The Cycle: 85 Million Knuckleball Surveys of Pitching Dominance

Posted: June 20, 2012 in ALL II
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As disgusted as it is to see my Seattle Mariners lose, and they do so quite often, it would be unfair to ignore Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill hitting for the cycle against the aforementioned Mariners on June 18th.  Hill became the second player to hit the cycle this season; the first was Scott Hairston of the New York Metropolitans.  I was going to call this post/column Hill-Hairston but that was a dumb idea.  Four stories in the world of baseball.

Single: $85 Million Questions on the Coasts

I needed to do some extra research and a viable reason to write about contracts after Adam Jones signed a six-year, $85.5 million contract, the largest in Baltimore Orioles team history.  This season Jones, the San Diego native, finds himself in the top five (or ten) in most meaningful baseball categories: home runs, runs scored, hits, total bases, slugging percentage, and stolen bases.  In the year of big contracts, this deal comes with some question marks.  Jones’ defense has been under fire, a consequence of his overreliance on his speed to chase down balls.  Though a great 2012 season thus far, Jones sported a sub-.400 on-base percentage and often takes few pitches per at bat.  Still the Orioles have watched his development and project this season to be the beginning of a steady trend towards improvement.

While Adam Jones’ deal doesn’t scream Zito or Crawford, Andre Ethier’s five-year, $85 million contract has many people worried.  The deal makes Ethier the eight highest paid outfielder in baseball but while Jones is progressing, people are not sure if Ethier is trending up or at his peak going down.   At 30 years old, Ethier’s OPS has fallen every year since his rookie year in 2006.  Perhaps showing his age, defense is not a strong suit of Ethier with an unimpressive Defense Runs Saved figure.  Yes, I am totally down on the Ethier contract because of the age but also the restrictions it brings to the Dodgers as a franchise that still is paying Matt Kemp from now until I am done with graduate school.  Years matter but signing big for a 26 year old versus an injury plagued (not prone) outfielder matters.  Time will tell but I like Jones over Ethier for my $85 million.

Double: Players Survey, I Survey

Men’s Journal will run their annual survey of 100 MLB players on a bevy of questions.  I only feel it necessary to provide my feelings on the same questions.

Least Respected Manager:

Ozzie Guillen (36%)

Bobby Valentine (14%)

Manny Acta (5%)

 

Easy why people would not respect Ozzie and Bobby, his foul mouth and his constant genius, but Manny Acta?  Not really sure what that was about but it is just not good enough.  I don’t really have a manager that I do not respect.  But what has Manny Acta done to piss people off?

 

Most hated player:

 

A.J. Pierzynski (34%)

Alex Rodriguez (10%)

Nick Swisher (9%)

 

This is a very good list.  Lots of reputation going on here for Pierzynski but catchers should deserve this distinction.  No issue.

 

Player you would most want on your team:

 

Albert Pujols (19%)

Derek Jeter (14%)

Dustin Pedroia (10%)

 

Clearly there is everyday player bias here which is understandable.  Pujols, even though he has struggled, should be the top answer for this question.  Conversely, El Capitan is a great human being, maybe the greatest ever according to other writers on this site, but he does not do it for me.  Too old.  Not going to win now with him.  I’d like to see Evan Longoria.  Or someone who has lots of elaborate handshakes.

 

Most obnoxious fans:

 

Philadelphia (36%)

San Francisco (22%)

New York (12%)

 

You know NYC should be at the top of this list with their “we don’t care about baseball” attitude until the playoffs come and then everyone is ready to pay for their $10 beers.  Alas, the big city life does that.

 

Triple: R.A. Dickey is a Stud!

 

The Mets tried to get a little greedy a week ago when they went to Major League Baseball to appeal an infield single during R.A. Dickey’s 9-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.  The appeal came nearly two weeks after Johan Santana threw the Mets’ first no-hitter, a topic I will address below.  Dickey’s scoreless streak ended at 32 2/3 innings but his transition from surprise story to premier pitcher in the National League just became a nationwide phenomenon.  Dickey throws the knuckleball, the infamous uncontrollable pitch as slow as the car in the right lane but lethal when on.  Unlike classic knuckleballers, Dickey throws his with some extra speed allowing for more control and some flexibility when throwing other “moderate” pitches.  In fact the knuckleballer has only 21 walks this season, a figure more startling than his impressive record (11-1) or his list of first place accomplishments in the National League: Wins, Strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, Win Percentage, and Complete Games.  That is unbelievable for anyone, especially for a knuckleballer.

 

After the one-hitter, Dickey went out against a good Baltimore Orioles team to throw another one-hitter.  For the first time since 1998, a pitcher has thrown back-to-back no hitters.  42 2/3 innings of baseball without an earned run.  At 37 years old, Dickey’s surge to the top of baseball is everything that one would not expect.  Many players are deterred from practicing the knuckleball as control and power is emphasized; knuckleball catchers are a separate skill that takes away from building a consistent catcher.  Like the hook shot in basketball, the knuckleball can be dominant but athletes don’t pick up on it because they are not encouraged to practice and develop it.  I am certainly not criticizing a premier program for not wanting to develop this unique skill set; it is clear that if you can develop it, it can overwhelm the best in the business and give you a long career (see Tim Wakefield).  Dickey should be the National League starter in the All-Star game.  No question about it.  It will be interesting to see if he can sustain this or pull an Ubaldo, collapsing when it matters the most.  In any event, Dickey should not be a Cy Young candidate.  He is the favorite!  His 11 wins, sub-2.50 ERA with at least one strikeout per inning pitched over the first 14 starts puts him in rare air: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, and Francisco Liriano (hehehe).  From a failed knuckleballer to a knuckleball revolutionary, I salute you sir!

 

Home Run: Pitching Dominance and the Real Reasons Why

 

Nothing has pissed me off more than the attribution of pitching’s resurgence to the work of Major League Baseball on the issue of steroids.  This seems like an easy argument to deal with but everyone continues to make this argument.  PED/steroid policing can help explain the lower home run totals, lower scoring figures, and declines in extra-base hits but that cannot explain why we have had so many no-hitters, one-hitters, and perfect games.  See, steroids usually are attributed to 1) more power as in Brady Anderson hitting 50 home runs one season followed by no more than 20 for his entire career or 2) recovery from injury.  Steroids cannot help someone see the ball and put the ball in play better on a pitch by pitch basis.  That is not a steroids issue, that is a pitching and hitting skill issue.

 

The prevalence of no hitters in baseball can only be associated with steroids by way of older players being unable to recover between games quickly meaning younger players will be put in situations against tougher, power pitchers.  More young bats result in poor at bats and limited experience to know the necessary adjustments needed to take on the better pitchers of today’s game.  Outside of steroids, Dave Sheinin points out the expanded strike zone over the years as part of the issue.  Umpiring appears to be more favorable to a wider, though consistent, strike zone allowing pitchers to paint the corners and dictate the outside corner.  Large ball parks (re: Petco Park, Citi Field, Chase Field, etc.) hurt power numbers but should counter intuitively help hitting as large parks feature more distance in the alleys giving greater opportunities for quality hits to land on the field.

 

Ultimately the greatest reason for increased no hitters is the sophisticated defensive alignment of all major league teams.  Advanced metrics and improved scouting have teams employing detailed game plans for every pitcher/batter combination attempting to exploit tendencies to get the players out.  Major pull hitters no longer exclusively suffer through shifts as all players appear to get some type of adjustment from managers making hitting to empty spots much harder.  The sophistication of the game has matched the power and control of the pitcher.  The flipside of defensive emphasis is usually the decline of offensive ability.  This is a correlation story, not a causation story.  But the advanced stats that “moneyball” popularized leading most teams to find Gold Glove fielders appears to undervalue hitting ability; the resulting emphasis on small ball or “pitching and defense” strategies are teams with superior fielding but little offense.  The juggernauts will continue to exist but historically bad offensive teams will still have the ability to support dominant pitching.  Pitching will be supported by great scouts and better defenses.  Hitters will need to accommodate but pinning the prevalence of historical pitching performances on steroid policing or bigger ballparks is misleading and irresponsible research.

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