Dribblers: Starlin Castro, The Next 300-Game Winner, Andrelton Strikes Out

Believe it or not, I don’t spend all of my time expanding a meager idea into a 2,500-word blah-fest. I learn plenty of new things about baseball every day, so once a week, I’m going to deposit them here.

-When it comes to Starlin Castro, the league has a scouting report with which it’s very comfortable. Castro’s swing got long and leveraged in 2013, driven mostly by way too much stride. He started trying to pull everything, and has scarcely adjusted.

Therefore, he’s started seeing a ton of pitches low and away from him. Fully a third of opponents’ offerings have been at the bottom of the zone or below, and from the middle of the plate out. He’ll have to adjust in a big way, in both approach and mechanics, in order to recapture the success he had early in his career.

-A quote from Paul O’Neill (the writer, not the outfielder), in Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, as relayed by Roger Kahn in The Head Game:

More and more late-inning tie ball games are put in the hands of relief pitchers. A pitcher winning 300 looks less and less likely with each passing season.

You’ll see things like this written every so often. The 300-game winner has been pronounced extinct a half-dozen times since then, which is strange, because baseball rarely goes more than a decade between 300-game winners. It’s fair to point out that the pace of marginalization for starters is accelerating lately, but I’m more inclined, after reading things like this, to wonder who the next guy will be, rather than whether a next guy exists.

-Andrelton Simmons struck out Thursday, the first time he’d done so all season. It came in his 13th game. That’s very impressive, although not historic: 16 player seasons since 1993 have begun with at least 15 whiffless games.

Simmons has had this skill from the moment he arrived in the big leagues. The specific form of his contact, though, makes him extra interesting.

In The Bill James Handbook 2014, there’s a delightful new section entitled “Hitter Analysis”. It’s chock-full of the most process-driven numbers batters generate. It tells you the number of pitches each batter saw, how many they swung at and how many (of those they took) were called strikes, and how many were balls.

It also tells you (and this is the fun part) how many of the batter’s swings resulted in whiffs, how many in foul balls and how many in balls in play. That swing-outcome data set fascinates me. The more I comb the data, the more players seem to fit certain profiles based on how their swings turn out.

Simmons is a rare breed, maybe the most interesting and unique player listed. In 2013, he saw 2,307 pitches. He swung at 1,068 of them. Of the 1,239 he watched, 437 were called strikes.

When he swung, he missed 135 times. He fouled off 373 pitches. And he put 560 balls in play. Those numbers are as staggering as I hope they feel. Very few hitters approximate Simmons’ skill for sheer contact; even fewer direct the balls they do hit into the field of play so consistently. Yadier Molina is a loose fit for the profile, but closer ones are Ben Revere, Ryan Hanigan and Juan Pierre.

Simmons isn’t like those guys as batters, though, for two reasons. Firstly, he puts the ball in the air, and does so a lot. The guys listed above are, without exception, ground-ball hitters. Secondly, he’s extremely aggressive, especially compared to Hanigan, for instance. The best fit for the Simmons profile, taking away plate discipline, might be Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, though, is much more patient. Importantly, this profile doesn’t seem to lend itself to a huge batting average on balls in play, so if Simmons is to thrive, he’ll need to rely on the power he flashed last year or get significantly more patient. I’m betting o. The former being the easier thing to maintain, so know that as long as Simmons keeps the approach he uses right now, even while sustaining an exceptional contact rate, his offensive value will depend on driving the ball.

-Speaking of driving the ball:

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I wish I could present this more prettily; I’m somewhat limited by my own technology. That image comes from the venerable baseballsavant.com, and it lays Jose Batista’s 54-homer season (2010, on the left) next to Chris Davis’s 53-homer campaign last year (right).

All I want is to take a moment to ponder the different distributions, of fly balls in general and of homers specifically. Knowing nothing but this, which guy would you expect to better sustain his success?

I can tell you that opposite-field power is more consistent than pull power, at least in terms of home runs. On the other hand, most batters hit most of their pulled balls on the ground, but Bautista has carefully cultivated the skill of launching fly balls to his pull field. He doesn’t hit a terribly unusual percentage of flies out of the park; he just hits a terribly unusual number of flies to a part of the park out of which nearly one ball on every three will fly.

Davis’s approach is more classic, his power more majestic. He has a swing designed to drive the ball in the air, direction be damned. My only concern is that, with nothing suggesting that he’s unique, he’s a candidate to return to, say, the very human 33 homers he hit in 2012. Anyway, this bears watching.

Power Rankings: Every Team’s Season in a Number of Words Equal to Their Games Played

Look, MLB power rankings are stupid. I could broaden that and say that all power rankings are stupid, but:

  1. At least in football, one can take the time to smartly build a list, without having more data added to disrupt any evaluations.
  2. Other sports operate within wider margins. Team quality is less closely bunched, and makes itself clear more quickly, than in baseball.
  3. ‘Power Rankings’ is a decent term for search engine optimization. Coming soon: ‘NFL Mock Draft:’ in front of all my headlines!

That said, I find it difficult to really keep straight where I think teams stand, relative to one another, over the course of a long season. The unbalanced schedule really confounds any effort to make an objective, solid list, but worse, I often struggle to pay anything resembling equal attention to all 30 teams. It’s hard to keep up, unless you have a system.

From now on, therefore, this is my system. Each Thursday (and maybe, occasionally, on other days, too), I’ll rank all the MLB teams, 1-30, and give a blurb about their placement in as many words as they have played games, to this point.

Yes, this will make for comically incomplete assessments in the early going. That’s the point. We know almost nothing about these teams right now, so I intend to say almost nothing about them, and the order in which I rank them will be almost identical to the way I would have aligned them before the season began. As the year goes on, though, that will change. Slowly.

Without further ado:

30. Houston Astros (5-10): Hitting .189 as a team, averaging fewer than three runs per game, but George Springer!!!

29. Minnesota Twins (6-7): Respectable start fueled by some unsustainable offensive performances, not the rebuilt pitching staff.

28. Colorado Rockies (7-9): They keep trying to find perfect pitchers for Coors. Better bet would be finding better pitchers.

27. Philadelphia Phillies (6-8): Chase Utley belongs in Cooperstown. Once he cools, , though, things will get even uglier.

26. Chicago Cubs (4-10): Headed straight for cellar, but strong early returns from cornerstone players and trade candidates.

25. New York Mets (8-7): .644 team OPS, fifth-worst in MLB, yet have scored ninth-most runs. Unsustainable.

24. Miami Marlins (6-10): Giancarlo Stanton is playing his way out of Miami. Some great young talent beginning to congeal.

23. Chicago White Sox (8-7): Have both scored and allowed most runs in AL. Impressive rebuild. Could contend next year.

22. Pittsburgh Pirates (7-8): Remain a very strong run-prevention club. Need more length in lineup or rotation, though.

21. San Diego Padres (7-8): A high-variance team, plenty of upside, but in bad habit of finding downside lately.

20. Arizona Diamondbacks (4-14): Eighteen games in, if you thought this team could win 90 before season, you’d now expect just 84.

19. Baltimore Orioles (7-7): They need Machado back ASAP, but he can’t cure all their ills. Regression sucks.

18. Kansas City Royals (6-7): Didn’t homer until eighth game of season. Well-rounded team, though. Could contend.

17. Seattle Mariners (7-7): Weaknesses haven’t really shown up in early going. You have to love their depth.

16. Cincinnati Reds (6-9): An increasingly top-heavy big-league roster, but solid organizational depth. Need to get healthy.

15. Toronto Blue Jays (8-6): The wisdom of letting last year’s bad breaks even out is clear so far.

14. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (7-8): Badly imbalanced roster, but such a strong positional group that they may stay in contention.

13. New York Yankees (9-6): Remarkable for gulf between very good players and very bad ones. Easy team to upgrade.

12. Milwaukee Brewers (11-4): This is real, to an extent. Pitching probably won’t be this strong all year, though.

11. Texas Rangers (8-7): Injuries have them here; strong roster that has had awful luck. Top-five team eventually.

10. San Francisco Giants (10-5): Ballpark hides an offense that has been among the best in NL for years now.

9. Detroit Tigers (6-5): In danger of fast fall from the heights. Dependent on Cabrera.

8. Cleveland Indians (7-7): Depth, versatility, team approach. Love watching these guys wear out opponents. League’s biggest sleeper.

7. Boston Red Sox (6-9): Relentless organizational depth. Will be able to bolster roster easily, any time. Need veterans healthy.

6. Atlanta Braves (10-4): Rotation still feels thin, but they’ll have plenty of time to find an upgrade.

5. Washington Nationals (9-6): With Ryan Zimmerman hurt, Danny Espinosa becomes a crucial cog. Still very strong all-around team.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (9-6): Kershaw injury exposes a few minor cracks in pitching staff, but they should be fine.

3. Tampa Bay Rays (7-8): Starters two, three and four all sidelined for extended period; still an elite team. Wow.

2. Oakland Athletics (10-5): Stunning positional depth. A joy to see roster spots used so well. Bullpen will recover.

1. St. Louis Cardinals (9-6): Only weaknesses are voluntary. Getting Pete Kozma off the roster is always a positive step.

Tune in next week, when I (might) try these in limerick form!

Astros Promote George Springer, and Have Totally Mishandled Him

The Houston Astros completed a senseless development process for a top prospect Tuesday, announcing that they will promote George Springer to the Major Leagues Wednesday. Springer, 24, was their first-round pick in 2011, and hasn’t stopped abusing minor-league pitching since. He hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases in a season split between Double- and Triple-A in 2013. He had a very legitimate case to be recalled last September, and there was no legitimate case whatsoever for sending him to Oklahoma City to open 2014.

The Astros made two errors in judgment when it comes to Springer. Neither is glaring, neither will derail his career and neither should even cost them all that much. Still, errors they were, and they’re frustrating because they indicate a franchise in entirely the wrong state of mind.

The errors, with the more serious one first:

  1. They held Springer back, it’s now clear, for service-time reasons, waiting until an extra year of control was a guarantee before recalling him. That’s unnecessary, and rather cheap. Springer is exactly the kind of player (extremely athletic, with a high strikeout rate and an already polished approach) whose best seasons will be his first three or four. The Astros’ gaming of the service-time system guarantees them the rights to Springer’s age-30 season, but it’s a 50/50 proposition whether Springer is a player the team would miss all that badly if he became a free agent after age 29.

    It would have made more sense, if the team insisted upon letting finances drive their decision, to keep Springer off the roster until late June, ensuring that he wouldn’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2017 season. Springer is the kind of player who will make a killing as a star during his arbitration years, but disappoint whichever team pays the premium for his free-agent seasons. The Astros gained nothing by holding Springer back.

  2. They made a clumsy, nigh insulting contract-extension offer to Springer last year. Reportedly worth $23 million over seven seasons, that deal had no chance of being accepted. Springer was a player with extremely low risk factors, on the verge of beginning a career in a baseball economy that all but assures him of that amount of money, anyway.

    It’s not merely that Springer was never going to accept that offer, though. It’s also that offering it, in the first place, makes for terrible P.R. It betrays the team’s ulterior motives for keeping Springer down on the farm. It makes them look cheap, and desperate to lock in long-term value even while not competing for short-term talent. There was no reason to make such an offer so soon, and in doing so, the club revealed itself as one looking so far past the 2014 season that fans ought not to even bother attending games this year.

Again, these gaffes aren’t likely to have heavy costs. There’s no grave legal consequence forthcoming, although the MLB Players Association did consider a grievance on Springer’s behalf after news of the extension offer leaked. There’s also no reason to think the extra time wasted in Triple-A will seriously set back Springer’s development. He could have handled the challenge of the Majors sooner, but he hasn’t wasted away. These mistakes, though, just lend fuel to the fire of the organization’s critics. They’re missed opportunities to pick up a half a knot of boat speed. An organization as chock-full of smart people as this one should be better able to avoid silly missteps.

Tribute, Heroes and Jackie Robinson Day

Heroism is in short supply, anymore. In fact, since the end of World War II, the number of people American society has called ‘hero’ has been in steady, steep, inexorable decline.

Politicians used to be heroes, but Richard Nixon drove the final nail into that coffin. Our preferred fiction featured strong heroes for a long time, but sometime in the 1970s, a subversive spirit crept into a greater and greater number of popular movies, and nowadays, even megawatt movies about superheroes from the 1950s have dark edges. The Beatles broke up and Elvis died strung out and fat on a toilet; musicians and other celebrities lost their shine for us.

Athletes were the last heroes. As recently as the late 1990s, Cal Ripken, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and a dozen other sportsmen were among not only the most famous Americans, but the ones most carefully exalted as examples for children to follow. At nine years old, I knew not only Jordan’s greatest shots and Ripken’s streak, but also that Jordan had been cut from his high-schools basketball team, and that Woods would putt with his father from the time he learned to walk, and that Sammy Sosa grew up playing ball with a milk-carton glove, picking and selling oranges, shining George Bell’s shoes.

Because athletes were heroes to us long after others ceased to be, their stories became as important to us as their accomplishments. Imagine our collective horror, then, when it turned out that none of the men on the pedestals had the balance to stay there.

Baseball catches a huge amount of the flak for this, thanks to their performance-enhancing drug crisis. (The ambiguity of that phrase is intentional.) It wasn’t a baseball-only problem, though—not by a longshot. A vacuum began to swallow the last heroes American society recognized, as Americans at first felt betrayed by those whom they had worshipped, then (healthily) came around to the idea that heroism isn’t earned in such whimsical endeavors as sports.

That’s still, basically, how we feel. I’m not sure any active athlete captures the imagination of the country the way several guys did even 15 years ago. We have more intimate information about today’s stars than we ever came close to having about their predecessors, and yet, the growing gap between the income of an elite athlete (or even an average, solid pro) and those of the typical fan makes them feel more distant. We can only view modern players as flawed, fleeting and frustrating. We are unable to deal with them as equals, and unable to worship them as superiors, so we mostly treat them as somehow worse than the rest of us.

Jackie Robinson Day, as much as it may feel like an ancient ritual, only became an official baseball holy day (with on-field ceremonies and other tributes) in 2004, just as the last generation of the game’s contemporary heroes were crashing to the ground, thrown from their pedestals. It’s a day to remember that Robinson suits our new definition of heroism every bit as well as he suited the old one.

A part of me wishes sport could survive as an important cultural institution without creating heroes. A bigger part wishes our sporting culture was a bit more forgiving, so that we could still have new heroes, and could even reclaim some of the old ones. My main thrust here is: I dearly miss having people I considered heroic so close within my grasp, and I want badly to feel good in passing some semblance of the awe and joy those players brought to me on to my two young sons. I hope there are heroes in sports again, and soon, even if the true definition of heroism is somewhat stretched by their inclusion.

That said, Robinson’s legacy is unblemished with good cause. If he’s baseball’s only hero for another few years, well, we could be worse off.

A final note: As they always do, players across the league donned the number 42 yesterday. It began as a begrudgingly permitted homage, paid by Ken Griffey, Jr. and a handful of other African-American players five or so years ago. It is now a league-wide gesture, and wearing 42 is an official expectation, if not a requirement.

I wish this weren’t so. While the meaning isn’t lost on me even now (and while Robinson’s biopic sounded a neat ahistorical note with this zinger), institutional tributes will always be dwarfed by personal ones. It simply can’t and doesn’t mean as much when everyone wears 42 as it did when only those who solemnly cared to do so did it. It’s a small thing, but I hope this tribute is turned back over to the discretion of individuals at some point.

One-Hop Rockets: Replay, the Transfer Rule, Legislating Roster Construction

Just a few quick things this morning, issues that have my attention right now:

Stop the Bellyaching About Replay: I can’t believe the number of people complaining about the expanded instant-replay system in the early going. I’ll confess that challenges have been considerably more frequent than I anticipated, but because a good number of them have overturned wrong calls, all that really means is that a substantial number of umpire mistakes are being corrected.

The system is not as quick or as neat as it ought to be. The farce of managers coming out to mount pseudo-arguments while their staff scrambles to determine whether a challenge is worthwhile will eventually force a shift away from the challenge model, though. In the meantime, please remember that this is better than the old status quo, however imperfect even this may be.

The Easy Fix for the Transfer Rule: A rule clarification made in the hopes of avoiding controversy even after replayed calls has ended up doing the opposite. A new interpretation of the rule governing catches of fly balls has a lot people upset. Here’s the key language:

If a fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.

(Source: Jason Collette, on Twitter)

That obviously contradicts itself. If the fielder has established control of the ball, is clearly in the act of transferring from glove to hand to make a throw and drops the ball, the first sentence indicates an out, but the second one says no catch.

The fix here is easy, though. They simply need to remove the final clause of the second sentence. It should read, simply, “In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball.” While the provision about release being voluntary and intentional has some use (that part isn’t meant to refer to the transfer phase, but to the catch itself), it only confuses the issue.

The rule should include some mention of exactly when “the act of making a throw following the catch” begins. I would say it’s when the hand enters the glove to grab the ball. If, as some players do, the fielder elects to flip the ball from glove to hand instead of going in after it, a dropped ball should be ruled a non-catch. That’s Little League-level instruction. You don’t flip the ball in that circumstance, lest it fall.

Two more things to clarify:

  1. If a fielder should initially appear to make a catch, but drop the ball before going into the glove with the bare hand, the result should be a call of no catch, and a dead ball. Each runner gets one base advancement. This would eliminate a problem that has drawn the ire of Dave Cameron at FanGraphs, whereby a fielder could drop the ball intentionally and throw out a confused runner on a force.
  2. A catch of a batted ball isdifferent than a catch of a throw from a teammate. We need to be able to say much sooner whether a batted ball “shall be adjudged to have been caught,” so it’s important that any ball controlled by the fielder be called a catch as soon as possible.On throws, though, and especially on double-play relays, it seems to me that dropping the ball at any point in the process likely means that thew fielder never truly controlled the ball. I would be in favor of a clarification stating that, if a shortstop dropped the ball in the course of going glove-to-hand in an attempt to turn a double play, no out would be granted.

As sticky a problem as this has been early, I think people are making too big a deal of it. The changes I list above are simple and something like them will be made very soon. In the meantime, this is actually a fairly rare issue. It’s been uncommonly common in the early going, but that may be because players are hyper-aware of the rule and are handling the ball less instinctually than usual on catches. It may also be because it’s April, and it’s cold in a lot of places, and wet in several places, and players aren’t getting the easy grip on the ball that they’re likely to get as the season wears on.

Roster Rules: Mike Matheny let Trevor Rosenthal bat with the winning run in scoring position in the 10th inning on Friday. Rosenthal is a relief pitcher, usually a one-inning guy, who had already pitched one inning. A single would have won the game for the Cardinals, who were hosting the Cubs.

Matheny, though, had few bench options: It was basically Pete Kozma or bust, and those are pretty much the same thing. So he let his pitcher bat, and not only did that pitcher make the final out of the inning, but he also allowed the Cubs to score three times in the following frame, losing the game.

That situation is one of several very good reasons that the NL needs to adopt the DH, already, but it’s also an indictment of the way too many teams think about their rosters. The norm these days is to carry just a few weak bench players, while loading your bullpen with seven one-inning arms. That paradigm robs the game of nuance and of overall quality. It’s time for MLB to seriously consider a drastic step: forcing teams to carry 11 pitchers or fewer.

Now, that’s never going to happen. For one thing, teams would just start finding ways to designate a pitcher as, for instance, a backup catcher, using him only in “emergencies” (but really, whenever they want). For another thing, the league is run by the owners; there hasn’t been a true steward of the game in the Commissioner’s chair since Fay Vincent, and Bud Selig just this side of killed him. No one at the Major League Baseball head office has any interest in restricting the freedom of teams to do anything in the name of improving the game from a purist perspective.

Still, something has to change. I love baseball dearly, and this isn’t the sort of thing that drives me away, but the increasingly creaky rosters teams tolerate are making the game less interesting, less exciting and (most of all, I think) less urgent. Matheny’s conservatism was typical; it feels less and less like most managers have the smell of blood in their nose. Nobody looks for ways to put teams away. Nobody comes to the park every day fighting off an ulcer from their last loss. Not everyone can be Sparky Anderson, but right now, too many managers are the antithesis of Anderson, and the biggest reason is that they have so little to work with at the bottoms of their rosters.

It’s Time to Put an End to Doctoring the Ball

Michael Pineda had pine tar on his hand for the first half of the New York Yankees’ tilt with the Boston Red Sox Thursday night. Baseball Twitter noticed, flooding everyone with screenshots pulled from the broadcast. Like this one!

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The online conversation over that discovery has devolved, predictably, into some people shouting “CHEETOR!” and some waving or shrugging it off as utterly unimportant. This is the way things went last summer, when sunscreen on the forearm of Clay Buchholz created a similar stir.

Neither is the proper reaction. This blog from David Schoenfield, however, sounded precisely the right notes.

I don’t know to what extent Schoenfield was seriously ascribing the recent drop in run-scoring to the phenomenon of pitchers using foreign substances and grip enhancers. I’m not ready to say that that’s a significant cause, especially because I tend to think that pitchers were doing a lot of the same things during the era of very high offensive levels that preceded this.

Still, the fact that pitchers apply these substances to themselves and to the ball does matter. It increases the confidence with which hurlers can throw their secondary pitches, and even allows them to throw harder, since they need not worry about hanging onto the ball in the course of ramping up their arm speed.

Pitchers and pundits on their side defend the practice by saying that, were it not for these grip-enhancing substances, we would see many more players hit, dangerously, by errant pitches. That’s a flimsy (not to mention deceitful) argument. To whatever extent control would be diminished if grip enhancers were more stridently outlawed, we shouldn’t assume that any disproportionate number of pitches missing their spots would head straight for the batter’s head. What those people are doing is pointing out a special, fearful case, hoping to distract the listener from the overall competitive advantage pitchers derive from using these things.

One argument to which I would have been more open is that pitchers might be more prone to injury if they try to throw especially nasty sliders, for instance, with a compromised grip. Not only did no one advance that argument, though, but when I asked sports-injury guru Will Carroll about it on Twitter, he was unaware of any significant health benefit to having a better grip.

The rules don’t even need to be changed here. Applying foreign substances to the ball has always been illegal. Some substances, like saliva and Vaseline, have been used to alter the natural flight path of a ball, almost allowing pitchers to throw fastball-speed knuckleballs. Pine tar and sunscreen don’t have quite the same effect. They’re more about letting a pitcher apply as much force and tilt to the ball as they’re able. Still, that’s an artificial advantage, not one drawn from the pitcher’s real ability.

Enforcement is the problem, and in today’s game, enforcement should be easy. Cameras will catch the crooks every time, even if umpires (who should be instructed to be more vigilant) can’t. Pitchers who apply foreign substances are supposed to be subject to automatic suspension. Baseball simply needs to make it clear that even pitchers caught on video, or after the fact, will be suspended, and be ready to suspend guys even when they claim to have just had “a little dirt” on their hands, glove or forearm.

Some portion of responsibility for putting an end to this does rest with teams themselves. The Red Sox shrugged off the Pineda incident, which shouldn’t surprise you, since both Buchholz and Jon Lester have been caught using similar substances within the past year. Too often, when rules violations become prevalent league-wide, teams are unwilling to call out opponents on it, lest their own gravy train stop rolling. That fraternity mentality has to go. It’s surprising, really, that some team hasn’t already figured this out: Be the clean team, and one by one, get a half-dozen scofflaw opponents suspended for a week apiece. Your batters might get hit a time or two, but sooner or later, teams will simply stop cheating against you, and in the meantime, you’ll be laying waste to opponents’ seasons by sidelining important pitchers.

Whether grip enhancement is part of the reason or not, teams are scoring too few runs these days. Baseball is more fun when a 2-1 lead is fragile, and the action intense. Right now, those leads too often prove insurmountable. Since the rule book is on my side and the defenders of grip culture haven’t offered any compelling arguments for changing that, I don’t need to go any further. I won’t moralize against those pitchers, because they live in a moral safehouse, and most of them probably don’t consider what they do to be cheating at all. Still, it is cheating, and it’s time to stop it.

It’s time to force pitchers to live without grip enhancers, punish those who try to work around the rules and feel no remorse for those who can’t make the adjustment and wash out of the league. Baseball is excruciatingly difficult. An inability to maintain a consistent grip would be no crueler a reason to lose your place in the league than, for instance, an inability to see the spin on a good breaking ball. Sink or swim, but from now on, no sunscreen (or pine tar) in the pool.

Notes from a Day at the Park: Oakland Athletics at Minnesota Twins, April 10

I don’t get to a great many live baseball games. I live in the Twin Cities area, which means any affiliate minor-league ball is a five-hour drive away, and the cost of going to MLB contests (even using StubHub to get in cheap when the Twins are bad) limits my opportunities to take in a game. Whenever I do manage it, though, I’ll try to pass along a few observations.

I attended the A’s-Twins game Thursday afternoon at Target Field, sitting directly behind home plate, if a bit farther back than the scouts sit. Oakland thumped the Home Nine 6-1, preying on Mike Pelfrey’s shaky command and flat stuff. It could actually have been much worse; the A’s left 10 men on base. Every guy in the Oakland lineup reached base, and only Derek Norris failed to reach twice, or went without a hit. The A’s ran into outs on consecutive plays in the top of the sixth, one of them very bizarre.

The game got away from the Twins early, and their offense never showed much life, so I won’t try to build an unnaturally pretty narrative around the game. Here’s a quick rundown of things that stood out to me:

  • I counted seven swings and misses by A’s batters against Pelfrey, who threw over 100 pitches. Nick Punto and Daric Barton accounted for four of them. Pelfrey’s central problem is that he can consistently beat bad hitters, but that average or better ones crush him. They just crush him. Pelfrey threw a lot of fastballs, and rarely slipped below 90 miles per hour, but the highest he touched was 92. He has control of the offering, but no command of it. The pitch has no natural movement, and when Pelfrey fails to really get over his front leg as he releases the ball (too common), it can get up in the zone and blink at batters like a neon “HIT ME” sign.

    Being able to pound the zone with tepid stuff only gets bad hitters out, and the depth of the Oakland lineup quickly forced Pelfrey to start nibbling and mixing his stuff more. Neither of those things work for Pelfrey. He doesn’t have a good secondary pitch. He might have some good starts against less dangerous offenses this year, but Oakland is too good a team for him to handle.

  • Oakland sent Dan Straily to the mound. Straily’s a fun pitcher to watch. He only touched 90 a few times in seven very strong innings, sitting around 88, but he has much livelier (especially lateral) movement on his heat, and has a more varied secondary repertoire than Pelfrey.

    The most noteworthy observation I can share about Straily is that, like many pitchers, he should abandon the windup and pitch always from the stretch. His wind-up delivery is pretty strange. He never raises his hands especially high; he has no exaggerated leg drive; and he lets his throwing arm get long and stretch behind his body at about a 25-degree angle. He’s not gaining extra momentum from his extra mechanics; he’s just creating more moving parts. More things can go wrong. More things can drag.

    As a result, Straily’s stuff is actually better when he pitches from the stretch. His arm path gets shorter and looser. His secondary pitches are more deceptive. Three innings into his start, I consulted Baseball-Reference, and sure enough, Straily has allowed opponents a .725 OPS with the bases empty for his career. That number drops to .663 with men on. That’s the opposite of the usual direction of change, and helps illustrate the point. On Thursday, the Twins only managed three hits and two walks against Straily, but four of those baserunners—including both walks and the solo home run that accounted for the only Minnesota run—succeeded while facing wind-up Straily.

    That said, while he’s no stud, Straily is a good pitcher. Thirty-six starts and over 200 innings into his career, he’s answered the question of whether his marginal stuff can play at the back end of a contender’s rotation. He dominated the Twins, staying one adjustment ahead of them all afternoon.

  • I was eager to watch both catchers in this contest, for similar but not identical reasons. Twins rookie Josmil Pinto got the start, after Kurt Suzuki caught all 11 innings on Wednesday. That was a relief. I was worried that Pinto would see too little playing time as Suzuki’s backup, but in the early going, the Twins have done a better job than I had anticipated of mixing in Pinto.

    The question with Pinto is whether he can stay behind the plate in the long term, though, and what I saw on Thursday was not encouraging on that score. His mechanics are unorthodox, and that might be kind. He carried Pelfrey’s first pitch of the day about a foot off the outside corner with a poor glove-side sweep. I’m not sure whether it should have been a strike, but Pinto didn’t give it a chance. His movements toward pitches that miss the target by a substantial margin are anything but quiet, and he shifts his weight or lunges onto one leg way more often than good catchers do.

    He’s such a mess right now, though, that I can’t help but forecast some development. He’s more athletic than I had imagined him; he just doesn’t know how to apply his physical skills to the art of catching yet. He had a couple of nice receiving moments after the early bungling. Although he’s 25, he has the profile of a much younger, more raw rookie. I had criticized the Twins’ choice to carry him without committing to starting him, but I better see the merit of that decision now. His bat needs to develop against big-league competition at this point, and with Suzuki and Joe Mauer around, he can do some on-the-job training and brain-picking on the other side of his game.

  • Derek Norris, like Pinto, will always be a bat-first catcher. Unlike Pinto, no one much worries that Norris can’t remain at the position. He’s very big, not fat but very thick, and that helps him stay more quiet than Pinto behind the plate (though Pinto is no pixie himself). He moves okay, he throws okay. Norris appeals to me especially because, on the now-defunct Up and In podcast, Kevin Goldstein used to talk him up as something between Mickey Tettleton and Gene Tenace, and I adore those two players.

    And I can totally see it. Norris, again, went hitless Thursday, but he did draw a walk, and the power in his swing was evident even when held dormant. In the top of the second, Norris came to bat with two on and nobody out, but the A’s down 1-0. To that point, Pelfrey had thrown 20 pitches to six batters, and he was working fast. Pelfrey is generally among the league’s slowest workers. Last year, he threw just one pitch every 24.6 seconds. On Thursday, though, he and Pinto seemed to have been focused on finding a rhythm, and it was working. Pelfrey had gotten ahead of five of the first six batters on the first pitch, and although Yoenis Cespedes and Alberto Callaspo had each singled, they seemed off balance.

    Norris broke Pelfrey. He took the first four pitches, getting ahead 3-1, before grounding into a fielder’s choice, but it wasn’t just the pitches. It was the timing. Norris stepped out of the batter’s box repeatedly during the at-bat. I think he even stepped out twice between the 2-0 and 3-0 pitches. He forcibly slowed Pelfrey way, way down, and Pelfrey never got that rhythm back. Daric Barton singled to start the Oakland scoring on the first pitch of the ensuing at-bat.

  • Aaron Hicks still can’t hit right-handed pitching. Or more accurately, he can’t hit as a left-handed batter. His swing is long and flat (you don’t see that double threat very often) from the left side, and he’s unable to do damage with it. He drew a walk, as he will continue to do, because he’s very patient and smart at the plate, from either side. He needs to either stop switch-hitting or switch-hit less, though, because he just doesn’t have a left-handed swing that can do damage.

    He doesn’t even attack pitches with confidence from the left side. He attempted to bunt for a hit in one at-bat, and while it was a good bunt and he was nearly safe, that was a bizarre choice. Hicks was batting eighth, the bases were empty and Oakland already led 5-1.

It wasn’t the most thrilling game on which I hope to be able to report this year. The action lacked tension, many of the performances were uneven and the gameplay got sloppy. Still, it was great to be in a ballpark again, sitting back, savoring the aesthetics, loving the pace of a baseball game.

Also: the new rule about home-plate collisions is imperfect and in need of adjustment, but I really like the way it has changed the movements of players approaching a close play at the plate. When Hicks threw out Jed Lowrie at the plate in the sixth inning, Lowrie’s slide typified the new way things are done: runners loop toward the plate from a steeper angle, and try to slide to the back corner of the dish more. It makes for something pleasing to the eye, is all I’m saying.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Changing the Look of Extra Innings

You’re the Commissioner of Baseball, and there’s a gun to your head. The masked man forces you to make a substantial change to baseball’s rules governing games tied at the end of nine innings.

In a stroke of kindness, though, he allows you to choose the model to which you’ll switch:

1. The NFL Model – each team gets to bat in the 10th inning, but thereafter, the game becomes truly sudden death: Any run wins the game immediately, whether scored by the home or visiting nine. (If you choose Option 1, you’ll also need to decide whether to preserve home-field advantage by letting the home team hit first, beginning in the 11th.)
 
2. The College Football Model – each inning begins with a runner on second base. This player need not be in the game on any other basis, but he also can be. The only constraint is that if an active batter is chosen as the runner and his spot in the order comes up while he’s on base, it’s an automatic out. Otherwise, the rules are the same.
 
3. The Basketball Model – instead of any inning ending with an uneven score signaling the end of the game, three innings are automatically added when the first nine fail to decide things. If the teams remain tied after 12, it goes to 15, etc., until someone finishes a three-inning set in the lead.
 
4. The Hockey Model – Nothing about gameplay changes, but as is the case in hockey, a team that loses an extra-inning game is awarded, as it were, partial credit. A third column is added to the wins and losses in the standings. Two points for a win, one for an extra-inning loss, none for a loss in regulation.
 
5. The Shootout Model - Batting order ceases to exist. Teams can send up any batter they want, as long as he’s not on base, whether they’re in the game defensively or not. Any pitcher can face those batters, including those previously removed from the game, but only one pitching change per inning is allowed.
 
6. One-pitch Baseball – A ball is a walk. A strike is a strikeout. One pitch per batter. All other rules are unchanged.
 
Make your selection:
 
 
Now, what is the purpose of this exercise? Well, the first thing to say is that I didn’t formulate it for any specific purpose. Listeners to the premier extant baseball podcast, Baseball Prospectus’s Effectively Wild, will know that the weekly listener email show long ago devolved into one bizarre modification or alternate reality after another, and that it’s been a great deal of fun (although occasionally overdone, as well this may have been, too).
 
That said, I think you can really have some interesting debates about this, based on your perspective and what you want from the game, as a fan.
 
The NFL and one-pitch models are for thrill-seekers. They hike up the intensity of the action and make everything more of a high-wire act. They also rob the game of a bit of its competitive legitimacy, but there’s a fair question to be asked here about how legitimate an outcome can be once it takes overtime to arrive there.
 
Speaking of legitimacy, though, the hockey model certainly rewards the valiant effort of the losing team, properly differentiating between a regulation and an overtime loss. On the other hand, it makes the extra action less exciting, since there’s a bit less at stake, and it doesn’t incentivize teams to really go for it.
 
I like the shootout and college football models for the way they let stars and guys with exceptional skill sets shine. Can you imagine Billy Hamilton’s value as the guy who starts the 11th inning on second base? It’s a nearly guaranteed run. The shootout is also fun, and allows baseball to capture hockey and basketball’s most entertaining element: having the best players on the team decide close games. On the other hand, those are fairly radical changes to the game itself, and it’s hard to say, when discussing it theoretically, how off-putting that could feel.
 
The basketball model is for die-hards. It’s great, in that it permits the game to go on in a more normal way than even the current extra-innings model. There’s not a destructive sense of desperation creeping into the minds of the manager and the pitcher at all times, and less reason for batters to press and swing for the fences. On the other hand, it would make a lot of games a lot longer than they need to be, and among other things, that would strain pitching staffs.
 
Each plan has its merit. None is superior to the current way of doing things, although a couple might be fun to try out for a while. The one thing that’s certain is that different fans will prefer different models, some of them strongly, and that should help everyone figure out what they like best about sports, in general, and baseball, in specific.

On Young Players, Platoons, Player Development and Winning Baseball

Didi Gregorius is playing second base for the Triple-A Reno Aces right now, waiting for an injury or some massive failure to open a spot for him on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ roster. Gregorius was Arizona’s starting shortstop in 2013, and for a prospect whose offensive viability had always been the biggest question mark, he acquitted himself very well. At .252/.332/.373, he more than pulled a strong defensive shortstop’s weight with the stick, and although his defensive numbers were less than stellar, one could see the smoothness and athleticism to be a solid-average defender at the position over the long haul.

At the same time, though, Chris Owings was busy winning the Pacific Coast League MVP award, batting .330/.359/.482 in the inflated offensive environment there. Owings was a prospect with a similar overall pedigree to Gregorius’s, although his value always projected to take a different shape. Owings played better during Spring Training, and took the job from the incumbent Gregorius—a rare and neat trick.

It never should have happened. Owings shouldn’t have won the job; both players should have. Gregorius is a .275/.357/.424 career hitter against right-handed pitchers, and while Owings doesn’t offer enough of a big-league sample to say for sure, his true talent level against righties is unlikely to be higher than that, at least for now, since Owings bats right-handed. Gregorius also has a better glove, so he should play against righties, and Owings should play against lefties, and occasionally behind fly-ball pitchers against lesser righties.

Kevin Towers gave the possibility of platooning the two lip service last September, but by Spring Training, he’d changed his tune:

“I don’t think [sharing the job would be] good for their development. They’re both everyday type players and they’re ready to be everyday type players. I would just hate for one of those kids to be sitting on the bench and playing once or twice a week. They’d be better off being in Triple-A, getting at-bats and getting ready in case there’s an injury.”

This is a common notion. It’s almost ubiquitous. I’m not sure it’s true, though, and to whatever extent it is true, I’m not sure teams should worry about it so much.

For one thing, the goal of any MLB franchise should be to win ballgames, and as many of them as possible. It’s not always the best idea to do every little thing that maximizes the chances of winning right away, because you want to win games in three years, too, not just in three weeks. Still, winning games is the main object, and teams shouldn’t lose sight of that in an effort to maximize the chances that a particular player or two reaches their potential. Towers may be right that Gregorius and Owings will both be slightly better off, in the long run, if they continue to play every day. If the Diamondbacks lose games they could have won in the name of shepherding the pair toward success, though, the team gains nothing.

Furthermore, while platoons likely aren’t the best possible arrangement to help an individual improve, they’re probably also not as bad as many assume. Platoon players still get regular reps; they’re more than mere bench players. Platoons shelter a player from their own weaknesses while allowing them to face very strong opponents. That may not help the player aggressively address their weaknesses, but that’s the wrong way to think about player development, anyway.

A young player focused only on shoring up their weaknesses will find more and more of them to address, as other parts of his game atrophy, and their confidence and mentality are damaged by constant preoccupation with the things they don’t do well. Even a platoon player sees same-handed pitching about 20 percent of the time, so it’s not like they don’t get any opportunities to work on their shortcomings. Emphasizing strengths while addressing weaknesses is the psychologically competent approach to developing young players, and it’s perfectly possible to execute that approach while carrying the player and playing him only semi-regularly.

There’s one other factor to consider, and it is: Forcing a young player to share a job, or keeping his backup readily available, is the best way to keep the player accountable. Starlin Castro has made an unacceptable number of mental and fundamental mistakes over the past few years, and while the Cubs have occasionally made a show of dispensing discipline, the fact is that Castro has had little reason to be proactive about changing the way he plays the game. The level of commitment on the part of the team made Castro bulletproof, in absolutely no danger of losing playing time or status. Castro has made some good-faith efforts to improve his preparation, approach, conditioning and focus, but the team had to wait for him to find internal motivation for that. They didn’t have any mechanism by which to speed his maturation process.

No organization should go looking for reasons to criticize or pressure a young player, but nor should they make a needless commitment to playing a guy all the time, no matter what. Most importantly, if a guy is capable of making a substantial positive contribution at the big-league level, he should get a chance to do it. 

Speaking of Castro’s Cubs, the same issue has arisen during the early going, only the organization is doing exactly the right thing, and getting heat for it from the fans. Chicago brought third baseman Mike Olt north with the parent club, but ha splayed Luis Valbuena over him more often than not thus far. Olt still sees action against lefties, but Valbuena plays against righties. Similarly, Junior Lake sits against right-handed pitchers, in favor of Ryan Sweeney, Emilio Bonifacio and Ryan Kalish.

The prospect hounds and youth-obsessed team bloggers have been harsh about this on Twitter, but manager Rick Renteria is absolutely doing the right thing. For one thing, neither Olt nor Lake is even as certain to be a solid future regular in MLB as Owings and Gregorius are. For another, Valbuena, Kalish and Sweeney get far too little credit for the things they do well. It remains possible that the latter set are better players than the former pair will ever be.

Finally, though, young players who deserve everyday playing time and long-term commitments will earn them, eventually. The current crop of big-league managers and executives are less comfortable about competition and time-sharing than they ought to be. Many are products of the 1970s and early 1980s, times when teams so prized athleticism that they didn’t platoon, because players were selected for speed and defense more than for offense. The right way to determine playing time, though, is the way they did it back in Casey Stengel’s and Joe McCarthy’s days. It’s okay to make players earn their at-bats. It won’t ruin any player with the makeup it takes to really succeed, in the first place. In the meantime, whether a guy makes it or not, the team will be better off, which should be the principle criterion in teams’ decision-making more often than it is, lately.

Should Angels Manager Mike Scioscia Have Pulled C.J. Wilson Sooner Yesterday?

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (we have to do something about that) thumped the Houston Astros 9-1 on Monday afternoon. Mike Trout didn’t have a sensational game, and there was no singular standout performance on either side. Three things made the game mildly interesting, though:

  1. Josh Hamilton drew three walks in one game, which you’re free to chalk up to facing erratic Astros pitching, or to the end of the world, or to Hamilton making meaningful changes to his approach at the plate. They’re probably roughly equal in their likelihood.
  2. The Astros missed a chance to rise above .500 more than five games into the season for the first time since July 2009. Good Lord.
  3. C.J. Wilson threw eight innings of one-run ball, allowing that lone run in his final frame, long after the game was decided.

The first two things are interesting, but I don’t have any expansive thoughts about them to share right now. Number 3 is the discussion point for me, this morning.

Wilson, you see, threw 120 pitches in the game, including 27 in a very bumpy eighth inning. While I’m not ready to say Mike Scioscia made the wrong decision by leaving Wilson in to pitch the eighth, I’m inclined to believe that he did.

To me, permitting any pitcher to throw potentially high-stress pitches (for instance, crossing the 100-pitch barrier and plowing onward) in low-leverage situations is a mistake. Wilson has been a workhorse, and his lack of particularly fine command has always led to some high pitch counts. He pitches a little like Bob Gibson, and he’s been similarly durable. His last remotely serious injury was in 2008. That’s one reason not to hate the move, and it’s also the one Scioscia, Wilson and almost anyone else you asked would give. Guys like Wilson take pride in pitching deep into games, and Wilson has demonstrated his ability to do so without getting hurt.

Injury risk isn’t the only kind of risk, though. Wilson’s 120-pitch effort might leave his arm slightly deadened the next time out, especially since it comes so early in the season. It certainly precludes bringing Wilson back on regular rest, thereby shortening the rotation (the Angels are off on Thursday), which is the sort of thing contending teams with thin starting staffs should be looking to do any time they can. Wilson had thrown 79 pitches through six frames, and the Angels led 5-0. He was at 93 bullets fired after seven, and the lead had widened to 8-0.

One could argue that Scioscia had no cause to assume that Wilson would scuffle and need 27 pitches to escape the eighth, but that’s a flimsy excuse. First of all, this early in the season, with all the off days built into MLB’s April schedule, you should err on the side of caution with your top arms, and let mop-up men do all the mopping up. Maybe in June, with your fourth or fifth starter, you use the big margin for error to refresh your staff. In this circumstance, though, it felt like the wrong choice. Secondly, managers far too often underrate the potential for a starter who is pitching well to run into a serious snag late in a start. Skippers often give away games by waiting until a guy works into trouble in the seventh or eighth to get the hook. Scioscia wasn’t in a position to change the outcome on Monday, but his process was not as proactive as mine would be.

None of this matters all that much. There’s a fine chance that staying in to finish that frustrating final frame will come back to haunt Wilson not at all. I just thought this conversation was one worth having.

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