigers won the game 12 to 10. It was a slug fest. The Tigers were in first place. Stormin’ Norman Cash hit a homer for the Cats as did Al Kaline. For the Yanks, Clete Boyer, Elston Howard and Maris hit homers. But the star of the show was Mickey Mantel. When he came to bat, for both teams and the fans, everyone was watching. It was great and he always received the biggest cheer, even outside of New York.

The book is a fairly sad look into his storied life. The Mick certainly did as he pleased, like he was carrying the weight of his dead father on his back, and with it, the need to be the best, period, no matter what. As a young upstart in the dugout, he got no support or encouragement from The Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, who would barely look at him. The squabbles between the two are legend. They would never be even on “good” terms. Mantle was the interloper to the established star. And later in his career Mantle would get the most asked question is who was the best, Mantle or Mays? The question is still good grist for the mill. In the end he said Mays.

The Last Boy is truly about the end of innocence in the Untied States. As Mickey Mantle ended his career, so came the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, amid much political unrest. The times they were a changin’. As a young boy of the time, I was placed perfectly to be a part and enjoy those halcyon days when everything was right in the world and baseball was at its centre.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If You Trade Jesus ... God (or George from his grave) Had Better Approve

Sure,Kenny Lofton, David Justice, and Randy Johnston were all great players, but when Brian Cashman traded them they were all well past their primes. The most talented young player he ever traded in my view was Alfonso Soriano. In January, Cashman took a really big risk in trading Jesus Montero, perhaps the hottest prospect the Yankees have had in years, to Seattle for Michael Pineda. (Montero was ranked 12th among the top 100 prospects by mlb.com.) Cashman had a lot of support from George Steinbrenner over the years, but if the Boss were still alive he would undoubtedly be saying to Cashman, “You’d better be right, kid.”

Montero hit .288 in Triple A last year with 18 home runs, a .467 Slugging Average and an .814 OPS. He looked impressive in his late season stint with the big team – .328 with 4 home runs and 12 RBI in 69 plate appearances – good enough to earn a spot on the playoff roster. He displayed patience at the plate and the ability to hit to the opposite field with power. The problem is that Montero is not strong behind the plate and the Yankees had obviously decided that he wasn't ever going to be good enough. And not to be overly critical, but if Montero’s biggest asset is his bat why did he not finish in the top 15 in any IL offensive category with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre? (Okay, maybe Rick’s right, maybe I do spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over statistics.)

Affording the Yankees the luxury of trading Montero was the fact that they have a solid receiver in Russell Martin, who hit 18 home runs in 417 at bats last year and hit well after the All-Star Break. At 29 Martin should be at the peak of his career.

And waiting in the wings is Austin Romine, whose chances of making the roster are much improved with Montero gone. Romine, who has a terrific arm, hit only 6 homers in 336 at bats in Triple-A last year but sported a respectable .710 OPS. He stands a good chance of replacing Fransisco Cervelli as the Yanks’ backup backstop. The Yankees may want to give Romine another year in the minors to work on his footwork behind the plate, however. At 24 he is still young for a catcher.

Pineda was expendable because of Seattle's rich depth of starters. The Mariners have Hernandez at the top of their rotation and signed Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. Those two, combined with lefty Jason Vargas and young prospects Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan, will likely make up Seattle’s rotation to begin the season. In the minors, three of Seattle’s top prospects are starting pitchers.

Pineda’s fastball averages 94 mph, it often hits 97. He is one of the hardest-throwing starters in the Majors and has also shown a nasty slider and a developing changeup. Overall,he struck out 173 in 171 innings. Surprisingly, only 2 Yankees have struck more than a batter an inning over a full season – Roger Clemens and David Cone (twice). Pineda had two rookie seasons in one last year. In total he was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA.

He started splendidly, then suffered typical rookie struggles. One of Pineda’s high points was starting at home against the Yankees on May 27 when he was already 6-2. But his problems started soon after that. Over his final 17 starts, Pineda was 3-8 and his ERA ballooned to 4.74. Cone (now a YES broadcaster) points out that it’s not unusual for a rookie starter’s arm to be overwhelmed by the grind of the season.

< In a less dramatic but also important move, the Yankees signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda, a 36-year old righty, from the Dodgers to a one-year ($10 million) contract. Kuroda was 13-16, with a 3.07 ERA in2011. Though he has never really had an outstanding season – even with the Hiroshima Carp – his 2011 WHIP was 1.21 and he struck out 166 in 201 innings so he can still throw. One possible cause for concern may be that both Pineda (Safeco Park) and Kuroda (Dodger Stadium) will be pitching in a more hitter-friendly park this year. It wasn’t that long ago that I worried that the Yankees had nowhere near enough starting pitching. Through much of 2011 it was almost a “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” situation – or in their case “Sabathia and Nova and then it’s over”. Now starting pitching seems an area of strength for them. With the return (probably around May the 1st) of unretired Andy Pettitte, Joe Girardi is in the enviable position of having too many starters. (But then remember what they say – “you can never have too much pitching”.) Barring injuries he has a 7-man rotation – Sabathia, Pineda, Pettitte, Nova, Kuroda, Hughes, and Garcia.

On top of that, Yankee fans can drool over the prospects of Manny Banuelos (Man-Ban) joining the rotation. The cocky 19-year old lefty has already drawn comparisons to a young Ron Guidry (Banuelos is just 5 foot 10), John Santana, and Dodger horse Clayton Kershaw. And Ban-Man says he wants to be better than anyone he’s compared to!

Banuelos throws 95 to 97 mph fastballs, has a terrific changeup, and an improving curveball. In a recent Spring Training game against the Red Sox he threw changes on 1-0 counts, biting curves on 2-0 counts,spotted 95 mph fastballs (one out of the stretch) on the corners to righties and displayed an awareness of the importance of pitch sequences.

Dellin Betances is another very promising Triple-A hurler. He throws a 94 to 97 mph fastball with a lot of confidence, has a terrific curve, a decent change, and great presence on the mound. Being 6 foot 8 helps, I suppose.

Postscripts

Who’d have thunk it? The Yankees seeking to drop their payroll below the luxury tax threshold? What's the world coming to? Hal Steinbrenner has been quoted assaying he wants the payroll down to (a measly) $189 million by 2014 and has also been quoted as denying it.

Here, in a nutshell, is why I don’t take Spring Training seriously. As of Sunday, Robinson Cano, a lifetime .308 hitter, was batting .185 for March. Outfielder Dewayne Wise, a lifetime .219 hitter, was tearing up Florida at a .474 pace. I have no idea why Dewane is still in the majors. The Yankees are his seventh team in 10 years. But if you look at how he’s doing this spring, they need to make room for him at Cooperstown.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The dog days of spring training

Every teams’ camp is in full swing now, with lineups starting to gel, pitching rotations rounding into shape, and managers and GMs with a much better idea of what they’ve got and where they’re going.

Players who have been around for a while at the major league level know how spring training is supposed to work. They have their routines established, and know how long it will take them to get ready. Managers and their coaching staffs know what is expected of them to. For the coaches, it’s handling drills, teaching the finer points of playing the positions for which they have responsibility, and the managers spend their time seeing what they’ve got and what they can do with it. Part of that is overseeing the minor league players deemed to be almost ready for The Show. Management has definitely got to have a good idea of what their spare parts can do. A big player goes on the disabled list, what’s the best way to handle it? Give the kid who impressed you at spring training an audition in the majors, or go out and try to get a replacement player from another team? These are all things that are part of any club’s spring training regimen.

The commonly acknowledged truism is that “spring training games don’t mean anything once the season starts. It’s true, and it isn’t. To my mind, the most important thing is for management to get the best read possible on their squad during spring training.

But what about the spanners that are always chucked in the works when you least expect it? The media has had little of any dramatic value to report on this spring, and with the halfway mark, probably nothing much more to report. Then, yesterday, they received a gift, courtesy of the New York Yankees.

Andy Pettitte has decided to come out of retirement after a year and compete for a starting job with his old team. I have to admit that one caught me a little off guard. And I don’t think I’m alone in the baseball world.

In a way, I have to feel bad for the club’s manager, Joe Girardi. He’s been working with a group of guys all spring, and basically the only job up for grabs was the fifth starter’s position. Was it going to be Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia who got the job?

Now that’s all out the window. Pettitte’s got the credentials, sure. He’s the winningest pitcher in the post season ever (19). But he’s 39 and has been out of the game for a year. At the very least, you’ve got to feel bad for Garcia and Hughes. How must they feel?

Bottom line is, even when you’re moving along on the trajectory you want to be on, life can throw you a curve. What could the Yankees say when Pettitte told them he wanted to attempt a return? “No, sorry Andy boy, there ain’t a chance.” Pettitte could well round into form and what pitching staff wouldn’t benefit from his skill and experience? At the agreed upon $2.5 million salary, it could turn out to be the steal of the century.

I wouldn’t count Pettitte out. He left the game not because he couldn’t do it, but because he didn’t want to do it anymore.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees will just have to wait until August for the real dog days to begin. It ain’t happening this spring.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wild Wild Card

I know it is spring training and I am talking about the end of the season and the wild wild card put in place by the Bug. I wish there was time to correct this situation but the powers that be have decided. MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to the new play-off set-up for this year. Too soon for my taste, as I do not think it has been accounted for in the 2012 schedule nor is it the proper scheme for baseball playoffs.

The talk in the off-season was what would happen to the Astros and when. Well, everyone had a point of view on that one and nothing happened for this year. The realignment has not been done. The next topic was the new playoff scheme in the new contract between the MLB and the MLBPA. Both parties to the contract agreed to extended playoffs. How could they not? Each player and team wants to extend into the postseason. Money and pride of success are the reasons. Owners make more money and players get postseason stats and the fans can hope against hope that their team will go the distance. Fans want their team to go further. Excellent. Bug Selig said "We're working on dates right now. That'll all take place. It looks to me like we'll have it because I've told everybody we have to have it. It'll be exciting. One-game playoff, it will start the playoffs in a very exciting manner."

I like the idea of another round of playoff chances. With now ten teams eligible (out of thirty), I do not think it is overboard. Now 1/3 of the MLB teams will have a postseason game. The NHL and the NBA have a bigger chance of getting into the playoffs. NHL and NBA teams have 53% chance (16 out of 30 teams) and the NFL 37%. I have heard it said many times that when the playoffs start in the NFL, the season has finally begun. It is felt that the regular season is nothing more than waiting for the real action to begin, that the regular season is diluted too much. I would not like to see this happen in baseball. In baseball’s long history the length of the season has meant everything. Teams vie for besting the other in each series they play. Strategies, of which there are many, are crucial to the outcomes as the teams size each other up. The key word I think here is "series".

Baseball is played as a series of games. Other than a tie at the end of the season, there are no regular or postseason encounters of one game. The shootout style being implemented this year is not the way the game should be played. In the NFL, 12 teams are in the postseason and they only ever play one-offs. The NBA and NFL play series, as well, to determine advancement to the next round. As Richard Justice, from MLB.com, put it “…no team will want to settle for a wild card berth because those one-game playoffs are just too risky.” My point precisely. It is not the way the game is played.

I look forward to seeing the wild wild playoff game. But how will it fit into the schedule this year? The commissioner’s office has not done the homework. According to the current schedule, divisional play starts on October 5, 2012. That leaves no days from the end of the season to the divisional series if a team is in a tie and makes the wild wild card. The schedule should have been revamped for the next season.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Precious Egos


No sport keeps more statistics than baseball, partly because - as each game is made up of a series of isolated events, i.e., at bats, it is so easily done.

You can, for example, see how your team is doing. Last year, the Yankees did best on the road, at night, in August, against lefties. The Blue Jays were best at home, at night, against righties, before the All-Star Break.


If you want to second-guess the manager while watching (or in Rick's case listening to) a game you can take into account a multitude of factors. How about deciding what reliever would be most effective?


Well, against Francisco Cordero left-handed hitters batted .243 last year, while right-handed batters hit only .159. But that's only the beginning. Cleanup hitters batted .250 against Cordero, number 3 hitters just .036! With no count, batters hit .278. With a 1-1 count they hit .308. But with a 2-2 count they hit just .162. (He appears to bear down.) Cordero allowed 6 home runs in his first 15 pitches, but when an appearance went longer, he gave up no dingers. And, he allowed 6 home runs with the bases empty - but none with men on base. Interesting.

As for your batting order, who should play and where should they bat? Well let's decide when to give Jose Bautista a day off. He hit 20 home runs at home and 23 away. He knocked in 49 runs at home and 43 away. He hit .305 at home and .300 away. His OBA was .454 at home and .442 away. His slugging average was .609 at home and .607 away. Wow! It sure didn't matter last year whether Bautista was on the road or at the Rogers Centre.


How about the difference between night and day? He hit 22 homers in the daytime, 21 at night. Daytime RBIs 54, nighttime 48. Daytime batting average .284, nighttime 313. Okay not much difference there either.


How about grass vs. turf? Most AL batters played far more game on grass than on turf, but for the Jays it was about even. Bautista hit 20 homers on (actually over) grass, 23 on turf; had 50 RBIs on grass, 53 on turf; a .304 batting average on grass, .300 on turf; OBA .442 on grass, .452 on turf; slugging average .597 on grass, .619 on turf. Holy smokes! Talk about consistent!

Playing third base he hit. 309. Playing right field he hit. 302. It just didn't matter with Bautista! Except for one major factor, baseball is a funny game, there's always something else to consider. How about before and after the All-Star game? Before it Bautista had 31 homers, 65 RBI, a .334 average, a .468 OBA, and a .702 Slugging Percentage. After the break - just 12 homers, 38 RBI, .257, a .419 OBA, and a .477 Slugging Percentage. Yikes! (Factor in, though, that there are a few more games before the All-Star break than after it.)


How consistent were the other top hitters in the AL last year? Well Robbie Cano's Slugging Percentage was .533 at home and .533 on the road. But he had 7 homers and 40 RBI in the daytime and 21 dingers and 78 RBI under the lights. Miguel Cabrera hit 15, 56, .349 at home and 15, 49, .339 on the road. Like Cano, he did a lot better at night 18, 68, .372 vs. 12, 37, .297 daytime. Adrian Gonzales was a lot better at night - 22, 88, .348 against just 5, 29, .316. Mind you, there are a lot more night games.


Why are most major league lineups the same every day if major league managers have so much information at their disposal? Shouldn't a player hit second in one situation (depending on the pitcher, the time of day, whether he's in a slump, etc.) and 6th another time? Probably. But in my opinion it's all about managers not wanting to damage the precious and fragile egos of their players. They're getting to play baseball, enjoy five months off, and earn millions, but we wouldn't want to damage their egos.

Anyway, better luck in the second half next year Jose and keep getting those number three hitters out Francisco.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A (radio) week into spring training

Working at home as I do, and sitting at a computer all day as I’m forced to do, I often have MLB’s Gameday on during the ball season. If the Jays aren’t playing, I just browse the list of games and flip on whichever match-up interests me.

During spring training, the broadcast schedule is more hit and miss. My guys don’t broadcast every game, and since I’m working, I can’t sit there and watch a silent game on MLB’s little animation thing, which also doesn’t work all that well during spring since the stadia used (that’s correct plural Latin for you!) aren’t set up for such electronic niceties, it seems.

Yesterday, I did listen to the Jays game, but had to suffer through it with the Astros’ radio broadcasters. Milo Hamilton was certainly on, but I don’t remember who else was with him.

The important thing was, they didn’t let the game get in their way discussing traffic in the Orlando area (the team trains in Kissimmee, a name I’ve always loved), restaurants that Milo recommends, what shows he watches on TV (rather than go see his team play in Tampa when they meet the Yankees shortly), and a whole bunch of other non-baseball topics that just had me on the edge of my seat. It was sort of “reverse Vin Scully”.

Now, spring training is supposed to be a laid back affair, but this was seriously pushing the envelope. I enjoy hearing what other broadcasters have to say, but I certainly like it to be about somewhat about baseball.

These guys didn’t know that it was Perez pitching innings 3 & 4, calling him Crawford the whole time, even though Luiz certainly doesn’t look anything like someone who would have such a British surname. I wasn’t listening in the seventh when Crawford actually did come in to pitch, so I have no idea what they called him.

All in all, the broadcast team for the Astros seems about as adept as the players on the field at the moment. It was a pretty lacklustre effort.
Years ago I was listening as the Yanks were in a tight game at season’s end, and their legendary shortstop and broadcaster, Phil (Scooter) Rizzuto, went on and on about a chocolate cake someone had sent to the broadcast booth. We learned a lot more about his dessert preferences over the next two innings than we did about what was going on at field level.

Maybe spring training should also include getting the broadcast teams ready for the regular season. Over the off-season, perhaps their broadcasting skills have gotten a little flabby and overweight, and they need sharpening as much as the players down on the field.

I have some suggestions of possibly useful drills for them:
• Staying on Topic (no one cares what you had for dinner last night)
• There Are Two Teams in Every Game (learn something about the opposing side – like their names?)
• Describing the Game: Audiences Don't See Well On the Radio
• Pushing the Right Buttons (or why commercials don’t usually start in the middle of an at bat)

It will be interesting to compare today’s matchup of the two teams listening to the Jays radio broadcast team of Jerry Howarth and Alan Ashby (who used to broadcast and play for the Astros). I bet I learn a lot more about the Houston squad than I did yesterday from their own broadcasters!

(And here’s something you might try. Log in to the broadcast via MLB gameday. You’ll be able to switch back and forth between each broadcast team, and will probably quickly see what I’m talking about.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How True is Moneyball?

Hollywood is famous for stretching the truth and for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. But it turns out that Moneyball is a fairly accurate account of what Billy Beane did for the Oakland Athletics in 2002 (though hardly as single-handedly as depicted). If you haven’t seen the movie yet stop reading and go rent it, it’s pretty good.

As shown in the movie, the A’s had finished first in the AL West in 2001 but had lost 3 games to 2 to the New York Yankees – whose payroll was three times that of the A’s – in the first round of the playoffs. Beane has had tremendous success with the A’s, making the most of his small payroll while continually winning in the AL West, though his team always struggles in the post season.

Moneyball focuses on Beane’s methods of prospect selection. Sabermetricians argue that a college baseball player's chance of MLB success is much higher than a traditional high school draft pick. Beane maintains that high draft picks spent on high school prospects, regardless of talent or physical potential as evaluated by traditional scouting, are riskier than if they were spent on more polished college players. Micheal Lewis’ 2003 book, on which the movie is based, documents Beane’s often-tense discussions with his scouting staff who favored traditional subjective evaluation of potential rather than objective sabermetrics. In the movie the scouts seem stuck in the 1940s.

Bill James is referred to a number of times in Moneyball. He was invited to its debut (perhaps a first for a statistician). James says that people need to understand that he’s not as big a deal as Moneyball makes him out to be. “It’s somewhat exaggerated,” he says, “but my contributions to the game have been a bit exaggerated for quite a while now.” Not that he’s complaining. “I thought it was a terrific movie,” James says. “Among all the baseball movies of the last generation, this was the baseballest.”

The movie dwells on Oakland’s loss of three star players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen) after the 2001 season and Beane's efforts to replace them. Presumably he can't because his owner will not increase the payroll. His choices are Jason Giambi, Scott Hattenburg, and David Justice. His scouts are appalled. In truth, Jeremy Giambi was actually on the 2001 Oakland A’s and not acquired in the off-season. Justice ended up leading the team in walks, but only played in 118 games and Hatteberg, contrary to what the film presents, was a fixture in the line-up.

Hatteburg and David Justice significantly led the team in On Base Percentage, the big draw for Beane and his nerdy advisor, Paul Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Brand is supposed to be Paul DePodesta. DePodesta insisted that his name be changed in the film. In reality DePodesta isn’t a nerd, he had been a major league scout – as had Billy Beane.

In the movie the team starts out horribly as everyone is saying, “Told you so” about his preference for statistics over the wisdom of the scouts. His daughter is worried Beane will be fired. In reality the A’s won their first three games and 6 of their first 8 though they did go on a 4-15 skid soon after.

Beane (Brad Pitt) talks about counting runs like cards in a casino, but there is no reference to how many the other team scores. In real life the 2002 American West Champion A’s were kings of stopping the other team from scoring. The staff led the American League in ERA and boasted three of the six best starting pitchers in the game. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder combined for 57 wins, 493 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.05 over 675 innings.

The A’s staff certainly warrant more attention then they received in both the film and book. Brad Pitt is portrayed as a genius for acquiring reliever Chad Bradford in spite of his unusual delivery. In truth Bradford did okay – 3.11 ERA in spot apppearances. No mention of Billy Koch’s 44 saves. And how about the hitters? Miquel Tejado was 34, 131, .308. Eric Chavez was 34, 109, .275, and Jeremy Dye helped out with 24 home runs. No mention of them either.

Playing Oakland manager Art Howe is sloppy, overweight Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Howe has always been trim and athletic.) Howe is portrayed as gruff and priggish, which is kinda the exact opposite of what the real-life Art Howe is like. The original director Steven Soderbergh planned to have many principals, including Howe, play themselves, but Soderbergh left the project.

Howe, who was interviewed for just ten minutes by the movie makers, is portrayed as being preoccupied with his contract when in reality his contract ran through the 2003 season. In the movie Howe stubbornly refuses to put Hattenburg at first to replace Carlos Pena, who wasn’t hitting. Well, yes and no. Pena played every game at first until the middle of May. But Hattenburg played every day too – as the DH.

In real life Beane didn’t trade Pena because Howe wouldn’t play him, Pena just wasn’t hitting – .218 with 7 home runs in 40 games. Hatteberg played his first game at first against the Blue Jays on May 17. He committed only 5 errors (in 91 games) at first after that.

As I watched the movie I wondered how Art Howe reacted when he saw it. I was right. He was not happy.
“I don’t know how you can get away with saying it’s a true movie,” Howe said. “In the movie, it’s Billy Beane who tells Mike Magnante he’s being released, and he tells Magnante, “Thank you so much for everything, Mike.”

“Give me a break. I’m the one who had to tell Magnante, and he was less than a week away from getting his full pension. I like Mike, I tried hard to get him those days, I told them to put him on the DL to get him the time; it wouldn’t have cost them anything.” They wouldn’t. (How could Brad Pitt be so mean?)

“I’ve spent my whole career trying to build a good reputation and be a good baseball man and someone who people like to play for and all of the above. Then in two hours all these people across the country are going to go in and get this perception of me that’s totally unfair and untruthful. I'm very upset.”

It’s typical Hollywood to emphasize the differences between characters to develop tension and conflict. In reality the A’s scouts were not that ancient and out of touch. Not portrayed in the movie is J.P. Ricciardi. He was the East Coast Scouting Supervisor and then assistant to Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson before the Beane era began. Under Beane, Ricciardi (a minor league teammate of his), became Director of Player Personnel. Ricciardi certainly embraces the sabermetric analysis of the game.

In reality Beane wasn’t quite that brilliant, Brand (DePodesta) that nerdy, nor Howe that selfish and obtuse. But it’s a great movie about baseball even if you do need to take it with a grain of salt and a chaw of chewing tobacco.

And you know me, I gotta finish with a bit of old baseball history. Yes, the 2002 Oakland A’s did set a modern-day record for most consecutive wins (20). The greatest of all time? The 1916 New York Giants won 26 consecutive (with one tie in the middle). The odd thing – they were all at home. Talk about a good home stand! You could look it up.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A favorite day

I sort of blew it yesterday. Everything was ready for a really magical moment, something I really look forward to over the dark, cold winter months. Since I was in my studio working, I figured I’d enjoy it on my computer, so I didn’t even check the radio broadcast schedule since I subscribe to the MLB audio feed. You know what I’m talking about by now, don’t you? That moment in time when all good baseball fans go “Ahhhh”.

The first spring training games were held yesterday. For the past week, I’ve been like a kid waiting for Christmas to arrive. I so couldn’t wait for Saturday at 1:00. For me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of baseball fans, that magical moment when your team’s broadcasters sign on for the first time means that winter is finally on the wane, your team is starting to rev their engine for another run at the World Series (hey, hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?), and that warm, sunny days are just around the corner.

Unfortunately for me, I missed it. I’d like to have a really good excuse to give you but I don’t. I sort of could blame technology, since I didn’t realize how long it would take to log in to receive the broadcast, but I’m experienced enough to know better. I could blame MLB for those damned pop-ups advertising all their available broadcast features, but it’s not like I’ve never dealt with those before.

No, I just flat out didn’t get myself ready in time. Since I listen to the Jays, I missed Jerry Howarth and Alan Ashby sign in, and when everything was tickety-boo on my computer, the Jays’ starting pitcher, Brett Cecil, already had two outs! Damn!!

Yes, it was very nice to hear the crack of the bat and the crowd noises and the Jays went on to play a pretty nice game, winning it handily, but the whole thing was bittersweet for me.

I missed the sign-on.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The “Ifs”

Well the 2012 season is about to start and there is much ado from all quarters from the grapefruit league. The Jays have put up a brave face for this up coming season. The talk is very upbeat, positive and sometimes over the top. For a solid .500 team, changes needed to be made in the off-season that would improve the chances. Alex Anthopoulos has made some changes and kept some things the same. But as the spring season starts, it seems to be full of “ifs”. Who will have a break out year, will finally be what is expected, who will be a surprise? There are many questions with answers only to be found between the base lines.

So some of the “ifs”:

Colby Rasmus: If he lives up to the hype and the Jays win, he will not be traded. If not, he too will be gone. He has not proven yet that he can be the leader in centre field or that his bat is worth the hassle. He reportedly did not get along with LaRussa at the Cardinals. Over three seasons he has posted only a .251 BA, .322 OBP and 53 home runs. If and when are my questions. When will he get the major league numbers that justify 2.7 mil salary? Will the Jays culture influence him in the right direction? According to Rasmus himself, last year “was not a good one”. I think there may be a positive chance he will live up to his rookie year’s great expectations. He is only 23 years old and in his third year. Chances are good that with his new, calmer attitude and focus on work, he will live up to his potential.

Kelly Johnson: He has plenty of defensive skills but has lost all confidence at the plate. Not at all unlike Aaron Hill before the trade. Only his home runs were on par last season, everything else was way below average. Fielding was good but we need lumber too. Last year his split was better when he came to the Jays. His BA went from .209 to .270 and the SO to BB ratio improved from 3:1 to 2:1. However, he is a career .260 hitter with a SO to BB ratio of 2:1. So, he is in his career range. I think we can do better. If he can be more than he has so far, he might stay on the team. For Kelly, I don’t think he is and AA will have to find some other piece to fill this position.

Travis Snider: “Lost in transition” is the way Snider plays. In the minors he smashes it up pretty good and in the majors he falters. His starts have been disappointing at best and he’s had a few chances. He is young and apparently, so far, unable to adjust at the MLB level. Things are easy in the minors but not that much. His numbers are literally out of the park. But the major league level adjustments Snider needs to make have not worked out. This is it for Snider. He played only 49 games last year with a .225 average and OPS of .616. Since his spectacular 2008 late-season call-up he has tailed off in a similar spectacular way. It’s now or never. I think it will be never. Thames will carry the team and Snider may remain as a utility outfielder or be traded off.

Eric Thames: He seems to have the bull by the tail. He performed beyond expectations last season. If he continues his athletic ways with the bat and in the field he will definitely find a spot. He had 95 hits over 95 games and a projected 20 HRs if he played all year. Not a bad intro to big league ball. (It seems the Jays have already decided he will make the team as his face is in most of the advertising and on the Jays’ web site.)

Kyle Drabek: After the melt downs of last season, is he ready? Mabe the Jays brought him up too early. Whatever the excuse, it is hard to imagine a worse introduction to the Jays’ then Drabek has had. Last year he had 18 starts and nine decisions at 4/5 for a .444 record and an ERA of 6.06. Also, he had 51 SO and gave up 55 BB. If he can manage his head, he will stay. He has the potential.

Adam Lind: Lind should not be on this list, but… These last two years he has underperformed his own career record. Last year he made an offensive comeback, but still not up to 2009 stats, when he and Aaron Hill were in competition. Lind has, I think, shown he can play first. His defense really has improved. It is his position in the line-up that could put him out. How could he cover Bautista or anyone with a BA of under .200? The Jays have not covered this position or the DH. Lind hit 26 home runs and drove in 87 runs but had an OPS of only .734, almost 200 points lower than his 2009 OPS. The real question comes when he hit only .197 for the second half of the season while his paired teammate Encarnacion was strong only in the first half. Encarnacion is not the answer if Lind does not pan out.

For the Jays, there is much potential and as yet, little realization. If the playoffs are to be a reality, an 11 to 14 game improvement is required. Don’t forget the Angels, Rays, Tigers and Rangers. All have made improvements to their teams and big ones at that. I am hoping against hope that all the Jays come thru from “ifs” to “sure things”. The wild wild card may be our only chance.