Posts Tagged ‘MLB’

Welcome to 2013!  I’m happy you made it but PLEASE don’t read into it.  Nothing bothers me more than those elaborate 2012 reviews that casually ignore significant sports stories like Lebron James being unclutch, to Lebron the champion, to Lebron putting up 30-9-7 and no one is shocked.  They always seem to miss how bountygate became a story about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions and Saints brass seems to have gotten a total pass about the bounty system THEY started and were warned about by…the Commissioner’s office.  Oh and how about the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year being Michael Phelps; I understand the temptation to give it to an Olympian but to not give it to Usain Bolt is pretty egregious (USA bias?).  All of those things are best left to professionals.  I can only offer you two of my favorite things: the 2012 Commissioner of the Year award and an updated assessment of the ALL Sports Defensive Team.

2012 Commish of the Year

It’s been a busy year for the fearless leaders of the Big Four professional sports leagues in North America.  I give the Commissioner of the Year honor out to recognize the best of the most hated people in sports.  No one gives people greater angst than Tim Tebow professional sports commissioners but we should always stop and realize that they do oversee the things we love despite the fact that fans think they could do a better job with greater ease.  It should also be noted that you (yes YOU) probably cannot come close to doing their jobs because they work for the owners and you hate the owners.

This year was much harder than last year because lockouts really helped to cut down the pool by two people.  2011 saw Alan Selig storm to victory late in the year past Gary Bettman (gasp!) primarily because Selig and the MLBPA peacefully sat down and passed a collective bargaining agreement which got no media attentions because it wasn’t confrontational.  Furthermore, the deal that passed made the game more entertaining with the added wild card play in game.  Yes, instant replay is a problem and yes MLB does have the strongest players union but credit goes to the guy who provided stability and excellent playoff baseball to the views.

With that said, the final standings are:

4) Gary Bettman

Locked out again after an amazing hockey run.  Any bit of momentum created by this league is thrown away with an ease second only to the XFL.  No one respect Bettman and players have a viable alternative to hockey (though not viable in the long term).  Bettman does seem to do a good job with owners as not playing is more cost effective than playing but fielding no product is just not good enough.

3) Roger Goodell (2010 Winner)

For all my issues with how Bountygate has been misled it still has been a black eye on the commissioner’s office.  Anyone that does Adderall is apparently exempt from punishment for cheating because it’s not like football has a steroids issue. (Seriously have you seen these players?!  Don’t bother me about steroids in baseball if the NFL is loaded with muscular freaks) Oh the replacement referee debacle all falls on him and although ratings did not suffer, it’s never good business to allow less than your best to be on display.

2) Alan Selig

Not much to report other than baseball STILL has not adopted instant replay because old man Selig is old.  The changes to the playoff format, while great, were rushed through leaving glaring holes on what to do (re: one-game playoff rosters allowing for expanded slots for more pitching changes than Tony La Russa could think of).  Not a bad season just not good enough for high honors.

1)      David Stern

Started the NBA season better than anyone could’ve imagined.  For all his shortcomings (namely his world class personality), he totally embraced the bad guy role this year.  Check out the beginning of the NBA draft amid a healthy set of boos. “Woah…thank you for that warm welcome…” and the hand to the ear at the :49 second mark is stuff of pure gold.  Great season after a rough start in the lockout era and most importantly pushed through his grand idea of a “World Cup of Basketball.”  Congrats on this awards and announcing his retirement.

ALL II Defensive Squad Update

As many of you know, I defend a ton of people for pretty good reasons.  Often times these people get no credit or respect because their narrative is totally miscast by the broader media/fans.  Can’t pull a fast one by me.  It’s time to update the defensive team by sport: who’s in, who’s out, and a brief (I promise) explanation how we got here.

The National Basketball Association Wing (aka The Dirk Wing)

CURRENTLY IN: Russell Westbrook, Vinny Del Negro, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams (Suspended for sucking)

OUT: Chris Bosh, Erik Spolestra

Won a title and Bosh’s absence made things much harder for Los Heat to do it.  Value on display.  Second best player that playoffs for the Heat.  Spo won the chip and revolutionized line ups.

In: Mike Brown, my father Avery Johnson, Brook Lopez

Brown: Fired after five games without getting his entire healthy team on the court.  Kobe wanted the Princeton Offense.  Can’t fix being old as s**t.

Johnson: Won coach of the month the same day he was axed.  In the mist of a bad run led by an injured Lopez and career low shooting from Williams.  Got kiss of death from Williams.  Honestly a .500 team on pace to finish above .500 (by a game but still).

Lopez: underappreciated as an offensive force.  Team loses when injured.  Team wins when healthy.  Needs to get totally healthy but team is undeniably better when he is active and on the court.

The Major League Baseball Wing (aka Playing without Steroids Wing)

CURRENT: Ichiro, Carl Crawford

CHIKA CAN NEVER TALK ABOUT BASEBALL AGAIN AFTER ICHIRO’s PLATOON SPLITS WITH THE YANKEES LOOKED GREAT.

OUT: n/a

IN: Mike Scioscia, Justin Upton, Mike Trout

Scioscia is going to be under extreme pressure to win immediately after their loaded line-up missed the playoffs last year.  Smart manager.  Proven winner.  Thin ice.

Upton is the cause of great concern with his numbers regressing last season.  Many outlets are reporting that Arizona is looking to deal him (again) after signing Cody Ross.  Still like the talent that is in Upton; pure athlete that can put it together for a solid career though a jump to the American League may stunt that growth.

Trout should’ve won the MVP by MILES.  Best all-around player.  People don’t understand that defense is part of the game.  Do better.

The National Football Association Wing (aka Nate Kaeding Wing)

CURRENT: Alex Smith, Roger Goodell, Anthony “Tony” Romo, Joe Flacco

OUT: Pete Carroll, Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush

IN: Mark Sanchez

Romo is easily a top ten quarterback.  Over his career he consistently throws for 4300-4600 yards completing 65% of his passes with a 2:1 TD/INT ratio.  Yes he makes some poor decisions in huge moments but it’s not like his defense is helping him.  Winning late to make it into playoff contention should also mean something.  If Dallas thinks jettisoning Romo is going to make them better then they are bound to fail for the next five years.

Sanchez plays with no one talented.  Get that man a talented person at a skill position and then bother me.  (He is also here for comedic relief)

SO thats it.  Expect me to rant about how no one will be admitted in the Hall of Fame and I will reveal my clear cut NFL MVP which I declared in week 14.

ALL II

With the baseball-less Olympics in the rear view mirror, I can return to some real athletic competition with four stories that caught my eye over the last week in baseball.  That’s “The Cycle.”

Single: Baseball Voted Out The Olympics and Is Not Coming Back In 2016 Either

Perhaps I am quite sensitive about Olympic events because tennis is also under fire as a sport that should be eliminated from the purist athletic competition in the world, but baseball’s absence is truly remarkable.  Consider that baseball was eliminated as an Olympic contest on a vote that took place in 2005, making it the first sport to be voted out since polo’s abrupt exit in 1936 (it began consistently as a Olympic sport in 1984 in Los Angeles – surprisingly, not).  Simply put: if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides you are a sport (or more accurately termed an event), you stay an event.  Lest you are baseball.  So what did them in?  A 2008 interview with current IOC leader Jacques Rogge, who allegedly led the charge against removing baseball, softball, and the modern pentathlon, suggested baseball had work to do to return to the games: “You need to have a sport with a following, you need to have the best players and you need to be in strict compliance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). And these are the qualifications that have to be met. When you have all that, you have to win hearts.”

This quote raises several noteworthy points that should be taken into context of an overwhelming reality that baseball and softball are quintessentially American sports.  Yes, baseball is incredibly popular in the Caribbean and Asia but at its core it screams American.  North American.  First, baseball does have a following but that following is not throughout Europe, where most of the IOC members represent.  This is something that cannot be pupu-ed and  is a genuine problem for the International Baseball Federation  to overcome.  Over 300 athletes could not compete from 16 different teams base on 2008 figures but the teams that routinely medal are Cuba, USA, Japan, and South Korea.  No European nations.  Big issue and one that isn’t going to be solved soon I imagine.  The reasonable counter argument is the nations that do play baseball bring massive audiences with North America and Asian nations representing a healthy part of the viewing audience.  Also, most of the current Olympic events don’t exactly attract huge audiences (fencing, trampoline, any shooting or rowing event, or synchronized anything to name a view).

Second, Rogge wants the best players in the world.  That means professionals.  That means MLB players and that’s a huge issue as the Olympics happens right in the middle of the MLB season.  Now this is quite the quandary since the NBA is attempting to scale back participation of huge stars in favor of under 23 year olds (like soccer where the Men didn’t qualify).  The Editor-in-Chief of this blog would be more amenable to supporting tennis as a sport if they had amateurs.  It seems hard for the IOC to be concerned when the multi-millionaires play against amateurs but want MLB players need to be involved to get a sport to return.  For what it’s worth, the MLB season can be shortened but an interruption every four years to compete for your country should be acceptable.  The dirty little secret in this mess is Bud Selig’s World Baseball Classic and under no circumstances does he believe playing for gold should compete with his questionably successful offseason tournament.  It’s exactly what David Stern wants to do with his World Cup of Basketball (which, for the record, would also be successful).  I doubt owners or MLB will get on board to get talent to the Olympics which will hurt the bid.  Counter: use amateurs in the spirit of the Olympics.  It was fine before and will be fine going forward.

Third is this crap about complying with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).  I don’t think anyone is moved by the WADA standards because they clearly are doing a great job preventing doping in sports.  How is that working in cycling?  Oh I hear its doing fantastic with track and field.  That’s a crock.

The only thing worse than that mess is the final point about winning the hearts.  I don’t know what the hell that means but since it came from the IOC, I imagine it means absolutely nothing than something sinister.  Don’t you dare tell me that the triple jump wins the hearts of people.  It sounds like forking over some extra money and proceeds to the IOC.  Not to be cynical but I rather hang with the integrity of Lane Kiffin, Alex Rodriguez, and Lance Armstrong than anyone with the IOC.

Oh for kicks, the IOC replaced the gulf created by baseball and softball with golf and rugby.  If anything, adding golf and rugby should deflate any argument for kicking out tennis.  Golf majors are more important than a gold.  Rugby has a widely popular World Cup  like soccer.  Baseball/softball’s next opportunity is in 2020 but there appears to be one spot left for a new sport.  The competition? Karate, wakeboarding, and wushu.  I’ve never heard of wushu.  But that’s what they are fighting against.  Sadly, it doesn’t look good.

Double: How Much More Evidence Do You Need Of League Bias On Stats?

Two case studies need to be examined to highlight for the billionth time that the league one performs in matters and that blind comparisons across leagues is ignorant.  First is former Yankees disappointment A.J. Burnett who recorded above 4 ERAs in all of his Yankees seasons including two of three seasons giving up over five runs a game.  Not good enough.  Doesn’t help that he pitched in a league with superior (SUPERIOR) offensive talent.  Rangers, Red Sox (ahhh, the Red Sox), White Sox, consistent hitting from the Blue Jays, Tigers, and Angels.  You need to bring it every night.  He couldn’t bring it in his demotion to AAA in 2012.  In his first season in Pittsburgh, Burnett is 14-4 with an 3.32 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.  Significantly lower and leading a team with a firm chance to reach the playoffs.  In the National League.  Pitching against a Votto-less Cincinnati, Houston, and Chicago Cubs will help any struggling pitcher get their confidence up.  Burnett, confidence brewing, went 2-0 against the Tigers this year during interleague play but also got the luxury to face the Royals and Indians.  Point being that his retreat back to the National League comes with some softer competition and increased statistical output.  No one should be second guessing themselves in New York.

Conversely, Ryan Dempster has been exposed as someone feasting on National League hitting despite pitching in a hitter friendly park.  Dempster’s no earned runs allowed from June 5 – July 14 buoyed him to the top of pitching prospect available at the trade deadline.  Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers jumped into the fold to pick him up and 1) moved him to another hitter friendly park inside the 2) American League.  In his three AL starts thus far, he surrendered eight earned runs twice (against the Angels and Yankees), and six hits over six inning against the Red Sox.  Defenders counter that he faced the top offenses of the American League and will not always be going against them to conclude the year.  Uhhh, that’s cute but the Rangers didn’t get Dempster to win meaningless games in September.  He was brought in to stabilize a starting rotation looking to go back to the World Series and he WILL be going against superior offenses in the playoffs.  Certainly the Yankees.  Probably the Tigers and/or Angels.  Good luck.

Lesson for the day: If you are not an all-time great pitcher who can perform in any league, then AL à NL = Stats Up and NL à AL = Stats Down.

Triple: Strasburg Being Shut Down Is Good…I Think…

It’s been around two years since Stephen Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery and the Washington Nationals don’t plan to deviate from its plan to protect their players by shutting them down regardless of the external pressure to win now.  Nationals management ended Jordan Zimmerman’s season in 2011 after 161 innings following his Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2009 season.  This year, Zimmerman 2.35 ERA makes him an anchor for a an elite pitching staff cruising to a NL East title and legitimately contending for a World Series berth.  It’s easy to shut down Zimmerman last season when your team is fighting for third place.  It’s a different question all together when your main ace on your historically good pitching staff is being protected without much sign of current injury.  The Nationals pitching staff is tops in baseball in win percentage, ERA (3.19), WHIP, and opponents OPS according to the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Info.  Clearly there is more to this team than Strasburg but no one can deny that losing him is disastrously bad.

The complicated part of this business comes in the differing positions between the medical community, anecdotal evidence by looking at comparable cases (re: Kerry Wood), and the athlete mentality to show up big when it matters the most.  I won’t pretend to be a MLB insider because that would be disingenuous and Fareed Zakaria is owning that right now.  I encourage everyone to check out Jayson Stark’s Commentary piece on Strasburg which covers all three storylines.  Of note is the strong support the Nationals are getting from the medical community despite no formalized evidence showing that shutting him down is the right move to make.  Stark accurately acknowledges that we can never know if shutting him down “worked” given that half of all pitchers end up on the disabled list and innings differ from each other.

I definitely support the idea of stretching out starts and providing tons of rest to prolong him reaching the innings ceiling but pitching later into the season.  At this point it seems a bit too late to begin that regimen without fear of negative consequences in attempts to get Strasburg’s arm back up to speed in time for a start spread out between 15 days.  Stark’s piece also addresses this and the good job the White Sox are doing with Chris Sale.  It’s certainly a tough decision.  Understandably, Nationals teammates are not happy with the decision to cap innings and it should be stated that this is GM Mike Rizzo’s decision alone.  It is his reputation on the line and he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t feel it was right.

A consequence of my baseball fandom was considering things in the long-term.  I am always a big proponent of looking at a large sample size and balancing the short term with plans for the future (oh, and I am not a fan of MY Dallas Mavericks excess cap space with no team upgrades).  Nothing is guaranteed with going to the playoffs, let alone having a historically great pitching staff allowing you to reach a Worlds Series.  With that in mind, sacrificing on the front end may yield more chances in the future and that is something I cannot pass up.  Yes, it will be awkward to see Stephen Strasburg on the bench carefully cheering on his team as to not rip any more ligaments but it may help the team win multiple pennants in the future.  Kudos for doing what is best for the player and team despite the skeptics.

Home Run: Boston Red Sox Crap

I was in the middle of outlining a defense of Lane Kiffin before I saw Jeff Passan’s Yahoo! Sports story on Red Sox players complaining and trying to get manager Bobby Valentine fired.  As you know, I am very cautious about ripping coaches and managers because most of their job comes during the hours outside of the primetime cameras.  Bobby Valentine was brought in because ownership believed Terry Francona lost the team with their epic collapse following the 2011 season.  They were probably right that Francona’s player friendly approach softened the clubhouse and didn’t help the lack of leadership evident through the season.  Valentine is not player friendly.  He is an enforcer of rules and often times too smart for his own good.  What he isn’t, however, is a scapegoat for this crap.  What got lost during the epic BoSox collapse was the hitting, while not up to their season figures, was still competent.  Their pitching staff stunk up the joint.  No one could stop the bleeding.  Everyone getting lit up.  That is the primary reason they did not make the playoffs last season.  Pitching.

Fast-forward to this season.  Over $170 million payroll.  Top flight offense – though riddled by injuries.  New leadership.  What do the Red Sox do?  Roll out there and stink it up all season long.  Eating the Yankees exhaust like it’s the late 90s again.  Hell, the Baltimore Orioles come into town and whip em like rented mules.  Pathetic.  What is true of last year is true this year.  While the Boston Red Sox offense is NOT producing like it should (Deadspin’s Jack Dickey points to Pedroia’s WAR going from 7.8 to 2.2 and Adrian Gonzalez’s WAR going from 6.7 to 2.6) they still remain in the top ten in many offensive categories including third in runs, sixth in batting average, and fourth in slugging percentage.  Pitching?  Abominable.  Bottom 10 in ERA, quality starts, and 17th in WHIP.  Beckett and Lester?  ERAs over five.  Pathetic.  Not good enough.

Managers need to manage rosters and oversee good decisions with the players on the roster.  If all the pitchers, it seems, cannot pitch then the manager is pretty screwed.  If the star hitters…can’t hit…there is not much you can do to solve that.  Of course it was Gonzalez and Pedroia leading this meeting about Valentine.  Happily, not all the Red Sox players participated in the traditional throwing the manager under the bus tour but that does not excuse the fact that Valentine’s quirks only feed into player’s unwillingness to look in the mirror.  More importantly, look at that pitching staff.  What in the hell are you spending over $170 million USD on?  Not to be a fluttering .500 team wacked by the Orioles, Mariners, and just about everyone else.  This entire team is corrupted and if the management changed in the clubhouse the next move is to change the players, particularly the inept pitching staff.  Most of this “Bobby V is the problem” ends when the winning begins but that will not happen if the Red Sox continue to grasp for pitching that is not coming through at all.  When will the BoSox learn…

*Pardon typos but I felt the need to be authentic with my thoughts so you get them without edits.  I am also a die hard Mariners fan working with a Yankees fan and someone who likes the Cubs…when they are winning.  As usual four stories from the world of baseball…*

Single:  Baseball has no appetite for replay says 160 year old Commissioner

Top of the third in the nationally televised Boston Red Sox vs. Texas Rangers contest on ESPN.  Dustin Pedoria just hit a scorcher down the first base line with chalk flying up 15 feet in front of the bag but umpires, managers, and commentators questioning if the ball flew over the bag to be called fair (the umpire initially called it fair and the call stood).  Certainly instant replay could be used to solve this issue because the speed of the game can corrupt but slowing tings down generally improves accuracy.  We, as sports fans, prefer is things are right versus wrong.  The blatant suggestion is baseball should use some of this newfangled technology to improve the game.  Bud Selig, certified worst Commissioner in sports and certified old fart, disagrees.  While trumpeting baseball’s annual record attendance and willfully ignoring the disastrous ratings despite great play on the field (Chika), Selig proudly stated “the appetite for instant replay is very low.”  He babbled about the game being about pace – you know the slow variety which plagues baseball’s marquee matchup between the Red Sox and Yankees, the five hour ordeal – and after conducting an informal investigation (emails from fans, reading some papers, and talking to other old farts inside baseball) concluded that this instant replay nonsense was not a real issue.  Read the silliness for yourself but I don’t know how much more evidence do we need that 1) he is absolutely out of touch with reality and 2) he needs to retire.

Double: Murder’s Row and Ichiro

The New York Yankees, Major League Baseball’s best team aside from their trip to Oakland, addressed what many people thought was their fatal flaw in route to another AL East title and potential birth in the World Series.  With Brent Gardner’s season ending elbow injury, the Yankees platooned in outfield with Raul Ibanez, Clay Bellinger, and Curtis Granderson – not exactly the type of support you look for defensively and certainly inconsistent at the plate with the wing outfielders.  By signing the slumping and aging Japanese star the Yankees greatly improve their defense over Ibanez (evidence items 1, 2, and 3 provided by Grantland’s Jonah Keri), reestablish speed to balance out their lineup, and get a valuable baseball player who I suspect will perform better finally being on a team that has a chance to play for something meaningful after May 15th.  (More on that below)  Ultimately baseball writers attempted to nitpick the Yankees looking for flaws, namely their overreliance on the home run and questionable pitching.  Without delving too deeply into these concerns, this Yankees team is nearly flawless this year only to get better with the return to form of CC and Andy “backstabbing lawyers for fun” Pettitte.  Ichiro will certainly not be a star on the Bombers but he will have a meaningful and sustained positive impact on their way to a title, something I doubted last week looking at the outfield on display.  Acceptance is a tough thing but this Yankees team is poised to return to baseball’s summit.

Triple: Handling the loss of the Franchise…

Acceptance is particularly difficult given the details of a situation.  When your favorite player in your favorite sport who is also on your favorite team is traded to your least favorite team in all of sports, the natural reaction is going to be strong and more than likely negative.  I can guarantee that is going to be strong and negative.  I knew there would be a day when Ichiro was traded from the Mariners and I knew the team to acquire him would be the New York Yankees.  It is the way this thing works.  Your team has talent.  Your team is not good.  Your talent gets absorbed by the haves and you remain a have not.  I feared this day since 2003 but every year the Mariners organization kept the suitors at bay with Ichiro’s performance starting to wane towards the end of the decade.  Surely I could not imagine the Yankees would take him now so I let me guard down.  I started worrying about King Felix Hernandez, the talented righty out of Venezuela next on the eyes of GMs looking to solidify a playoff caliber pitching staff.  I let my guard down and was exposed for the big right hand to the jaw.  NO, that’s not right.  The trade practically came from thin air with the news leaving me crippled and angry.  If I was Oscar de la Hoya, the Editor-in-Chief and Yankee Nation was Bernard Hopkins flipping in the ring.  I learned about the news while sitting in an IMAX showing of The Dark Knight Rises and I did not return to the theater.  Shocked then angry.  The Franchise was gone.  The rich got richer.  My Mariners got two minor league pitchers in return.  Now the blood is boiling.

Then the wave of emails came in:

  • “Eeecheeerooooo! Linton! Don’t ignore me!! Jeter, icheerroooo. How does my ass taste? 2 former mvps on the same teeaaamm! Linton! How does it feeeeeeel?”
    • “take a chill pill. Ichiro is no longer a good player.”
    • “Eat a fat [one] cubs fan! is he an upgrade raul ibanez? Yes. That’s all. Shut it. He still gets on base and ya know what? He’s not gonna hit 3rd.EeeeeCheeeeRoooooo! Murderers row and eeeeccheeeeroooo! Linton! Contract the mariners! They suck! They’ve got nothing. Raul ibanez, 16th best player on the yanks! “
      • “His production this year has been just as bad as Ibanez. He’ll only have a negligible impact. So, once again, TAKE A CHILL PILL!”
      • “EEEEE CHEEEE ROOOOOOOOOOOOO bite it.”
      • “1 wants to know if you want to go to a Yankee game with us. Ichiro’s playing there, ya know.”
      • “In The Baseball World, Ichiro is now a member of the New York Yankees… Somewhere Allen Louis Linton II is pouting more than usual over his Mariners Terrible Season… GO SOX!”

I suppose you get the idea at this point but one comment really stuck out and it was made by fellow “blogger” Chika: “Why are you angry about this?! Ichiro is no longer a good player (it doesn’t hurt your team) and your favorite (?) baseball player is going to better situation. Feel happy for him and compliment the Mariners for helping him out.”

This comment may or may not have sent me into a two hour verbal tirade and absolutely unprofessional behavior that I am happy was not recorded or seen by anyone except the recipients of said behavior.  Realizing that people may not appreciate losing a Franchise player to another team and that people generally spend too much time commenting about baseball when they have no idea what they are talking about, I suppose it is my duty to explain why I am so upset and stunned.

First and foremost I am not mad at all at Ichiro and in fact am happy he gets a chance to be on a team that is built to win.  Jeff Passan’s foreshadowing piece on Ichiro’s future and relationship with Buck O’Neil covered the possibilities of the Mariners’ aging star with career lows coming up on a new contract.  It was the same situation the Yankees were with Jeter two years ago, career lows and all.  Selfishly I want my favorite player to stay with my team but I recognize that he does not owe the Mariners anything and at some point even the most loyal employees get a right to chase immortality in the form of a championship (re: Steve Nash).  Baseball’s Kevin Garnett went from the Franchise to the best possible chance, the most evil of all enemies.  Good for him.  He requested a trade and the Mariners obliged him by sending him to the largest market.  With this move he will make sacrifices (batting at the bottom, benched on days against power lefties, not wearing 51) but nothing like the years he put up in Seattle with nothing of substance to show for it – namely no real opportunity for ring sizing after his rookie season in 2001.  I fault Ichiro for nothing but that does not balance out the emotion of leaving my favorite team especially when he is traded to my least favorite.  While I am deep down inside happy to see him with a chance to win, the name on the front of the jersey is most important to me and the Franchise lost much of the little substance they had with one sudden move plus pinstripes.

Home Run: Why I was so insufferable over Ichiro…

Anytime a franchise player is moved, it matters.  It makes you assess what is going on with that player, the franchise, or the state of the game.  For me, this put into focus something I also knew for many years – the Mariners franchise is horrific and it pisses me off.  Ichiro’s outward excitement for leaving a team with “the fewest losses to a team with the most” says everything you need to know.  The Mariners absolutely wasted ten great years of baseball and did absolutely nothing to build a team in contention.  Which poor move would you like to address: Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Kevin Millwood, Erik Bedard, the “pitching and defense” strategy leading to the single worst offensive season in Major League Baseball since the inception of the designated hitter, annual last place finishes in any offensive category of record, having an elite starting pitcher with the second highest paid pitcher being Brandon “I live to blow games” League, or the cherry on top: two minor league pitching prospects in return for the hits machine.  Simply put it is angering that Ichiro leaving for a team with some sense of baseball while I remain rooting for a team operating like the late 1800s.  To understand the anger I simply look at our roster with Justin Smoak (the savior) being sent down for batting .189; KEVIN MILLWOOD; Dustin Ackley (savior 2.0) toeing the line at .224.  Historically Ichiro’s departure shines the bright light on the leaders of the franchise who left fans with nothing, left Ichiro with nothing, and Seattle with nothing.  That’s why I am mad.  That coupled with the fear that King Felix – the last remaining gem – will soon be in the pinstripes.  Fate is inevitable.  Inescapable.  Whether you understand the value of Ichiro (who still has substantial value) or not, you can certainly understand realizing garbage when it is thrown in your face.  Seattle Mariners….just garbage but I won’t be leaving you.  And yet I hate you so much per usual.

All-Star edition of The Cycle, four stories that caught my eye in baseball!

Single: American League Starters That Left More To Be Desired

As will be a common theme throughout this relatively short post, I am generally worried about fans deciding things with real consequences.  If this game matters (its result will be consequential to future happenings like home field advantage or if a retractable dome will be open or closed) then fans need to do better.  For the American League, I think it’s time for people to appreciate Paul Konerko’s work at first base.  Konerko often travels below the radar (his injury in May didn’t help his case) but his numbers stack up at the top of first basemen throughout baseball: .333/.410/.549.  His past two seasons saw true averages above .315 which is spectacular given he could not hit to save his life three seasons ago.  For my obligatory Yankees shot, I probably would go with Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera over El Capitan.  Both have similar numbers – in large part to Jeter regressing to the mean – and deteriorating defense.  Since this isn’t the Seattle Mariners, defense does not really matter.  *I just saw Elvis Andrus throw a bullet from third to get Andrew McCutchen out…he also could make an argument to start as he has the best defense of the three*  A case could be made that Adam Jones should be a starter but the only outfielder I would bump up is Mike Trout.  Aside from taking all the pressure off Albert Pujols, his figures this year are unreal: .335/.395/.530.  Young superstar who stole Bryce Harper’s thunder and can actually catch the ball consistently.

Double: National League Starters Leaving More To Be Desired

For the National League, starter decisions become more complicated by stronger fan bases (San Francisco Giants) which really show up for their teams.  That said Carlos Ruiz is clearly outperforming Buster Posey – a real shame he won’t get a starting nod.  *Joe Buck is currently fussing about Giants fans stuffing the ballot box.  Could not be more condescending.  Still not as outraged as he was here.* The numbers are not really close either.  Posey: .289/.362/.458.  Ruiz: .350/.412/.584!  Don’t be disrespectful – and nice job Phillies fans!  David Wright not starting is also egregious despite Pablo Sandoval’s worthy performance.  Wright has owned this season and owns a higher Wins Above Replacement than Sandoval and Chase Headley.  Why Andrew McCutchen isn’t starting is a testament to a beaten Pirates fan base, perhaps in shock of their first place status in the NL Central – you know when you think central United States you definitely think Pittsburgh.  Ehh, the entire thing is frustrating but as usual the American League outperforms the National League in picking a better team to lose for a third straight year.

Triple: Home Run Derby – Enjoyment For Someone Not Me

I loved the home run derby when I was a child.  Operative word being child.  Like birthdays, home run derbies should be let go at the age of 12.  It is certainly a skill that I appreciate but it does not keep up with the creativity and excitement of the NBA Slam Dunk competition or the NHL creative shot thing.  Hitting a homerun is fun but it gets old.  What never gets old is a fan base absolutely ripping a player and that player’s performance feeding the hatred. When an athlete is in control, the result is stunning (Lebron James’ 44 point performance against the Trailblazers this season).  When bad, you get Robinson Cano’s zero home run performance in the derby.  The fans, to their credit, ripped him.  Cano selected Jose Bautista (27HRs this season), Prince Fielder (15), and Mark Trumbo (22) to compete for the American League thereby leaving off Kansas City Royal Billy Butler (16).  Now to Cano’s credit, he handled the booing nicely by not ripping the fans and acknowledging he expected this type of reaction.  Furthermore, Butler is not a close snub.  Adam Dunn has 25 homeruns, Edwin Encarnacion with 23, and Adam Jones as 20.  Cano did the right thing and the fans responded accordingly.

All was well – especially with rating three percent higher than last year – until I saw Major League Baseball is thinking of changing Home Run Derby rules.  Make it shorter?  Get rid of that golden ball!?  Nope, old man Selig displayed his only connection with this era by suggesting a designated spot for a home team representative may be added to curtail this type of booing.  You know how everyone today gets a ribbon for participating?  How the Miami Heat “good job, good effort” kid is a laughing stock?  How people expect a participation grade to balance off shoddy work over the quarter or semester?  Major League Baseball is worried about future participation and crowds being too unfriendly to players.  This is a horrific idea.  MLB rightfully recognized that team captains selecting players would be exciting; to alter that idea to make sure belligerent fans don’t see the home town hero is absurd.  I want to see the best players hit balls into the night.  Well, when I was younger this is what I wanted.  To put a player in to please 40,000 fans means squat for the millions watching worldwide.  But who is surprised when Selig announces that he will consider this change amid the drawn out format we currently have today…not me.

Home Run: Fixing the All-Star Game

So I joined the All-Star game in the bottom of the fourth inning.  I knew it was coming on but had no interest in watching.   Truly a damn shame considering I watch tons of regular season games every single night but did not want to see the “best of the best” play together.  Why?  Well because the entire thing is flawed from the on field performance to its presentation.  Not to be one that merely casts stones, I have solutions in no particular order but should be implemented immediately to insure success in the future.  Since Cal Ripken Jr. suggested that this winner gets home-field advantage crap isn’t going anywhere, these solutions will be within this stupid format.

  • Move the All-Star festivities to the weekend!  I don’t know why the Home Run Derby is on Monday and the game on Tuesday.  I do know that nothing that is “all-star” happens on a Monday or Tuesday.  It is also not 1946.  So move the game to a weekend so more people can enjoy it and not worry about work the next morning.  Easiest fix.  Make the game seem more fun by putting it with the fun times on the weekend.  If you really want a kick, put the game on a Saturday night to avoid going against Sunday television shows.
  • Get rid of the “all teams must be represented” mess.  If home field advantage is on the line, I do not want great players on a last place team (who happen to be decent players overall) on the squad.  If the game means something then only take players that mean something to the game.
  • Starters should be selected by coaches/players.  Fans should be able to pick backups.  Again, the game means something so get rid of the fans stuffing the ballot box and keeping the top players out.  Plus, everyone that needs to get there eventually gets there so make fans pay attention and vote smarter.
  • While I am adjusting teams if you are selected to the All-Star game it does not mean you will get into the game.  Priority: Win game.  Secondary concern: making you happy.
  • Most importantly, Bill Simmons is right to suggest that starters should all play at the same time but they should play towards the second half of the game, not the first.  Once all the marquee players leave, reserves determine the outcome which is not nearly as captivating as starters going later into games or entering games later.
  • Add a skills competition.  All the big sports have or had them.  (By the way, the NFL needs to bring back the skills competition.  I want to see the Quarterback Skills challenge, an NFL “Punt, Pass, and Kick” competition, and combine competition with at least weight lifting!)  Give me a fastest around the diamond contest.  Pitcher accuracy?  Outfield best arm?  Some type of relay race?  I need more to accompany the Home Run Derby that should be five outs shorter.

Just a few ideas that I would like to see.  Please let me know you own in the co

 

Not to be confused with the ever popular “The Cycle” on MSNBC, this “cycle” will cover four stories in baseball that caught my attention over the past week or so.

Single: Cliff Lee has no wins and it’s almost July!

Chika Okafor and I got into a somewhat legitimate debate about pitchers between my man Roy Halladay and his guy Cliff Lee.  I say somewhat ridiculous because the Doc is clearly the better pitcher, a point Chika later conceded, but has been for quite some time.  People tend to forget his wasted days on the Blue Jays that easily drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett on the Timberwolves.  Lee’s development and resurgence was clear as he bounced around the American League to later support a dominant Phillies staff that could not sustain their success due to injury this year.  Injury and poor offense at the worst possible time.  Cliff lee represents the inadequacy of evaluating a pitcher solely on the basis of wins.  Despite having no wins, Lee has an ERA of 3.72 with at least eight quality starts and the Phillies own a scoring average of nearly 4.4 runs per game, at least slightly above the National League average this season.  Sadly, Lee’s starts have coincidently been the times where the Phillies have failed to give him run support.  Thus far, Lee is only getting 3.1 runs per game in his starts.  This includes his 1-0 loss when he pitched ten innings against the Giants and two separate (but not equal) 2-1 losses.  This is not to say the Phillies have lost all the games he started; in fact, the Phillies have three wins in games he started with wins going to relief pitchers usually after strong starts to keep the game close.

This has always been my defense of advanced metric in assessing pitchers, usually ERA+ and other figures where wins and losses don’t tell the complete story.  “King” Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young campaign of two years ago featured a .500 record but top status in nearly every other pitching category of importance.  Sabathia, who had a great season, possessed many more wins but was not as dominant in part to a very powerful Yankees offense.  Look at Yankee’s starter Ivan Nova at 9-2 this season.  Great record but simple digging in a box score/stat sheet reveal at 4.25 ERA and .282 BAA, certainly not All-Star figures.  The difference?  The Yankees, the overall leaders in Home Runs per game, score over six runs per start for Nova which covers up his darn near two home runs given up per start.  Just like with anything else, context matters.  Let this be another indictment of wins/losses being a tad bit more complicated than individual numbers suggest.

Double: Joe Maddon vs. Davey Johnson, the genuine piss fight we needed

Pine tar and baseball has not caused this much of an outrage since George Brett came the closest to killing an umpire that I could remember after being called out for pine tar too high up on the bat after a game winning home run.  Although the principals in this dispute remained calm, shots were fired as Joe Maddon and Davey Johnson differed on Joel Peralta’s pine tarred glove resulting in an eight game suspension which began on June 22.  Davey Johnson, for some reason, suspected Peralta of using pine tar on his glove and naturally asked for the glove to be inspected.  He subsequently was tossed from the game and Major League Baseball suspended him for cheating in some capacity or another with the pine tarred glove.  All is fine with me as rule violators should be tossed and reprimanded until we learn that Peralta previously pitched for the Nationals two years ago and Davey Johnson likely relied on insider information to expose Peralta’s cheating.  And then…manager war of words!

Maddon: Johnson’s actions were “cowardly,” “bush league,” and “bogus”

Johnson: Claimed he would not talk about the issue then started talking about the issue. “”Any time there’s a rule violation, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a rule violation. My only comment to him is read the rulebook. It’s simple.”

Maddon: “I totally understand that. Davey’s right. I’m incapable of reading the rulebook, and there’s also reading between the lines in some situations that needs to be looked at, too. He’s been around long enough; he knows better than that.”

Johnson: In response to some wise-arse media member who inquired if they would meet in person to settle their media rift: “No, I don’t know him that well, but I thought he was a weird wuss anyway, so no. I understand where he’s coming from. His job as a manager is to protect the players, striking out at whoever is causing your players any grievance.”  After that Johnson took a turn and shot at Maddon’s twitter activity and reputation as someone who is intelligent: “I don’t want to get into a shouting match with Joe. I looked him up on the Internet and found out he is a tweeter, so he can get to more people than me. But it was interesting reading. But you can tell him I have a doctorate of letters, too. Mine’s from Loyola in Humanities, and I’m proud of that, too.”

Maddon: Seemingly more concerned with the intellectual war, Maddon suggested Johnson’s glove checking move was “”an attempt to indicate a higher form of baseball intellect.”

ALL II’s Thoughts:  If they guy was cheating then he is cheating.  Maddon’s assertion that pine tar is commonly used by pitchers appears to be validated throughout the league and with pitchers I have interacted with throughout my years playing and watching the game.  While I respect and love Joe Maddon, his defense that pine tar use – as ubiquitous as Viagra at the local retirement homes – is weak.  He suggests players police themselves which is why this is not a greater issue despite many people using it.  You know the last major issue that players should’ve been policing themselves?  Steroids.  Not exactly apples and oranges but certainly players didn’t exactly check themselves before they wrecked themselves (and the game).  Still, Maddon raises a great point in that players and fans seemed to not care about pine tar on gloves which should mean something.

Johnson, on the other hand, is pretty low for using some old information for something that doesn’t seem like a major issue in the game.  Do I think this will hurt the Nationals from getting future players? Heck no but it will make veterans cautious of what they do while in Washington D.C.  The worst part is the fact that Johnson agrees with Maddon that Peralta should not be suspended.  Uhh, it is against the rules?  You wanted policing.  Now you don’t want all of the policing.  You need to do better, Davey.  Own your baggage.  You called him out, you should know the rules and the penalties for those crimes.  All in all this is a non-story but two old people arguing really sums up why this game is so popular with the kids!

Triple: Four Man Rotation

Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy announced the Rockies would move Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen and begin going with a four man rotation, a pitching model of yesteryear.  Tracy suggested that each started would get a 75 pitch limit thereby distributing more starts to pitchers that, by the numbers, should be better than a fifth starter.  Teams rarely experiment with the non-five man rotation with those that do resulting in limited success.  The obvious question is simple: If intuitively we know taking starts away from the worst pitcher and giving them to four better pitchers should be more beneficial to the team and we know players have higher batting averages the more they see a pitcher in a single game, why does the four pitcher rotation fail?

Looking at the Rockies this season and other teams that tried to return to four pitchers, the answer appears to be that the pitchers on the roster are not good enough.  This is evidenced by some pretty simple figures provided by Sport Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe: “The Rockies’ rotation is downright awful, even beyond the fact that they’re toiling in Coors Field, the game’s least pitcher-friendly environment. Their 6.31 ERA is dead last in baseball, and more than two runs worse than the average starter’s ERA of 4.15. Their 5.19 innings per start is second-to-last; the major league average is 5.96. Rockies starters are delivering quality starts (by definition six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) just 26 percent of the time, not only the game’s worst rate but also half of the major league average.”

Teams that resort to making fundamental changes with their rotation probably need to make a big change because what they have is not working.  This does not mean that a four man rotation would fail, but it does mean that good teams do not have an incentive to shorten up their staff over a season because, unlike Facebook, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  I hope a team does try to move towards the four man rotation especially with pitch counts becoming more significant among younger starters.  Doubt it will happen but with the balance of power back towards pitching, clever teams should look for advantages to maximize their good starters over the course of a long season.

Home Run: Rocket Man Bigger Than Congress and Justice

Not being a legal expert, I turned to the Editor-in-Chief to provide his legal acumen on his beloved former Yankees star.

Thank you prosecutor for once again proving private sector big name attorneys can and will always take down the government. We appreciate your attempt to rectify the wrong doings and cheaters who thought their names were prominent enough too perjure themselves in congress. Clemens had the best lawyer money could buy, Rusty Hardin while the government tripped over themselves at every step. Hardin made it look easy, not because he was brilliant (which he is), but because the prosecution made it really easy during trial for the veteran criminal defense attorney.

Let’s not forget there was an original mistrial ordered by the judge due to the prosecutor playing footage that was deemed inadmissible by the trial judge. That didn’t stop our paid by tax dollars federal prosecutors from continuing to pursue what they called justice, while the evidence was so clearly stacked in the defense’s favor. Brian McNamee, their star witness, changed his story and conjured up evidence seemingly weekly in an attempt to corroborate a story that seemed as though he didn’t even believe. The prosecution did a horrendous job handling their star witness and his wife in the conference room and it was exposed on the stand. Conference room witness Rule #1: No surprises. Treat your witness as with as much thorough questioning as the defense would. Rule #2: Consistency. Urge it; Demand it. Rule #3: Make sure his wife doesn’t have a conflicting story. No, rule #3 doesn’t really exist, but the prosecution has to know that the conflicting story about the syringe was a possibility

The prosecution was too eager to make a statement that they forgot the most important question of all, is there reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt oozed from the erratic and inconsistent testimony of Brian McNamee and more embarrassing Andy Pettitte. Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens’ best friend in baseball. I’m sure he has no problem recalling a conversation he had with Roger Clemens saying Clemens used HGH. Oh yeah, he did have a problem with that. The prosecution should have done its due diligence to be more specific in pin pointing when and where this conversation occurred. Not only that to make that story so full-proof that any preliminary questioning the defense put forth could poke a hole in his testimony. Turns out it, Pettitte wasn’t too sure about exactly if that conversation ever took place.

Tax payer money was supposed to be used on getting justice for baseball fans and to ensure the integrity of the game and of Congressional hearings. While baseball did not take much of a hit, Congress and our Federal prosecutors office certainly did. I’m glad to see that justice was served. If the prosecution was able to convict Clemens with this defense, now that would have really been a failure of our justice system.

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.

More interleague play means an opportunity for easy runs scored so the Cycle is back after a brief stint on the 15-DL.  Despite not being of the same class (both athletically and financially), this writer can still give you perspectives on four interesting stories around Major League Baseball, a league in a tightly contested race with global soccer for best way to avoid the modern era by maintaining limited uses of instant replay.  But what do I know.

Single: Barry Lamar Bonds on the Comeback Trail

“I gave my life and soul to that game. That’s what’s heartbreaking. That’s the hard part of it. My (reputation) was kind of iffy anyway. I created that guy out there for entertainment only. Whether you hated me or liked me, you were there. And I only wanted you there. I just wanted you to see the show. That was it. All I ever wanted was for people to have a good time and enjoy it. It was fun to come out and people would boo or yay or whatever. They all showed up to see whatever would happen next and it motivated me to play hard.” – Convicted Felon of Obstruction of Justice.

A very powerful statement from the second greatest living baseball player in today (Willie Mays is number one at the youthful age of 81).  Bonds represented everything in baseball and in sports during his days as a Pirate and, quite literally, a Giant.  His statistics speak volumes: Top ten in runs, runs batted in, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.  Most home runs of all time (insert asterisk here), walks, MVPs (seven), intentional walks, and the single season home run record (also insert asterisk here).  Membership to the 500 home runs club is starting to increase but membership to the 500/500 club: Barry Bonds.  That’s it.  He also became the face of steroids and baseball excitement that dwarfed the Sosa-Mcguire bro-fest that revitalized baseball in the late 90s.  Bonds defined appointment television.

All of this does not mean that he just acted to give the fans what we wanted to see.  A hero and a villain and a hero.  Bonds genuinely seemed to be a jerk or at least not as affable with the increasing media light that people like to see from their stars.  Wanting to see that he wants to return to baseball is a blessing for both the Giants and baseball at large.  His greatness should not disappear due to steroids involvement.  His skills can and will help a struggling offensive team but also energize a game out of touch with many audiences pushing other sports to the top (re: minority, particularly black athletes).  The transition from superhuman star to retired player left bad tastes in many mouths.  From Jordan’s several retirements and his venomous Hall of Fame speech, to Favre’s insistence on playing until the bounty became too great, to Bonds’ seemingly revisionist history, athletes out the spotlight appear to lose their way.  Bonds is back and if the Giants were smart, they would quickly swipe him up and bring him back

Aside: The ol’ Editor-in-Chief wanted me to figure out if Bonds is the greatest player ever.  The answer, for me, is no.  The competition between the Bonds and the old era is interesting.  Weight training and programming does favor the modern game, as does better baseballs.  People may complain that balls are switched all the time but they stay clean which helps them.  Smaller strike zones and better pitchers make the records of today that much more impressive even if the Polo Grounds don’t match up with old Tiger stadium.  I still like Mays for hitting but clearly Bonds is a top ten player ever with or without steroids.

Double: No-No and Baseball’s Problem with Pitching

Johan Santana tossed the first Mets no-hitter in franchise history followed by two near no hitters only to have the Mariners throw a team no-hitter with six different pitchers.  (Aside: The team no hitter, a feat that I poo-pooed recently as my Mariners only scored one tired run during the game, is a very impressive feat.  Impressive here is not meant in the traditional sense of “wow-factor” but retrospectively when considering no one could get a hit.  It is a reminder of how quickly something impressive can sneak up on you over the course of three hours.)  The fear of pitchers losing their collective edge as a consequence of injuries appears to be an overblown concern with the continued propensity for pitching brilliance.  Pseudo-purists like me appreciate a good pitchers duel but the casual fans continue to bemoan the increased use of the sacrifice bunt and other small ball tendencies.  Honestly, you cannot blame them but in an era where we dismantle major superstars for not doing enough and downplay their greatness (re: Lebron R. James), are we underappreciating the spectacular performances by pitches?  I certainly think so.  I attended two White Sox games over the last week with condescension levels highest during pitching duels.  I attribute this somewhat narrow mindedness to why people don’t play baseball in general: pitching limits engagement.  People who try to play pick up baseball become immediately alienated when hits do not happen and pitchers ultimately play catch with the catchers.  Visually unappealing + limited player engagement = fans crapping all over it.  Still, I salute and welcome the masterful displayers by players and teams even if others do not.

Triple: MLB Draft Winners

Certainly the most inaccessible player draft of the four major sports, the MLB draft came and left with many great selections and bold picks that will more than likely set the course of a franchise over the next decade.  Well, that cannot be said for all picsk but certainly of the team holding the number one pick.  When the Astros last held this “honor” they selected Derek Jeter who went on to own baseball…for a team not the Houston Astros.  This year they surprised many by selecting Carlos Correa, shortstop out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy.  Signs pointed to the Astros picking Mark Appel but bucking conventional wisdom to acquire power pitching, Correa represents a safe pick that can provide day-to-day contributions to a team struggling up the middle.  His recent consistency and power over the last two seasons should excite everyone involved with the franchise.  Other winners:

  • Liked what the Dodgers did with Corey Seager, brother of Mariners’ Kyle Seager.  A strong defensive presence that, with time, can fill the void left by Adrian Beltre in the mid-2000s
  • Minnesota gets nice marks for building up pitching but they also acquired my favorite player in the draft, Byron Buxton at the #2 slot.  The 6-3, 200lbs outfielder defines five-tool player with an amazing ability to cover wide stretches of ground in a short amount of time.  SI’s Dave Perkins and ESPN’s Keith Law liken him to Justin Upton, high praise for any up and coming player.
  • More legitimate contenders as of late, the Blue Jays selected Marcus Stroman in the first round.  With a solid fastball and sweeping curve (and developing changeup), the reliever will serve as a pleasant compliment to a young starting pitching staff with the talent to be competitive in the American League.

Home Run: MLB Draft Losers

Much harder to project losers than winners because more pride is on the line.  It is really hard to even define what losing means in this situation but I needed to do something to close this piece out.  I will wait until next week to spend energy figuring out Barry Zito outpitching Tim Lincecum.  The easiest loser to pick is…

  • Mark Appel! The Stanford righty was as close to a consensus number one pick as possible until the Astros went another direction dropping Appel to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.  Appel’s agent is the always affable Scott Boras who appears to be engaging in a hold out for more money.  As the number one pick, Appel expected to make above $7 million in a signing bonus; going eighth means closer to $3 million, certainly no peanut money but not exactly meeting expectations.  Skipping out on the Pirates conference call and engaging in early contract disputes isn’t exactly building the best image but it is clear that Appel will be going to the wire with Pirates management with both parties more than likely ending with egg on their faces.
  • Jesus Montero went from catching prospect extraordinaire for the Yankees to a soon to be DH as the Mariners picked Mike Zunino with their third overall pick.  After the debacle on the Yankees end with Michael Pineda, it looks like this big deal may be ending poorly for both clubs.
  • National League East leading Washington Nationals took a risk by selecting Harvard-Westlake star Lucas Giolito.  Obviously the Nats know a thing about talent with the emergence of Strasburg and Harper but three words make me nervous: ulnar collateral ligament. Giolito sprained UCL in his pitching elbow cost him stop pick status and that injury in high school (he missed his senior year) raises red flags.  Of course I am much more conservative in my drafting than others so I may be eating these words in the coming years but only time will tell.

A late Cycle can be explained by preparation for Qualifying Exams.  The good thing is that anyone would take a Cycle at any point in their career so get over it or die.  Pujols out of his slump and I am hitting my stride.  Four stories that caught my eye over the last week in Major League Baseball

Single: Interleague Play: The End of an Era.

Not exactly. Interleague play in bloc format will be ending after a proud sixteen year tradition that brought compelling rivalries to the forefront: Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Mariners/Padres (?), and Tigers/Pirates (?).  The natural rivalries versus the “what do we do with the other teams” issue will be addressed by expanding interleague play to at least one game per night with up to two week (or weekends) of specific interleague play.  I find these changes to be  quite refreshing given the dominance of the American League, the imbalance of scheduling games against the same number of quality opponents (i.e. Jason Stark’s point that “the Braves have to play the Yankees six times. But how many times will the Marlins and Phillies play the Yankees? Zero, of course.”), and outdated league formats.

In 2013, the American and National League will have equal numbers of teams in divisions and throughout the league creating more balanced play between both leagues.  The American League will most certainly continue to dominate interleague play because, like basketball, good offense still outperforms good defense.  The designated hitter – an impediment for eliminating leagues all together for year round unbiased baseball – shifts the balance to hitting even in the pitching revival post-Steroids era.  Sports Illustrated writers Cliff Corcoran’s “Five Cuts” column lists the best and worst teams since the inceptions of interleague play in 1997:

Rank Team Intra WPct. Inter WPct. Diff
1 Tigers .451 .532 .081
2 White Sox .511 .580 .069
3 Twins .496 .561 .065
4 Marlins .477 .536 .059
5 Mariners .492 .545 .053
26 Diamondbacks .502 .455 -.048
27 Padres .490 .438 -.052
28 Astros .518 .465 -.053
29 Phillies .530 .460 -.070
30 Dodgers .531 .456 -.075

We should take pleasure in the rivalries and chance to see pitchers embarrass themselves at the plate.  Interleague play is fun and this positive first step to correcting a long-term flaw in baseball scheduling should be applauded.  Let the old system die and the return of AL managers butchering the double-switch begin.

Double: Walking Across the Stage

Discussions of graduation rates and sports usually focus on baseball and football, America’s most popular collegiate and professional sports.  Without fail these thematic conversations come with a racialized lens as sports becomes an outlet for urban males to succeed while simultaneously disproportionately ignoring their academic enrichment.  Baseball, a sport incredibly diverse despite its low percentage of black players, also lacks high college graduation rates but it doesn’t seem to get the same attention.  Yahoo Sports’ Ben Maller exposed the startling statistics: 39 total players (of the 917 that appeared in games this season) have four-year college degrees.  4.3%.  To be fair, may Major League players do come from other countries or are drafted from high school to a major league team/farm system for development which suppresses numbers but 39 total players is still shocking.

For better or worse, however, this does not bother me at all because I thought baseball – at the expense of more money – has the best amateur to professional pathway in major American sports.  The creation and legitimacy of the minor league system provides a clear lifestyle for development into a baseball player, pegging players to leagues based on talent and outside the delusions of grandeur in the “student-athlete” dichotomy of NCAA sports.  This does not mean that success in the big leagues cannot be acquired through college as several players do attend and get to the pros.  It does mean that if you want to play baseball, you can commit all of your time and energy into that game without fear of external repercussion.   Anytime your sport is a long term endeavor (more than 16 regular season games) fan interest will wane because the perception of significance is reduced.  Without the tournament, college basketball is niche audiences and not moving the meter.  Minor league baseball is the same way with scouts following players and players maturing both physically and mentally before reaching the top.  Most professional athletes emerged by deciding to enter the minor leagues and reach the top and saved college spots for players who are good at baseball but will also get an education.  What is there not to like about explicitly defining the terms?

(Addendum: It also helps that baseball offers the best retirement packages and least damage to the body.  This avoids narratives of players wasting their millions earned because of ignorance and “the game” using the disadvantaged to their physical detriment.  It all matters because when those conversations are not taking place, people do not think of educational shortcomings, and the 43.3% of MLB teams without a college graduate on their roster is a non-story).

Triple: You’re Fired.

13 year Major League Baseball arbitrator Shyam Das was fired nearly two weeks ago by Major League Baseball’s upper echelon.  It should be stated that the Collective Bargaining Agreement states that either MLB or the Players Association can at any point dismiss the arbitrator for – it appears – any reason it likes.  Obviously this creates a very interesting political balance on two fronts.  First, the arbitrator is only as useful as his/her objectivity.  The person must be unbiased to please both sides because occupying the role results in some level of balance.  Secondly, the MLB and players association in the event of firing can be incredibly powerful in selecting the next arbitrator.  If the MLB fires the person, the players association can make it incredibly taxing on management to pick another fair or “fair” replacement.

Without extensive knowledge of the firing, it DOES appear that Das’ ruling on the Ryan Braun case sealed his fate from league offices.  This firing should not be sold as simply a consequence of ruling against MLB like the firings of Peter Seitz and Tom Roberts after their separate rulings against baseball.  Das controversially reduced suspensions of John Rocker (for his loving words) and Kenny Rogers’ skirmish with cameramen.  This firing is because Das ruled against a system built to solve baseball’s biggest problem, steroids.  Das was the longest arbitrator in league history mostly because stability in rulings is invaluable knowledge when leveling penalties.  You know how far you can go and whether to push the envelope on some issues versus others.  MLB is clear about steroids: no room to negotiate.  Their system came under fire and an attempt to take down someone who tested positively in the face of science vanished.  Das ruled properly and firmly on the biggest issue and it cost him his job.

Aside: He is also the arbitrator for the New Orleans Saints bounty case.  What is he doing in two leagues?  Are there really no other arbitrators good enough to handle things individually?

Home Run: Injury Bug – Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Carlos Beltran

Beltran has returned to form since returning to health at 35 years old.  He is playing supremely and can be argued to be the best player in the National League.  Tim Kurkjian’s ESPN The Magazine piece is quality reading on a player dismissed and marginalized for the Mets, now revitalized on the Cardinals.

Bad: Kerry Wood

Wood retired during the crosstown classic ending what was certainly meant to be the next Nolan Ryan.  The 1998 Rookie of the Year’s 20 strike out game is his most memorable moment, joining Randy Johnson and Roger Clemons as the only people to get 20 Ks in a 9 inning performance.  Wood reached 1000 strikeouts in fewer games (134) and fewer innings (853) than any player in baseball.  A series of injuries destroyed his career, ruining the greatest talent of 1990s.  Amazing to think of what could’ve been and how a Tommy John Surgery in 1999 really signaled the end.

Ugly: Joe Mauer

Despite being healthy, the man formally known for “Mauer-Power” continues to toil to the high expectations he established in 2009.  While healthy this season, Mauer has only two home runs and a slugging percentage that still draws the ire of Twins fans.  The ugly involves the Minnesota Twins fans who have lost all patience for their $23 million catcher.  Unlike the big city mentality of Yankees fans who are patient with Mark Teixeira and his annual poor starts and poor finishes, Twins fans still embody the small market mentality.  Paying Mauer all the money for little production will not be tolerated regardless of how tough the catcher’s position in baseball is on the body.  I doubt Mauer will regain the necessarily lower body strength to match his incredibly calm and fast hands through the hitting zone.  This accounts for the incredibly high ground ball rate for Mauer, a career high at nearly 60%.  (Courtesy of Twins Daily blogger Nick Nelson).   All of those features remain secondary to the astronomical rise and fall of Mauer with fans.  Every time a Head and Shoulders advertisement appears in Minnesota it will only remind them that one amazing year cost the team millions while Mauer profits in popularity and contractual obligations.  Mauer isn’t a bad guy but home runs will silence the boos from the home crowd, an ugly display for a tragic figure whose body is failing him when it matters most.

The Cycle covers four baseball stories that crossed my radar in the past week.  I cannot confirm that they will be the most important stories but I will guarantee that they will be interesting.

Single: Baseball Still Doesn’t Get It…Rule Change?

Major League Baseball’s Rules Committee decided to move forward a proposal making the third-to-first pickoff attempt a balk beginning in 2013.  I applauded MLB’s decisions to tweak the playoffs for more excitement and to fully integrate interleague play as a norm to regular season scheduling but this is a clear case of too much meddling.  Grandpa baseball (Bud Selig) would understand this better with the old cliché: If it aint broke, don’t fix it.  To my mind, no one ever complained about this move because it is, well, insignificant.  It is barely used to begin with, never works, and there remain bigger issues to deal with (like instant replay or people complaining about umpires- overrated-, or making sure my favorite sport doesn’t fall behind hockey in popularity).  Associated Press’ Ben Walker does get a quote from Boone Logan on how left-handed pitchers cannot legally use the move and that it is unfair.  Counter argument: it never works!  And if you are griping about that useless move, you need to improve your pitches.  It should also be noted that lefties get a much greater advantage as they look directly at runners on first and can be far more deceptive with their pickoff attempts.

This doesn’t speed the game up, there was no complaint to begin with, and this change seems utterly useless.  Glad to see the Playing Rules Committee staying relevant with concerns.

Double: Temper Temper….

Anger management seems to be the hot topic in sports.  Tiger Woods kicking clubs in majors.  Amar’e Stodemire punched a fire extinguisher.  Players throwing at each other on the diamond started as an issue but MLB anger took a turn over the past few days.  Bryce Harper, the world’s next big thing, kicked everything off by fighting a wall and losing!  Harper struck out three times on Saturday and his anger boiled over as he hit a wall on the way to the clubhouse.  The wall, opting fight instead of flight (because it’s a wall you know), bounced the bat into Harper’s face.  Ouch.

Tuesday also featured a bevy of outward expressions of animosity.  Brett Lawrie became enraged after two questionable strike calls and went on a tirade against home plate umpire Bill Miller.  The explosion featured a helmet thrown on the ground in the direction of Miller and it indeed hit him.  I’m not sure if the helmet bounced any other way we would be talking about big suspensions but this will no doubt get a letter from league offices – after discussions of other mundane things like changing the patterns of infield grass or something.

Bob Davidson and Charlie Manuel did battle on Tuesday dropping F-Bombs all over the place.  It’s amusing to hear some of the audio from the umpire because he certainly didn’t want to get in the way and didn’t want to take Manuel’s mess with less than two innings remaining.  Though I think the animosity at the beginning is genuine (though not very high) it looks like the two just put on a classic side show.  Davidson seems thoroughly amused with Manuel, even smiling after getting a break from the profanities.  Both went at it and well – everyone seemed happy afterwards.

Finally, David Wright and Mets manager Terry Collins had a minor disagreement as Wright was pulled from an 8-0 shutout to avoid being hit in retaliation after Ryan Braun was beamed following a Ricky Weeks home run.  Wright understandably wanted to stand up for his team but Collins pulled Wright to protect him from injury – something Wright understood but team is team.  Collins is probably wise to be protective of his best player as Wright is QUIETLY having an amazing, albeit, young season.  The start to this year is by far his best in years.  Despite only 4 Home Runs (he does play in the canyon that is Citi Field), Wright does have an MLB best .408 batting average and top ten in OPS.  To say Wright is a slow started is being kind.  2011 saw a .210 BA in April and May and .261 BA in 2010.  This looks like the beginning of a year that puts Wright back in elite territory, a welcomed relief for New York’s second team.

Triple: White Sox Diamonds in the Rough

Chicago’s second team, you know the team that has won a world series in the past 100 years, is under .500 but features some mega-comeback stories.  Despite a rough outing on Tuesday, Jake Peavy is the early AL Cy Young favorite with dominant starts against top AL opponents.  The 2007 NL Cy Young winner finally looks healthy after running the gauntlet of injuries (sore elbows, tendon injury in ankle, ruptured latissimus dorsi muscle, and tendonitis to name a few) and is looking to make a run to shed himself of the dreaded one-hit wonder title.  Peavy sports a 2.45 ERA (1.89 entering the Tigers game where he gave up 6 in 5.1), top three in innings pitched, and top ten in WHIP.  Peavy rediscovered the effectiveness of changing speeds on the fastball but also incorporated more changeups, something that keeps hitters fooled when his control is on.  Not sure if this is sustainable but getting through the early months with this performance must be a welcoming sight for Southsiders.

The other astounding comeback is the resurgence of Adam Dunn.  The Big Donkey began his tenth season as the first in the American League and posted god-awful numbers.  .159 BA, .277 slugging, 11HRs, 42 RBIs, and an embarrassment to the organization and National League power hitters.  (With Pujols struggling, it is certainly justifiable to ask if being a National League slugger is as impressive as it looks.  Richie Sexson came to the American League from the Brewers and sucked.)  Dunn looks much better this year with 12HRs, 28 RBIs, and .613 SLG.  His strikeout rate is still high but he is still Adam Dunn.  The Sox paid him to hit the ball long and far and he has succeeded.  Manager Robin Ventura’s decision to play Dunn in left field during interleague play shows his value to the team and maybe it takes a year to get used to pitching in the better league!

Home Run: Stadium Dilemmas

This section had so much potential as I was going to reconsider the complications of the Ryan Braun positive test, off on technicality saga in light of a similar situation in my life.  But that can wait because the Wall Street Journal set off a million bells with a tongue and cheek piece on Wrigley Field.  Rich Cohen argues that Wrigley Field must be destroyed because it embodies the wretchedness of 100 years of ineptitude, bad luck, and scapegoating integral to modern American sports.  To be quite honest I hate that urine smelling, overrated, consistently drunk, lovable loser haven on my city’s Northside.  The place is an utter dump and if I can avoid it, I will never go there again to watch a baseball game.  If my Mariners were in Game 7 of the World Series and I could be at Wrigley to watch I would not attend (they would probably lose).  Horrible.  The fetishization of Wrigley as mystical and more special than any other place distorts the legacy of bass ackwards ownership, poor team construction, underachieving with a solid team, and fans who consistently award GARBAGE by showing up to that dump.  Bleachers on rooftops?  Amateur hour!  Old baseball stadium does NOT equal special team.  The Yankees won in Old Yankee Stadium because they had better players and more money to spend in the greatest market.  The Red Sox won in 2004 and 2007 because great pitching and timely hitting, not because of a stupid curse being removed.

This doesn’t escape a broader conversation of the role of stadiums in baseball, especially the cavernous parks drawing the ire of home team stars.  Petco Park is the leader of this maddening trend with a combination of the “marine layer” (changes in air off the coast making the air heavier and killing distance) and ungodly dimensions ruining batters.  Citi Field changed its dimensions going into this year resulting in at least eight home runs that would not have been home runs under the old configuration.  Undoubtedly, Marlins Park will bring in the fences with major complaints coming from power star Giancarlo Stanton (formerly Mike Stanton).

These huge ball parks appear to be built to give the home team some type of edge, especially during the Steroid Era.  Unfortunately, teams did not factor in 1) the emphasis on home runs would be important to their players, 2) the steroid era would in fact end, and 3) strategic baseball appears to be a secondary issue.  Home run hitting serves as the go to measure of equalizing games – unsurprising as American culture wants everything to happen as soon as possible all the time.  The downside is the huge parks are not lending themselves to alternative forms of run production.  Extra base hit figures show debunk the myth of large parks leading to more alleys for speedy teams to extend singles (and doubles) for an extra base.  It wouldn’t shock me if parks continued to shrink to accommodate fan’s need to see the long ball and remain attractive as locations for major sluggers.

All this goes to suggest that team management (on the field and in the bank books) drives success but Cubs fans will have it no other way.  Goofs!

 

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.