Saturday, April 28, 2012

The zen of baseball

Recently, I got into a heated “discussion” with someone about baseball. It was in a bar (naturally) and the Jays were on the screen just in front of us. He made a comment about how dumb a game baseball is and couldn’t understand why anyone would waste their time following any team. “Baseball is so deadly boring.” (At least, I think he used the adverb “deadly”.)

Curious and always will to do some in the trenches research for the good of Late Innings, I asked my soon-to-be debating opponent what sport(s) he followed. “Football, and none of that stupid Canadian garbage, either. It’s good old NFL and some college ball for me!”

“Why?”

He talked basically uninterrupted for nearly five minutes about the strategy, excitement and movement of the game. “People don’t stand around waiting for something to happen. Baseball is a hell of a lot of standing around. That’s boring.”

Now if our Will had been there, he probably would have agreed, but then gone into a long look back into baseball history, citing statistics on how the game is slowing down due to balls seeming to be thrown out if a player so much as touches them, batters leaving the box after every pitch, pitchers peering in for at least ten minutes while they try to figure out just what the catcher is trying to tell them, etc., etc., etc. If John had been there, he probably would have challenged the poor guy to a duel at dawn: “You’re choice of weapons, sir!”

Both would have been correct in their approach. This poor, misguided soul obviously didn’t understand the game at all. He’d probably not been picked by either side in some gym class back when he was six. But believe me when I say, this guy was way anti-baseball.

I used a bit of Will’s approach, because I do believe that those in control of the game are allowing it to slow down drastically, and to the detriment of the game. I reserved John’s approach for the possible situation where the only way I could win was to put a beating on him. (I did slip in the innocuous seeming question about if he was interested in martial arts or anything like that.)

But I wasn’t making much headway. So I tried a different approach. “Baseball has just as much strategy as football and probably more.” He told me a lot about football strategy. I told him much about baseball strategy, a lot. We agreed to disagree.

By the end of two more beers, we were no further. I couldn’t budge him; he couldn’t budge me.

However, later that evening and for nearly every day since, I’ve been thinking about just what it is about baseball that I like so much. Why did I get caught up in baseball and not some other sport?

Perhaps Late Innings’ readers can help out. Please name one thing that you think makes baseball so interesting to watch or play, just one. I'll tell you mine (and this after much thought): the clock doesn't matter. The game ends when the game end.

I’m really looking forward to hearing from all of you. And thanks!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What’s up with the O’s ?

Wow! What a start to the season and the Orioles are making everyone look pretty bad. They are now 11 and 7 on the season, tied for first with the Rays. I would not have thought that they would be in first place at any point on the season. This is not the Oriole team of last year when the Jays owned them going 12/6. The Orioles have won their first series and now have secured the series win for this second set against the Jays. The only ones to beat them are the Yankees, who swept them in the second series of the year. What’s made this change?

Matt Wieters is on an offensive tear. He has 6 HR and 13 RBI with an OBP of .371. Adam Jones has 5 HR and 9 RBI and OBP of .342. Adam Jones had 5 HR and 9 RBI. Roberto Andino, Chris Davis and Wilson Betemit have contributed as well. Nolan Reimold, with 5 HR and 10 RBI, was very hot until he was taken out with stiffness in his neck. So the Orioles have some power. The Jays have done well (but lost) against Louis Ayala and Darren O’Day in run output. Tuesday, they lost to Tommy Hunter (not the singer). Last night, Jason Hammel (ERA 1.73) had his best stuff for the second time in 11 days to again beat the Jays. He allowed only six singles and no runs in six innings making a perfect start to the season at 3 and 0. Hammel and Matt Lindstrom (RL) came from the Rockies just at spring training (traded in a straight up deal for ace pitcher Jeremy Guthrie). It seems that this is working out great for the Orioles. This is the single biggest move the Orioles have made this season. Pedro Strop has now collected his very first two saves off the Jays.


The Jays have not figured out the Oriole pitching, so far. It appears that the Jays had no plan at the plate. The pitching was good but the Jays, as a group, just did not find the offence. Last night, they were baffled by the breaking ball. The bats were cold, and the normally hot-hitting, scrappy Jays we have come to see this year, did not show up.

The Jays offerings to the Orioles were on target as well. Tuesday night, Henderson Alverez pitched 7 innings of 2-hit ball. One hit was a home run. But that’s all it would take to lose. Last night, Kyle Drabek (the good one) went five innings and of 5-hit, two run ball as well. Drabek’s two runs were right in the wheelhouse serving up HRs. Still, good outings for both pitchers, but they had no offence to back them up. So it goes sometimes, and every team loses games no matter how good they are. But…to the Orioles?

Looking over the team totals for the Orioles, they are pretty average. The Rangers, Yankees and Angels are hot in some areas. The Jays have given up 27 HR while the Orioles only 17. The Orioles are average at ERA, WHIP and in hits allowed. The Jays are second best (to White Sox) at hits allowed while the Orioles are average again. Still, this average-ness is an improvement from previous years.

Should one worry about the Orioles? In a word, no. In the AL East, the pressure is too great and the talent pool too strong for an average team to make it. The Orioles are average, so not to fear. They will win some, but, at the end of the season, will fall like a rock and finish fifth.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Greatest Starts in MLB History

This is a follow up to Rick’s excellent post on how teams’ early performances are reflected in their final season records. How’s your favorite team doing so far? The best starts are by the Rangers (13-3), the Dodgers and Nationals (12-4), and the Cardinals (11-5). Some players and teams have already proven that their Spring Training stats didn’t mean much, but how likely is it that these fast starters will prove themselves to be top-notch teams? 

Well, I would say it’s unlikely that the Nationals or the Dodgers will make it to the World Series. The Rangers and Cardinals certainly have a shot at going all the way though. What, you may ask, are the best starts of all time, and how did those teams fare the rest of the way?

Let’s start with consecutive wins. The record is thirteen straight and two teams did it. The 1982 Braves, led by Bob Horner, Dale Murphy, and Phil Niekro, went on to lose the NLCS to the Cardinals in 3 games. The ’87 Brewers, who featured Paul Molitor's .353 average and 45 stolen bases, ended up 3rd in the AL East in spite of a 91-71 record and therefore did not make it to the playoffs.


In 1966 Baltimore almost won 13 in a row (12-1) and thanks to Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson (.316, 49 HRs, 122 RBIs) and Boog Powell (34, 109), great defense led by Brooks Robinson, and two solid closers – an art form still in its infancy – won 97 games and then swept the Dodgers.

The 1939 Yankees started 29-7 and, led by Joe Dimaggio (30 HRs, 126 RBIs), Joe Gordon (28, 117), and Red Ruffing (21 wins), they won the pennant (hardly a surprise in those days) and then swept the Reds.

In 1970 the Big Red Machine was just getting revved up. They started 23-7 with a young Johnny Bench slugging 45 home runs and knocking in 148 and Tony Perez hitting 40 homers and driving in 129. They didn't have great pitching but didn’t really need it. They won 102 regular season games but only one Series game against Baltimore.

In 1984 everyone waited for the Tigers to come back to Earth after a 35-5 start. They didn’t. Led by Lance Parrish (33, 98), Kirk Gibson (27 HRs), and Jack Morris (19 wins) they won 104 games and needed just five games to down the Padres in the World Series.

Two years later Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden led the Mets to a 21-4 start and an 108 win season. They beat the Red Sox in a drama-filled seven game Series.

Under their new manager Lou Piniella the 1990 Reds led from wire-to-wire (after starting 29-11) and finished by sweeping the A’s, who had won the Series the year before. They didn’t have a lot of power (Hal Morris, their first baseman and leading hitter at .340 hit only 7 home runs) but they stole a lot of bases. How times have changed – they had just three players making more than $100,000.

The ’95 Indians also started 29-11 and ended up with an even 100 wins. Albert Belle hit 50 homers, Kenny Lofton stole 54 bases, and five regulars hit over .300. They beat the Red Sox and Mariners but lost to the Braves 4-2. Four years later the Tribe again started 29-11. Manny Ramirez belted 44 dingers and Jim Thome added 33. Omar Visquel and Robbie Alomar stole more than 30 bases each. Bartola Colon was 18-5. They went out in the first round.

And now a few personal reflections. There have already been some rare feats in this young season – an inside the park home run, a perfect game, and an amazing comeback. On Saturday I pulled a Phil Rizzuto. No, I didn't execute a smooth double play or lay down a perfect bunt. As a broadcaster Rizzuto was famous for leaving games early (to beat the traffic on the George Washington bridge) especially if it was a lop-sided affair. In the second game of their weekend series with the Red Sox the Yankees were trailing 9-0 and nothing was going right for them – their rare line shots were hit directly at enemy fielders. After the fifth, even though Joe Girardi had pointed out that no lead was safe at Fenway, I gave up, surrendered the remote, and went off to read. The Yankees scored seven runs in each of the next two innings and went on to win!

The day before I had been delighted as the Yanks downed the struggling Red Sox in a game marking the 100 year anniversary of Fenway Park. Both teams wore 1912 uniforms and the game was played in the daytime – but there the similarities to 1912 ended. The walls had changing electronic ads. There were black, Japanese, and Hispanic players on the field. Players weren't chewing tobacco. Batters wore helmets and elbow protectors. An outfielder made a catch with a glove the size of a bushel basket. Pitchers didn’t throw spitters or go the distance. And a new ball was thrown in whenever it acquired a microscopic speck of dirt.

One final note ... one of the announcers hailed an innovation that is designed to speed up the game. Batboys have been instructed to have a bat ready to give to a hitter whose bat is broken so he doesn't have to go to the batrack for a new one. Wow! That should make a big difference! Forget about preventing pitchers from taking forever to deliver each pitch, or banning batters from stepping out, or allowing relievers nine warmup pitches, etcetera, etcetera. No, those close-at-hand replacement bats should do the trick. Bud Selig was in the broadcast booth patting himself on the back for the new playoff format and labor peace, maybe he should have addressed what he will do to speed up the game.



Saturday, April 21, 2012

Settling In

The 2012 season is now securely underway and the smell of all the preseason BS is slowly wafting away. As always, a lot of teams made high-octane free agent signings and trades. A few large in-house contract extensions also have just-dried ink on them. It’s always interesting to see how these large expenditures of money work out. Baseball players are not machines and ultimate success or failure is always a matter of fractions of an inch, be it on the mound, in the field or with a bat in your hands.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty intimidated to carry the burden of a $200+ million contract on my shoulders. We are talking elite athletes here with a proven track record, but the daily pressure must be pretty immense. Alone, in the dark hours of the night, I wonder how Albert Pujols is feeling about the contract he signed for the Angels over the winter? Yu Darvish was probably the most-discussed acquisition of the season. What is going on in his head when he standing at the top of the mound, ball in hand and the game on the line? It’s got to be tough.

Many would say these players are the authors of their own misfortune: “If a player wants that kind of payday, he’s just got to deal with the pressure. Tough boogies.” I have to admit that I have some sympathy for this attitude, but also have sympathy for the players who are in this conundrum.

So here we are back at the topic of last week’s posting: just how difficult it is to be successful in baseball. Now add the pressure of not just performing at a high level (what any ball player has to do), but playing to justify your salary being more money than the treasury of a small country.

So how are the biggest signing stars of the off-season fairing?

HITTERS
Albert Pujols ($250 million) – 14 GP, 58 AB:  5 R, 16 H, 7 3B, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 6 SO, .276 AVG, .720 OPS

Prince Fielder ($214 million) – 13 GP, 48 AB: 9 R, 17 H, 2 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 9 SO, .354 AVG, .939 OPS

Jose Reyes ($106 million) – 15 GP, 56 AB: 6 R, 12 H, 3 2B, 2 3B, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 6 SO, .214 AVG, .625 OPS

PITCHERS
CJ Wilson ($77 million) – 3 GS 19 IP: 11 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 9 BB, 1 HR, 15 SO, 2 W, 1 L, 2.37 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

Yu Darvish ($60 million) – 3 GS 17.2 IP: 19 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 13 BB, 0 HR, 14 SO, 2 W, 0 L, 3.57 ERA, 1.81 WHIP

Mark Buehrle ($58 million) – 3 GS 20.1 IP: 21 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 2 HR, 12 SO, 1 W, 2 L, 2.66 ERA, 1.13 WHIP

The Class of 2012’s top pitching free agents seem to be doing better than the hitters, who sure aren’t at the top of the league in much. Think they’re feeling the pressure?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sam Crawford

Yesterday was Sam Crawford’s birthday. He played for two of my favorite teams, the Reds and the Tigers, and was known as Wahoo Sam. He was called that based on where he was born, Wahoo, Nebraska. Be careful where you are born.



All lefty and a high school star in football, he started out on a traveling (by lumber cart) ball team who challenged towns they visited and were paid by passing the hat to cover expenses. He also challenged people to foot races because of his great speed. In 1898 he was offered a contract of $65 per month plus room and board to play for the Chatham Reds of the Canadian League, then went to the Grand Rapids Prodigals of the Western League. From there he got a contract with the Cincinnati Reds in 1899 at 19 years of age, and began a Hall of Fame major league career spanning 19 seasons with the Reds and the Tigers.

He was considered one of the best hitters of the dead ball era. In almost every year he played he led the league in several categories. In 1900, at 20 years old, he led the National League in triples and home runs. The next year he led the league again in home runs, triples and had a batting average at .330. Most interesting that year he also hit 12 inside park home runs. A feat not duplicated since. In those formative years of the MLB, Wahoo Sam played with some pretty impressive names: Jake Beckley, Bid McFee (last man to play without a glove) and Ty Cobb.


In 1903, Sam Crawford signed two contracts. One with the Reds and one with the Tigers after a bidding war broke out, as both leagues were trying to sign players from the other league. Crawford went to the Tigers with $3000 compensation to the Reds after a court ruling and played with the Tigers until the end of his major league career in 1917. Crawford was forced-out by the Tigers for future HOF member Harry Heilmann, who eventually won four batting titles. Wahoo Sam, (who decided he wasn’t yet finished playing and to show the Tigers up) then went to the Los Angeles Angels, who were then part of the Pacific Coast League, where he posted record numbers in triples and a BA of .360. After 1921, he managed minor league ball.

Ty Cobb came to the Tigers in 1905 to join Crawford as the best hitting players in the American League. The Tigers won three straight pennants in 1907, 08, and 09, sadly losing the World Series each year. Ty Cobb was a rookie in ’05 and Crawford took Ty under his wing and showed him how to run down hits and then throw the runner out. He also showed him how to steal bases. They eventually became the best double steal combination in baseball. As Ty Cobb became known, he over shadowed Crawford who did not like the perks (reporting late and private rooms) afforded Cobb. The on field competition was intense and Cobb would leave the field red-faced when Crawford bested his performance at the plate. Eventually this jealously created an animus that never dissipated in their lifetimes. It was actually Ty Cobb’s undisclosed intervention with the baseball writers that got Wahoo Sam elected to the HOF in 1957. Sam found this out long after Cobb’s death. Wahoo died in 1968.




Wahoo Sam Crawford played at the beginning of major league baseball, as we know it. He led the league in many hitting and fielding categories from 1905 to 1915; such as RBI, slugging percentage, total bases and extra base hits. He still holds the all time record of 309 triples with a matching career BA of .309. It is players like this who created the records and mythology of the game for the rest of us. Happy Birthday, Wahoo Sam.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The peril of precision

With the Jays now in town for the first time this season, I’ve been to two ball games this week. Since we created Late Innings last year, I must admit that I watch games differently. I’ve always considered myself a student of the game, and probably pay attention to details that might seem silly to the average ball fan. For instance, I might spend a half-inning watching the left fielder or third baseman more than I do the pitcher and batters. It can be most informative to see just how they go about playing their position, whether they’re involved in any plays or not.

During last night’s game against the Orioles (ultimately lost), it suddenly struck me how incredibly difficult it must be to have to face major league pitching. Please no eye rolling. We've all heard this old saw before. It was just last night, it all came together for me. I finally understood completely. No matter how good a hitter you might be, you have to face one very simple thing: you never know what’s going to happen. Getting a hit is really more a matter of making a good guess than anything else. Think of it this way: in how many other sports do you have to guess all the time? Answer: lots. Hockey, football, soccer, tennis all involve a lot of guessing. How is the play developing? Where should I be? What should I do to respond to it successfully?

That’s the same thing batters face, right? Of course. However, consider this: a batter has less than a half a second to respond to his guess (unless a knuckleballer is pitching). Even the slowest change-up (60 mph) takes .47 seconds to travel from the pitcher’s hand to nestle into the catcher’s glove. Now consider that the diameter of a bat is less than that of a baseball at the fattest part and that you’re hitting a round, spinning object (unless it’s a knuckleball) with a moving round object.

Lastly, you already have to be responding before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. You are only guessing where the pitch will be, how it will be spinning (very important as to its trajectory) and how fast it will be coming at you.

That’s a hell of a lot of thinking and moving to do in such a short amount of time. The last little notion that’s always in the back of every batter’s head is that getting hit by a baseball can cause severe injuries – if not kill you. That’s an additional big weight to carry.

You have to face this amount of thought – and danger – for every pitch, for each at bat, for each game, for the entire season.

Hitting major league pitching is definitely the hardest thing to do in professional sports. And I will brook no argument with that view.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Streak

In Will’s post this week he mentions that fans should not be too upset with the Yanks going 0 and 3 to start the year. He is right about that. Baseball is, like any other team sport, very streaky. Teams can go on a tear one week and fall the other way the next. Not just teams, but players as well. (Note that, just now, Jose Bautista is in a slump). It will happen and they will get out of it. After several years a player can have an odd better year and a worse year but most years will balance themselves out and, after around four years in the bigs, the stat machine is pretty well set. For the most part they are what they are.

So I got to thinking about when do we know a team is good, bad or ugly? The point I am trying to make is that while streaks do happen (and often) it appears a team’s fortune for the year is established early on, and over the course of several games. The percentage after 10 and or twenty games is close to the way most teams fair for that year. Most contending teams do follow this weird kind of record.

So as curious as it may seem, here are some interesting looks (not exhaustive) at some successful years and some not so much. I will look at the first ten and twenty games then compare to the end of the season:

Jays. The Back2Back years. In 1992 won their first six and went 9/1 for ten and 12/8 (.600) for the twenty and ended the year with 96/66 (.593). In 1993 they went 6/4, 12/8 and ended with 96/66 (.586). In 1985, again, it was very similar. They went 6/4, 13/7, and ended 99/62 (.615). That loss to the Royals in ALCS was the worst in Jay’s history.

Tigers. In 2006 the Tigers won their first 5. But using my sequencing they really went 6/4, 12/8 and ended 95/67 for a years record of .586. It was the same percentage for the whole year. In 1968 it was 9/1, 13/7 and ended with 103/5 (.650). 1984 was the exception with 35/5 (.875) and ending 104/58 (.641).

Yankees. As Will said, those 1998 Yankees did go 0-3. But for the first ten games they went 6/4 and at 20 games went 15/5 (.750). Pretty impressive recovery, I’d say. (This same no name team lost a series to the Jays in August the same year). By end of the year they 114/48 for a whopping .704 on the season and won the WS as well. However, the 1927 (the big name team) Yankees had the best season record ever and still went 7/3 (.700), 13/7 (.650) and ended with 110/44 for an even more whopping .714.

Cardinals. The 2011 wild Cards went 4/6, 11/9 (.555) and ended with 90/72 (.556) and also the WS ring to wear. Go figure. In the heydays of 1942- 44, ending with St Louis Showdown and such names as Stan “The Man” Musial, Johnny Hopp and Mort Cooper, went the way of all the above, with small variation went 6/4,11/9 and ended in the .680s.

At the other end of the chart are the 2011 Jays for example. They went 5/5, 9/11 and ended 81/81. Another little quirk is that at 40 games in they were 20/20. The 2011 Pirates went 5/5, 9/11 (.450), At 40 games they were still 18/22 (.450) and ended the season at 72/90 (.444). The 2003 Tigers went 1/9, 2/18 and 9/31 to end 43/119 (.265). It is fairly consistent with this weird approach.

This is all very strange indeed. With looks at other teams, it appears that for the most part the way a team starts the season is the way it finishes. Maybe Sabermetrics should look at this as well. I certainly do not pretend to understand all of Sabermetrics or it’s variations. Bill James, I am sure, can come up with a formula to predict the year’s outcomes. It would smooth out the streaks and account for the usual injuries and other anomalies that occur every year to each team. Let me know what you think. Is this ridiculous or is there something to this approach. Or is it only individual player statistics that count? Help me refine this search. I want to know.

Thanks, Will. I would not have looked into this without your post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Was Losing their First Three a Good Omen?

Could the Yankees have done the smart thing by dropping their first three games to Tampa?  Maybe. They lost their first three in 1998 and went on to have a pretty good season. One of the best of all time. To view their scores go to


It seems so long ago. Seinfeld was still on TV (its last season) and Bill Clinton had just turned the Oval Office into the Oral Office. In baseball the Yankees' new General Manager Brian Cashman had to struggle with a measly $74 million payroll.  It was the second year of Interleague play and new teams in Arizona and Tampa Bay had been added.  Steroids had been added too, and the juice was changing the game. Up 8-6 in the ninth Cincinnati's Buck Showalter ordered his pitcher to walk Barry Bonds - with the bases loaded! In June Sammy Sosa broke Rudy York's record for home runs in a month that had stood for years. Later that season Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris's record. 

There was other bad news. Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak ended. Bud Selig was elected commissioner. Beloved announcer Harry Caray died, and Catfish Hunter was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. He would die the next year.

But 1998 was a glorious year for the Yankees. A remarkable thing about them and their 114 wins was that no single player had an outstanding season or set a Yankee record - not a single one, in spite of their success. Remarkably, the team set only one Yankee team record - the most double-digit home run hitters (10). Tino Martinez led the way with just 28 home runs, Bernie Williams was next with 26.

Four Yanks hit .300,  temperamental perfectionist Paul O'Neill topping the league at .339. Derek Jeter led the AL with 127 runs scored. The team led the league in runs, walks, and OBP. (Yankee games were getting very long as their hitters worked the count.)

One uncharacteristic element was that two Yankees (Chuck Knoblauch and Jeter) stole more than 30 bases, Chad Curtis had 21 and Williams and O'Neill had 15 each. That's a lot for a Yankee team. 36- year-old Darryl Strawberry and 38-year old Tim Raines got into the act too with 8 each and even Joe Girardi stole a couple.

On the mound the team allowed the fewest hits, runs, and home runs in the American League. Two Davids led the way. Cone was 20-7 and Wells was 18-4. His .818 percentage led the league - as did his five shutouts. One of those was a perfect game. You won't see that many shutouts from a Yankee pitcher now with the manager going to the bullpen so often. Maybe Gerardi will beat the 2004 Yankee team record of fewest complete games - 1. 

When you win as many games as that team did a lot of pitchers are naturally going to have great won-lost records. Ramiro Menoza was 10-2 and Orlando Hernandez was 12-4. Two Mikes - Stanton and Buddie went 4-1 and Grahame Lloyd was 3-0. The other starters were Andy Pettitte (hey isn't that guy still playing?) who was 16-11 and Hideki Irabu who sucked, just 13-9. I don't know how Darren Holmes managed to go 0-3 but it landed him with the Tucson Sidewinders the next year. Mariano Rivera, in his second year as the closer, finished 49 games saving 36. 

The only thing that made fans nervous was whether they'd used it all up in the regular season and would bow out quickly in the playoffs. That didn't happen of course as they got by the Rangers (3-0) and the Red Sox (4-2) before sweeping the Padres in the World Series. It was truly a great year to be a Yankee fan - but it didn't look good three games in.

Notes on Last Night: I really found myself pulling for the Blue Jays in their home opener. After an impressive Spring and opening weekend the Toronto newscasts were full of stories of fans packing the Rogers Centre. It's too bad they sent 48,000 home disappointed after going down down in the ninth. 

In Texas Yu Darvish was making the Wright kind of debut. That would be a Jared Wright kind of debut. Darvish gave up five runs (four in a painful first) in his highly anticipated major league debut and still won, just like Cleveland's Jared Wright in '97.

Derek Jeter may have felt like it was the old days when he got four hits in the Yankees' first win. Dare New York fans dream of another '98?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

And they’re off!

Before I get started on today’s topic, I have to say that I’m feeling pretty smug about my March 24 posting, “One up, one down”. Obviously the Jays were listening to my prognostications on the team, because almost immediately they sent Travis Snider down to Vegas, confirming Eric Thames as their starting left fielder. Then, Brett Cecil pretty well imploded on the final week of Spring Training (sooner than I thought) and the Jays penciled Kyle Drabek in as a starting pitcher. At this point he seems to be keeping McGowan’s seat warm while Joel Carreno has Cecil’s spot, but really, I believe when the fog of the first month clears, we’ll see McGowan back and Drabek up while Carreno is sent down again. But I’m still pretty happy with calling it correctly.

Now on to the main topic…

That was a hell of a first couple of days of the season, wasn’t it? Some exceptionally well-pitched games in both leagues. You have to feel for Justin Verlander and for Tigers’ closer José Valverde who blew his first save since 2010! (Way to get the pressure off early, though,) The Yankees got smoked by some timely hitting by Tampa Bay, but for sheer drama in baseball, it’s impossible to top the game in Cleveland on Thursday.

I listened to the entire opener between the Jays and Indians, and the state of my poor nails is a good indicator of how exciting that game was. It simply seemed to go on for days as both teams seemed to do their best to dangle the win in front of the other team only to snatch it away again with a stellar play. Not only was it the longest opening game in the history of the game, it featured a lot of other firsts or exceptionalities. The oldest – and one of the best – shortstop to ever play the game, Omar Vizquel (another call I made two weeks ago) came in to play…left field? Huh?

Technically he was playing as a fifth infielder in order to try to induce a double play so the Jays could hopefully get out of another jam (they did), and they yanked Thames to get him in, which made Vizquel the left fielder of record. Next inning, he moved to first base, as Farrell, the Jays manager, sent José Bautista back to right field. (Another first, since Bautista usually plays right field and is a fine third baseman – but he’s never played first for the Jays. He did a fine job, too.)

By the time they got to the 16th, both teams were pretty well out of players. For pitching, the Jays had only their closer left – who obviously would only come in if the team got the lead. Apparently, the plan was to run in their game 3 starter, Carreno, out for the 17th. It didn’t happen, thankfully, because the Jays catcher hit a long bomb to left field that plated 3.

The thing I found out later was that the Jays had only come back from a three-run deficit after the eighth inning ten other times in their 35-year history. That’s maybe the most amazing thing and makes Edwin Encarnacion the game’s real hero with a 2-run double in the top of the ninth to keep the team alive. They also had an 11-inning scoreless stretch pitched by the bullpen, also a team best.

So what are we going to do for the next 161 games?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Game!

As the season begins, I thought I would take a page out of Rick’s bag of tricks and offer up an old skit by George Carlin. He was terrific. I think he understood words, giving them a rye twist from his Hippy Dippy Weatherman to this well loved stand-up routine. Enjoy. To hear The Game! click on the following link or copy it into your browser http://baseball-almanac.com/Real_Audio/carlin.ra for the actual sound of Carlin’s famous voice.


The Game!

Baseball is different from any other sport, very different. For instance, in most sports you score points or goals; in baseball you score runs. In most sports the ball, or object, is put in play by the offensive team; in baseball the defensive team puts the ball in play, and only the defense is allowed to touch the ball. In fact, in baseball if an offensive player touches the ball intentionally, he's out; sometimes unintentionally, he's out.

Also: in football, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and all sports played with a ball, you score with the ball and in baseball the ball prevents you from scoring.
In most sports the team is run by a coach; in baseball the team is run by a manager. And only in baseball does the manager or coach wear the same clothing the players do. If you'd ever seen John Madden in his Oakland Raiders uniform, you’d know the reason for this custom.

Now, I've mentioned football. Baseball & football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country. And as such, it seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values.

I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.

Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!

Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.

Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.

In football you wear a helmet.

In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs – what down is it?

Baseball is concerned with ups – who's up?

In football you receive a penalty. 

In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.

In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.

Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog...

In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.

Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end – might have extra innings.

Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness.

In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I'll be safe at home!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What Stars Will Shine?

Players Who May Have Great Comebacks in 2012

Not that the Cardinals missed him all that much last year, but Adam Wainright had 11-3, 19-8, and 20-11 seasons before missing all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery. Could the 6 foot 7, 30-year old rightie be the Comeback Player of the Year? So far in Spring Training he ranks 5th among all hurlers with a 1.45 ERA, opponents are batting just .169 and his WHIP is 0.91. Looks like he's back.

Minnesota's Joe Mauer missed half of last year with injuries and hit just .287 when he played. Though he may never have a season like 2009 (28, 96, .365) he may rebound to 2010-type stats (9, 75, .327.) For the Spring he's hitting .358 with an .819 OPS.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington's 2010 phenom, had reconstructive elbow surgery last year. Surprisingly, he will pitch on Opening Day. He apparently has a good fastball and has struck out 17 in 23 innings this Spring. But he is also 1-4 with a 4.18 ERA. Should be interesting.

The Red Sox did not get a Carl Crawford performance from Carl Crawford in 2011. A career .296 when they got him from the Rays Crawford slumped from 19, 90, . 307 in 2010 to just 11, 56, .290 in his first year of Fenway Fever. He did manage to keep up his 104 strikeouts, however. Look for him to rebound, though it won't be before May as he underwent wrist surgery in January and hasn't played in Florida.

When you make the All-Star team, win a Gold Glove, and hit in 30 straight games you wouldn't necessarily expect to improve. But Dodger right fielder Andre Ethier (right) had knee troubles last year and, after 31 and 23 home run seasons he hit just 11 last year with an OPS under .800 for the first time. This Spring he's hitting .392 with a 1.292 OPS.

A 37, 99, .299 season wouldn't be considered an off year for many players, but it was for Albert Pujols. It was the first time he'd hit below .300 and his slugging percentage, OBP, and OPS were his worst ever. He also had the fewest hits, doubles, triples, and RBIs of his terrific career. That's why he got such a lousy contract. It will be interesting to see how the American League pitchers can handle him. If the Spring is any indication they may be in for trouble. He's hitting .407 with 6 home runs and 17 RBIs.

Question Marks

We know Miguel Cabrera can hit. With Prince Fielder taking his spot at first can Miguel play third? He has struggled at the hot corner in Florida.

Can Roy Halladay get his fastball back? He was reported to have lost 3 or 4 mph in spite of racking up 220 K's last year. Well, his Spring ERA is 5.54 but he has struck out 27 in 22 innings.

The Most Anticipated Debuts – Yu Who?

Due to the Royals' depth in the outfield Lorenzo Cain spent all of last year in Triple-A where he hit .380 and compiled an .877 OPS, but with the departure of Melky Cabrera to the Giants there is now an opening for him. For what it's worth, he ranks among the top performers in Spring Training with 11 doubles and 5 home runs in 66 at bats. He's hitting .394 and his OPS is 1.255. I think he'll get a chance to play this year, though his 12 strikeouts are a bit of a concern. Of course I checked his strikeouts last year in the Pacific Coast League – 102.

The Texas Rangers spent a lot of money on 25-year old Yu Darvish. No wonder... he had a 1.99 career ERA with the Nippon Ham Fighters. In his last season in Japan his ERA was 1.44, he allowed just five home runs, and he held batters to a .190 average. Darvish gave up six hits and three runs in six innings on Friday in his last start of the Spring - but he also struck out 11. Whether he's a Whirling Darvish or not, Yu should sell a lot of tickets.

When he was just 15 Washington's 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper hit a 570-foot home run. At 16 he was throwing 96 mph fastballs and made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a "once in a generation" talent. (To save you looking it up, Harper ranks number two on mlb.com's Top 100 Prospects List.) Harper obviously has a great arm, especially for a center fielder, can steal bases, and certainly hits for power. Don't look for him to be with the big club on Opening Day though as the Nationals will probably want to keep him under contractual control for an additional year. Besides, he struck out 11 times in 28 at bats in Spring Training and suffered an injured calf. But his debut later this Spring is much anticipated to say the least.

The top pitching prospect according to mlb.com is Tampa's Matt Moore, whose 94-98 mph fastball helped him strikeout 700 batters in 497 innings in the minor leagues. He struck out 11 Yankees in one start last September and 2-hit the Rangers over seven innings in another. He had abdominal pains during March but last Friday gave up just three hits in six innings. For the Spring he's held batters to a paltry .147 average. Watch for much Moore.

Second-Year Player Most Likely to Emerge as a Star

On March 16 Canadian-born Blue Jay Brett Lawrie pulled a groin trying to score from second. Prior to that the almost a rookie third baseman had seven doubles and two triples, a 1.371 OPS, an .821 slugging percentage and he was hitting .538. Though he tailed off a bit toward the end of his major league debut last year Lawrie seems poised to tear up the American League in 2012.

As you may have read here last year, lots of 'can't miss' prospects have missed badly over the years, it should be fun to see how these guys do.