The Cycle: Bryce Harper, LA Hitters, Revitalization, and Pitchers Era

Posted: May 3, 2012 in ALL II
Tags: , , ,

The Cycle is here to provide you with four baseball related musing every week just so you don’t forget what is going on in the best sport in American history, a sport with the best pension plan, and players able to play long careers and walk afterwards.  Call me soft for not playing football and only baseball (re: football playing father) but it looks I’ve won this one in the long run.

Single: Bryce Harper – The Arrival

Bryce Harper has seemingly captured everyone’s eye in Major League Baseball from his blatant cockiness, to his affinity for showing off his hair when rounding first base, to his cannon of an arm that screams of Ken Griffey Jr. cerca 1997.  Writing this on the heels of a 3 hit performance – including two doubles, one in the ninth before a game winning home run by Ian Desmond – Harper appears to revel in the media storm surrounding him evidenced by his play and showmanship with the media.  It’s a welcome injection of life in Major League Baseball that always seems to find itself jockeying for position behind basketball, football, and now a revitalized hockey.  In many ways, we should hate Bryce Harper and many people do (well Dodgers fans at least).  He is wild.  He proclaims his desire to be great, shows up pitchers, gets thrown out of games, and backs up his in your face style with in your face play.  Purists cringe at his persona but must respect his FIVE-TOOL game.  It remains to be seen how long Stephen Strausburg’s antithesis will remain with players returning to a dominant pitching team that cannot hit to save itself (more on that later) but for now he is a pleasant joy for baseball, especially in Washington where futility and solid management appears to be paying off.

Double: Two Sides of Los Angles – Pujols and Kemp

Albert Pujols is absolutely atrocious and few people know why.  I suspected that his numbers would dip as switching leagues (especially National League to American League) means facing more power pitching a surprisingly loaded AL West but this drought is, well, legendary.  Too many commentators are speculating about off the field issues as the primary source of struggle which I don’t really buy.  Chika alerted me to Bernie Miklasz’s piece providing reasons why Pujols is struggling including general declines in OPS, walk rate, and fly ball distance.  Most of the reasons are observations for why he has poor numbers, not why he is struggling or chasing bad pitches.  Collectively there are a handful of explanations:

1)      Don’t underestimate the American League power pitching factor!  The pitchers in the American League have higher ERAs because they face better hitters; don’t be fooled, they are better pitchers and that adjustment period takes time

2)      Pujols started slow last year but he is pressing to validate the contract.  I usually hate playing arm-chair psychologist but it is not surprising to think that someone would not want to impress early.  To be clear, I don’t think he was initially pressured at all.  I think once the slump continued, the poor habits began to develop (puling the ball, chasing pitches, etc).

3)      As Miklasz suggested, pitcher have identified these tendencies and are exploiting them.

That’s generally it.  He will explode out of this slump and put up impressive numbers late because he is a great hitter but for right now he and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are losing the battle of LA they were favorites to win.

Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp is the biggest reason why.  After being denied MVP honors last year, Kemp went out and probably produced a top ten greatest April of all time.  .417 AVG/.490 OBP/ /893 SLG with 12 HR, 25RBI, and 13 walks!  His play has been other worldly and complements the elite top of the rotation pitching that has revitalized Dodgers baseball too.  Obviously he won’t continue at this torrid pace but it is very clear that he does not need extra motivation from finishing second in MVP voting.  Kemp’s dominant start only brings more light on Pujols’ power outage.  Dodgers baseball is back for now…if only they could start selling out seats.

Triple (the hardest part of the cycle): Fountain of Youth

“El Capitan” Derek Jeter, “Big Papi” David Ortiz, and “Ichiro” Ichiro Suzuki are in the top thirty in batting average!! Ortiz is batting .391, Jeter .385, and Ichiro bringing up the rear at .312.  In terms of pure hits, Jeter leads with 40, Ortiz at 36, and Ichiro with 34 – all in the top five in baseball.  These three players were on the receiving end of much criticism for being old and in some cases arguable detriments to their teams.  What is with this sudden resurgence in hitting, especially for chronic slow starters like Jeter and Ortiz?  Well, I have no idea!  What I do know is that hitting is a skill that is slow to diminish and slumps can be corrected by going back to the basics.  These three players know what success looks like and can make the proper adjustments to put the ball in play with some consistency.  What is true is that all three players have gone back (or in the case of Ortiz developed a recommitment) to driving the ball to the opposite field.  The Ortiz shift is being exploited as Papi’s hands clear the hitting zone much faster and he can push the ball to left field.  Jeter is money when he can take outside pitches and punch them through the right side of the in-field.  Ichiro is the opposite since being placed in the three hole  by going opposite field when jammed but turning on inside pitches – his Achilles heel last year- leading to his five doubles on the year.  Gotta be pleased as these aging wonders push back the clock to lead their teams into May.

Home Run: Pitchers Era Continues

Phil Humber pitched a perfect game on April 21 and Jered Weaver pitched a no-hitter against Texas on May 2nd.  Since the end of the steroids era, pitchers are suddenly back and dominant again.  Last year’s MVP in the American League was a pitcher.  13 no hitters since 2009!  4 perfect games in less than 3 years, more than the number of no hitters between 1881 and 1955 (thanks to Tom Verducci).  Old pitchers continue to be effective and power pitchers, not getting wins, are pitching with lower ERAs in an era of better hitting with more teams.  Clearly the pitching focus is not received by everyone (chicks dig the long ball not the changeup) but it is enjoyable for tacticians of the game.

At the expense of the pitching era is the development of specialty pitchers and greater injuries.  Verducci raised the flag on the failures of the modern pitching system with relief pitchers falling like flies.  Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson all will be relying on Tommy John Surgery this season.  Nearly 2/3 of 2011 closers don’t pitch for their same team this year.  And most damning of all: half of starters and 34% of all relievers will visit the DL every year. (Again, thanks to the great reporting of SI’s Tom Verducci).  Pitchers are not pitching as much as throwing really hard to the point of throwing themselves out.  Training programs and lack of depth is destroying pitchers.  Most starters don’t go long innings making the work of the Verlanders, Sabathias, King Felix’s, and Lees that much more special (though Lee is on the DL after his 10 inning exploits in San Francisco.)  The pitching era will need to be built around pitching and possessing a quality bullpen makes you a golden trading player.  With the National League in particular missing a quality offensive powerhouse (outside of Matt Kemp) teams will load up on pitching and hope to sweat out low scoring contests all season.  The Nationals have done this to perfection but it remains to be seen if this is sustainable.  Expect relief pitching to be exchanged for American League hitters as the season moves on.

Next week on The Cycle: After I get chastised for going WELL over my word limit, I will talk about how Bobby Valentine’s master plan has worked and everyone fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

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