Power Rankings: A Word Per Game Played

Regular readers (all four of you) will be familiar with this exercise. I began it last week. These are power rankings, my best estimate of true, relative team quality, listed from last to first, with a breakdown of each team in a number of words equal to the number of games they’ve played to date. This project will get more expansive and descriptive as the season progresses, obviously. For now, it serves as a reminder of how little we really know about teams, less than a month into the year:

30. Houston Astros (7-15): Sixth in baseball with 26 homers, but dead last with a .274 team OBP. Thank goodness literally no one is watching, right?

29. Chicago Cubs (7-15): Impressive assemblage of fringe guys with upside. Now they just need legitimate everyday players to push those guys into more complementary roles.

28. Minnesota Twins (10-10): New Twins, same Twins story. Fewest strikeouts in baseball, second-fewest Quality Starts. Firm philosophy of plate patience is neat.

27. Chicago White Sox (11-11): Jose Abreu is their most impressive player, but he’s also still a complete unknown. Chris Sale’s injury drops them into these depths.

26. Colorado Rockies (12-11): Opposite of Cubs: They have an excellent top of the roster, but can’t support it with anything. Should explore trading Tulowitzki and Gonzalez.

25. Philadelphia Phillies (10-11): Their core is healthier, better than it was last year, or in 2012, but much too old to dream of 2011.

24. New York Mets (11-10): Hitting .216/.294/.308 as a team. That only pitching help is coming from within the organization is such cruel irony.

23. Miami Marlins (10-12): Somehow, their .263 team batting average is National League’s second-best. Still have some glaring holes, but beginning to balance with strengths.

22. San Diego Padres (10-12): Smart observers have felt they were underachieving for three years now. At this point, maybe we’re all just too sweet on them.

21. Arizona Diamondbacks (6-18): The truth is they’re a decent team playing as badly as they can. It feels much more sinister, though, like they should never win.

20. Seattle Mariners (8-13): There’s a whole lot of nothing where their starting rotation was supposed to be. Left their winter work incomplete.

19. Pittsburgh Pirates (9-13): Need to keep composure, as a group. Team was never as good as 2013 record, but should still compete. Free Gregory Polanco!

18. Baltimore Orioles (10-10): Seventeen of their first 20 games have been intradivisional. They’re 9-8 in those. That’s a great sign. Machado’s return imminent.

17. Kansas City Royals (10-10): Pitching has regressed, as expected, but they’re still pretty good. Offense is doing fine; no homers, but plenty of doubles.

16. Cincinnati Reds (10-11): Team had a nearly unprecedented run of pitcher health last two years. Paying back the baseball gods in 2014. Depth helps.

15. Toronto Blue Jays (11-10): The shape of their early success is strange, but they’re a better team than they showed last year. Health is key.

14. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (10-11): If Pujols’ resurgence proves real, they won’t miss Josh Hamilton too badly. Still, it’d sure be nice to have them both.

13. New York Yankees (12-9): Nova’s injury hurts them especially badly because of their lacking pitching depth. Infield will sink this team, though, not pitching staff.

12. San Francisco Giants (12-10): Tim Lincecum’s fascinating career derailment continues. Pitching staff is deeply diminished from a few years ago. Offense will have to carry club.

11. Milwaukee Brewers (16-6): They’re still hot. I’m still waiting for the cold streak that comes next for a team like this one. Hyper-aggressive team.

10. Texas Rangers (14-8): Color me extremely impressed by their weekend sweep in Oakland. That series felt like a late-summer one. Surviving vicious injury bug.

9. Detroit Tigers (10-8): A once-elite set of stars who are now, sadly, merely great, surrounded by still-crummy spare parts.

8. Cleveland Indians (10-11): Asdrubal Cabrera is their weakest link, has been fading for two years now. Francisco Lindor should come up sooner than later.

7. Boston Red Sox (10-12): Still able to beat you many different ways, but injuries are forcing them to field ‘B’ teams. And still, they’re real contenders.

6. Atlanta Braves (14-7): Big, inescapable mistake expenditures have forced them to lean on excellent scouting at edges of roster. That’s their best thing, though.

5. Washington Nationals (12-10): Unless they start clicking, they’ll start to fade back to the pack from here. So many question marks popping up for them.

4. Tampa Bay Rays (10-11): Keep wanting to push them down due to rotation attrition, but starters 6-8 for them beat 3-5 for lot of teams.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers (13-9): Clayton Kershaw will be back soon! A.J. Ellis was a loss they could scarcely afford, but their schedule gives them some leeway.

2. Oakland Athletics (13-8): Depth, versatility, switch-hitters. Speed, power, movable bullpen pieces. Billy Beane is the best big-picture roster architect anywhere in baseball.

1. St. Louis Cardinals (12-10): Far from last year’s offensive juggernaut early on, but they’re out-pitching those problems for now. Bats should wake up this summer.

The entire AL Central is separated by 1.5 games. It’s too early to get excited or upset at much of anything. See you next week.

How the Heck the Diamondbacks Have Even Won Six

With some terrible teams, it’s fascinating to go through all the varied and excruciating ways in which they lose games. The 2014 Arizona Diamondbacks are not such a team. Unlike, say, the most recent Houston Astros teams, Arizona hasn’t been competitive during games, then given them away with awful defense, a miserable bullpen or poorly-timed baserunning gaffes. Instead, they’ve fallen behind early thanks to miserable starting pitching, and few of the games that have gotten away from them have ever come back within their reach.

Bo-ring.

No, what’s fun about the Diamondbacks is trying to answer the question: How are they not worse than 6-18? They’ve been outscored by 60 runs in 24 games, and while that technically suggests a record of 7-17, it feels like they ought to be worse. Let’s go through their six wins, one at a time. You’ll see what I mean.

Win No. 1: April 1, v. San Francisco, 5-4

Wade Miley allows four first-inning runs, and needs 29 pitches to get out of the frame, but shuts the Giants down thereafter. The Diamondbacks chip away, finally taking the lead in the bottom of the sixth, then hold off the visitors’ charges in each of the final three innings. In the seventh, Brandon Crawford doubles with Brandon Belt on first base, but Belt stops at third and dies there. Another double goes to waste in the ninth.

Win No. 2: April 6, at Colorado, 5-3

A two-run two-base error gives the Diamondbacks the early lead, and Wade Miley adds another run with a single. A Mark Trumbo homer extends the lead (see, it’s not just when the other team flubs the ball or grooves one to the pitcher that Arizona can score), but the Rockies aren’t beaten yet.

Sacrifice flies in the middle innings bring them within three, and then, in the bottom of the ninth, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki lead off the inning by reaching base. Gonzalez tries to take second base after his leadoff hit, a normal part of ninth-inning offense when the runner is not the tying run. Instead of conceding the base, though, Miguel Montero throws the ball into center field. After Tulowitzki walks, Wilin Rosario comes to bat as the tying run. Alas, he bounces into a double play, effectively killing the Rockies’ rally.

Win No. 3: April 9, at San Francisco, 7-3

The only easy, conventional win in the bunch. Gerardo Parra and Paul Goldschmidt go deep.

Win No. 4: April 10, at San Francisco, 6-5 in 10 innings

The Giants commit three errors. The most costly, by far, comes in the top of the eighth inning, when (with runners on first and second) a weak ground ball to third base turns into the tying run. (Pablo Sandoval throws it away, allowing Gerardo Parra to score.)

In the bottom of the eighth, the Giants get a double and a walk to lead off the inning, bunt those runners over (bunting with the go-ahead run in scoring position is not a great play), then load the bases with one out after the Diamondbacks intentionally walk Angel Pagan to face Brandon Belt. (Yes, really.) Belt is unable to muster a deep enough fly to score the runner, and Pablo Sandoval flies out to deep right to end the frame. Arizona wins in the 10th.

Win No. 5: April 18, at Los Angeles, 4-2 in 12 innings

A taut and well-played game early devolves into something else late. With the score tied 1-1, Miguel Montero leads off the top of the ninth with a walk. Pinch-runner Tony Campana scores on a stolen base-groundout-wild pitch sequence, as Chris Withrow (totally the guy who should be in in a tied game in the ninth, good job, good effort Don Mattingly) entirely loses it.

In fact, Withrow walks Martin Prado on four pitches, putting a runner back on the bases in the same at-bat during which he cleared them by allowing Campana to come in. Withrow throws another wild pitch to send Prado to second, part of a second straight four-pitch walk, this one to Chris Owings. Mattingly goes to his bullpen, this time Brandon League, who escapes, but the damage is done.

Addison Reed comes on to save it, and gets four straight fly balls from the Dodgers. Alas, the second one leaves the park. Tie game.

In the top of the 10th, Arizona puts runners on first and second with one out, thanks to an infield single and catcher’s interference, but a double play kills the rally. Finally, in the 12th, breakthrough: A double and hit batsman set up a two-run Aaron Hill single.

Win No. 6: April 23, at Chicago, 7-5

This is the granddaddy of them all. Trailing late? Check: the Cubs lead 5-2 after six. Need help from the opponents’ defense? Check: a mishandled would-be double play ball leads to their first run, and Starlin Castro commits an error in the beginning-to-middle of Arizona’s ninth-inning rally. Wild closer on the mound? Check: Pedro Strop’s first six pitches all miss the zone, most of them by very wide margins.

Specifically, here’s what happens. Chicago leads 5-2 as the top of the ninth begins. Strop walks the lead-off man and nearly does the same for Tony Campana, but Campana (with no power, not representing the tying run) swings at a 3-1 pitch. For a moment, it could be a double play. Then Starlin Castro bobbles it. Then he fumbles for second base. By the time he’s done botching things, both runners are safe.

Another walk, then a strikeout, then another ground ball up the middle. Who knows what it might be if it doesn’t hit second base. A fielder’s choice seems most likely. As it is, it caroms off the base and into right field. One-run game.

Another strikeout, and a new pitcher. Pedro Strop throws 31 pitches, allowing plenty of time for his emergency relief to warm up, but at the end of a seven-pitch at-bat, James Russell still allows Montero to single, tying the game.

Another new pitcher, Justin Grimm this time. Aaron Hill floats a ball from Grimm down the right-field line. It’s probably uncatchable, but Justin Ruggiano, the right fielder, doesn’t even come close. He’s injured on the play, and in the time it takes for an infielder to run the ball down, Montero scores from first. The Cubs, defeated, go in order to end it in the bottom of the ninth.

Some of the occurrences described here aren’t as wild or rare as they may seem. This piece is, in part, about the fragility of every win, by every team. Still, the Diamondbacks have found some creative ways to pull out some seemingly lost games, often relying as much on opponents losing focus or control as on their own talent. It’s hardly surprising that they’ve lost so many, since they seem to need so much help (or good luck) to win.

Starlin Castro, Archie Bradley and Savior Syndrome

The Arizona Diamondbacks’ season is essentially over. The sooner they recognize that, the better off they will be. On Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs thumped Arizona 9-2, pushing the Diamondbacks to 5-18 on the season. Chicago had lost its first five three-game series and been swept in a doubleheader to begin the year, but have now won their first two contests against the Diamondbacks.

Brandon McCarthy surrendered five runs in five innings, and therein has lied Arizona’s greatest trouble thus far. In 12 of their first 23 games, Arizona starters have allowed at least five runs. They have already used seven different starters, and have a 7.23 aggregate ERA from those seven. Opposing hitters are batting .311/.373/.520 against Arizona starters.

Those ugly starter stats are why there’s a cry ringing forth from the peanut gallery, a name swelling into a roar as it bursts from the lips of every desperate Diamondbacks dreamer, every prospect-mad pundit, every columnist in need of a cause celebre: Archie, to the rescue.

Archie, of course, as in Bradley, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, one of the three or four highest-touted pitching prospects in baseball and an imminent threat to the National League. I don’t want to make it sound like Bradley is expected to come up and completely reverse Arizona’s fortunes, but an awful lot is being made of his absence from the roster, in light of the misery that has been the big-league rotation early on.

Bradley did post a sub-2.00 ERA in 26 minor-league starts last season, a campaign he split between the hitter-friendly California League and the more neutral Double-A Southern League. He has a fastball that can reach the high 90s in velocity, and a breaking ball that scouts cross off their bucket lists. On the other hand, command has been a struggle for him at times, and in his first four starts with Triple-A Reno, he’s walked eight of 90 batters faced and has a 3.98 ERA.

To me, it’s clear that Bradley has more things to work on in the minors, and shouldn’t be rushed to the active roster. he can’t save this team, anyway: They’ve dug far too deep a hole, and wouldn’t be good enough to dig out of even a more manageable one.

Unfortunately for Diamondbacks fans, though, I suspect Bradley isn’t far from being called up. I suspect that, between now and May 15, Bradley will be called upon to fill some gap in the rotation, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the unsalvageable. In that respect, he’ll be following in the footsteps of one of the players who helped deal the Diamondbacks their latest blow.

Starlin Castro wasn’t quite a prospect of Bradley’s pedigree, although he was close. He also wasn’t quite on Bradley’s level in terms of experience at the upper levels of the minors. In fact, Castro just barely tasted Double-A in 2009, and had amassed only 240 total plate appearances at that level by the second week of May, 2010.

That’s when Castro got the call to the big leagues. The 2010 Cubs were in trouble, although not quite the same depth of trouble as the 2014 Diamondbacks. Chicago GM Jim Hendry, like current Arizona GM Kevin Towers, was a bit uncertain about his future, should that season fail to yield a return to contention. Chicago had been a playoff team in 2007 and 2008, but had slid back to mediocrity in 2009, and Hendry faced high expectations. (Arizona surged to the front of the NL West out of nowhere in 2011, but have been 81-81 each of the last two seasons.) With second base a glaring weakness in the offense, Hendry pulled the trigger, vaulting Castro to MLB and sliding Ryan Theriot off of shortstop to cover that hole.

Castro had a marvelous debut and batted over .300 in each of his first two seasons in MLB. At the time he was promoted, he was ready to contribute to the parent club.

The problems didn’t show up until later. Castro has phenomenal natural talent, and it continues to serve him fairly well. He missed a few things, though, when he was pressed into big-league action as soon as he was ready. He never learned certain things about carrying himself as a professional, managing his personal life, adjusting to the league’s adjustments to him and refining his approach. With each passing year, he learns hard lessons, and learns them less effectively than he would have in the minors, three or four years ago.

He’s also learning them expensively, and that’s the most important reason not to call up a player like this before they demonstrate, on every level, that they have nothing left to learn. Castro’s call-up in May 2010 made him a Super Two player, due to become arbitration-eligible after 2012. That pushed up the decision point for the front office that replaced Hendry after the 2011 season, and forced them to commit $60 million to Castro over seven seasons in mid-summer 2012. It was right about when he signed that deal that Castro really began running into developmental road blocks. If the front office had had another season to wait before making a major commitment to him, they would have been able to do so much less expensively, if they decided to do it at all.

In player development, little moves today can have big consequences years down the road. The league’s salary structure, if nothing else, ensures that. Like Hendry, Towers is likely to make the move that will make him look best, even if it’s not enough to save the season. (Hendry got another year to try it in Chicago, largely thanks to Castro, serving as a reminder of what Hendry’s administration was doing well.) In the long run, though, the only way to ensure Bradley will really return the organization’s investment is to prioritize his development, not the short-term needs of a mess of a roster.

Notes from My Effectively Wild Appearance

I’m a guest on Tuesday’s edition of Effectively Wild, the daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus. It was a thrill for me, as one who has listened to all 430-plus episodes of the podcast thus far. Co-hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller graciously carried me through, because I’m rather out of practice when it comes to interviewing or broadcast of any kind, so please give the whole thing a listen. The episode’s conceit was a contest, conducted by me, between Ben and Sam, to see who could guess closer to the actual career earnings of several players.

There were 11 guys in the quiz, and while many of the pertinent things that led me to choose each of them drew mention during the podcast, I have a few spare notes about each that I wanted to share with you:

Steve Avery: One of the last very good players who, despite a fairly full career, left the game not necessarily set for life. Ben and Sam each underestimated him: He did make $21,625,000 during a career that spanned from 1990-2003.

Avery’s total earnings are one interesting thing about him. If you stop and think, that’s right on the line between being set for life, and your kids’ lives, and not. Avery turned 44 Monday. He lived, for about a decade, the very expensive life of an MLB ball player, maintaining multiple residences, tipping clubhouse workers, making charitable donations, (hopefully) paying someone to manage his money, the whole thing. I’ll consider myself very lucky if I make $3 million during my lifetime, but I don’t have any of those expenses for which to account.

I know it sounds strange, but a ballplayer who makes $20 million probably will have to work in some other capacity during their life. Now, teams offer a wide range of golden-parachute options, from coaching to broadcasting to scouting, and there are public-appearance opportunities (although the memorabilia market is in freefall) and chances to open car dealerships over which you need have no actual control in order to make money. Still, there’s a distinction to be drawn, because guys who fall in about Avery’s range of income are easier to empathize with, easier to see as human, for just this reason.

In Avery’s case, that goes even a little bit further, because there’s an element of bad timing, of historical misfortune, to his story. Avery had a rough but encouraging rookie season in 1990, at age 20, and then was a true phenom for three more years. Before the third of those, in 1993, his team, the Atlanta Braves, signed Greg Maddux for more money than any pitcher had ever been paid. Maddux completed a triumvirate, with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, of young and dominant pitchers who were locked up on long-term contracts. As Avery told Sports Illustrated in 1993, though, “I’m the one who’s really locked up. If those guys are locked up, they don’t mind being in jail.”

He was referring to the fact that he wasn’t yet able to start earning the big bucks that were rolling in for his more veteran colleagues. As it turned out, he’d never get there. In September 1993, after a season in which he was, quietly, an absolute star and the most consistent Braves starter, he left a start early with an injury to an arm or shoulder muscle near his armpit. He was never the same guy. He managed a few more roughly average, if injury-mottled, seasons, then all but washed out of the league.

In fact, from 2000-2002, he didn’t throw a single pitch in the Major Leagues. He might never have gotten back, were it not for the 2003 Tigers. Avery is a Dearborn, Mich. native, and had kept striving to get back to MLB, even after falling completely out of affiliated ball for two years. He made 19 appearances for Detroit that season, hanging on the roster for a couple months. I can’t prove this next part, but it seems to me to be true: Avery reached 10 years of MLB service time, qualifying him for the MLB lifetime pension, during that 2003 stint. Avery came up in mid-1990, and accrued full seasons of service time from 1991-99. He should only have needed a couple months’ time in the Show to get over the top, and he pitched from May 11 through July 20 that year.

I don’t tell you this cynically. There’s something admirable about it, both on the part of Avery and on the part of the team. The Tigers were atrocious that season; it was no secret. They did a very large favor for Avery without hurting much of anyone, and Avery did his part by continuing to look for routes back into baseball years after others might have given up. Again, if Avery had made even $30 million during his career, my perspective might be different, but he was just human enough, just normal enough in terms of earnings, that the story of his comeback can be touching and uplifting, even if it was, on some level, about money. Anyway, Avery is very interesting to me, and from the moment I heard from Sam, his was a name I knew I would want to include.

Dontrelle Willis: I used Willis as a contrast point with Avery. Willis has made over $40 million in his career to date, essentially following the same career path that Avery did, 10 years later. Willis is back in MLB, now, which is great for him, but I never ached for Dontrelle Willis the way I would have for Avery. Even adjusting for inflation, Willis made 70-80 percent more than Avery. He’s still an interesting player, but Avery’s career has more texture. The point is that, though the people who vilify players or begrudge them their success are fools, the money players hsve come to earn over the last decade and a half does create a sense of separation between us and them.

Bob Horner: One of the rare breed of player who needed (or at least was perceived to need) no minor-league seasoning, Horner debuted the same year (1978) that he was drafted first overall. Between going straight from college to the big leagues and hitting four homers in a single game, Horner gave himself a lot to which to live up, and he never really did it.

He was a star, a borderline superstar even, in his youngest days. He hit 91 home runs from 1978-80, and that was despite injuries that limited him to 1,369 plate appearances—basically, two seasons of playing time. Injuries became far too prominent a part of the story of his career, though, and he not only failed to stay in the lineup, but became an atrocious defensive third baseman as he entered his late 20s.

Still, at the end of the 1986 campaign, he owned a career slugging percentage north of .500, had clubbed 27 homers in consecutive seasons and even set a career high with 141 games played in 1986. The aforementioned four-homer game came in July of that year. He was 29 years old, and still had a chance to be one of the best power hitters of his era. Oddly, then, no one wanted to sign him for the 1987 season. I do mean no one. The owners colluded against the players that winter, driving down the cost of players so much that Andre Dawson went to the Chicago Cubs by offering to play for whatever they would pay and Tim Raines lost the first month of the season before being allowed to re-sign with Montreal.

Horner, somewhat too proud to try the Dawson gambit and less talented than either of those guys, was frozen out of the league altogether. He went to play in Japan, came back to MLB in 1988, injured his shoulder and never played again. We have no sound basis to believe that Horner would have miraculously avoided injury if he had not been forced out of baseball during the typical late peak years, but it sure feels like this was a great player stolen from fans, at least in part, by the greed of owners. He made $6.8 million in his career.

John Olerud: Like Horner, Olerud went straight from college to MLB. Olerud was a more complete package, though, a more well-rounded batter, a much smoother fielder (although at a less valuable defensive position) and such a gifted athlete that Toronto let him try pitching in the fall instructional league, even after he’d debuted as a batter in September.

Olerud played from 1989-2005, about the perfect years at which to peg the explosion of salaries across the game into the stratosphere. He lost only the same partial season that everyone else lost to the greed of owners, in 1994, and made over $68 million.

Alex Sanchez: The first player ever suspended under MLB’s testing system for performance-enhancing drugs, Sanchez was a .296 hitter over his short career. He also stole 122 bases, although he was caught so often as to be a net negative as a runner. He didn’t have much power, which made his case a nice refutation to those who claimed that PED use alone could even begin to explain the league-wide power surge from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.

He also didn’t make much money, just $1,243,000 over parts of five seasons. He played for both the 2002 Milwaukee Brewers and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. His teams were more than 100 games under .500 when he started, and he only played 427 career games. It might well be that PED use only put the final nail in the coffin of a player whom the league already viewed, fairly or not, as a loser.

Raul Ibanez: As Sam has been fond of pointing out in the past, Ibanez has essentially had the career of an average Hall of Famer since turning 30. It’s just that he wasn’t much of a player at all until then. I chose him as a way to check in on the effect of having success later in one’s career than most do, and sure enough, Ibanez—whose second-most comparable player (per PECOTA), Matt Stairs, made just under $20 million in an average-shaped, almost perfectly contemporary career—has pulled down over $66 million.

It pays to break out once you’re able to sell yourself at a true market rate. No one feels disappointed that your last season wasn’t as good as your age-23 season, so you get paid for what you can do, not discounted for what you can’t do anymore.

Rick Ankiel: A case study in the consequence of a fractured, piecemeal career, Ankiel was a wildly well-liked young pitcher who went mound-nuts too soon to get paid for that and who never had a consistent enough offensive season to get paid for his solid skill set as a position player. He made only $12 million and change over a career that promised so much more, more than once. (Incidentally, Mark Prior earned almost exactly the same amount.)

Joe Carter: Sam was right to recite the old bromide, the moment he heard Carter’s name: “The money lies in the RBIs.” Indeed, despite being a terrible player for years (a very low OBP and brutal defense canceling out the value of his power), Carter made over $47 million, and was one of the highest-paid players in the league for a while there.

That’s actually not why I selected him, though. Rather, I chose Carter because one of the seasons during which he was the AL’s richest player was 1993, the same year he hit the famous, game-ending, city-rending home run to give the Blue Jays their second consecutive World Series title. It fascinates me that I didn’t know it sooner: The fates called Carter to bat, the most expensive player in baseball to take the most important at-bat of his team’s season, and Carter put his bat where all that money was. It’s a rare case in which knowing how much a player earns actually enhances my enjoyment of an on-field moment, even if only in retrospect.

Jason Kendall: My fascination with Kendall stems mainly from being a Cubs fan of just the right vintage. My first season following the team was the same as Kendall’s sophomore campaign, 1997. I watched Kendall regularly thump the Cubs, and do so in ways that catchers didn’t usually do it: He would hit triples, steal bases, bat .310, avoid double plays well. Despite taking plenty of foul tips while catching, he gleefully took plenty of pitches on the elbow and shoulder, boosting his on-base percentage. In 1998, he had 56 infield hits. He hardly ever struck out. He really did it all.

For all those reasons, I wanted Kendall desperately, for the Cubs. I envied him through the careers of Scott Servais, Sandy Martinez, Tyler Houston, Jeff Reed, Joe Girardi, Robert Machado, Damian Miller, Paul Bako, Michael Barrett and a host of other middling backstops. At long last, though, I essentially gave up on him.

Then, suddenly, there he was. The 2007 Cubs were in the hunt for the NL Central title and needed a catcher badly, so in July, they added Kendall, by then nearly washing out of the league for the Oakland Athletics. He would take about 200 plate appearances for the Cubs that summer and fall, posting a terrific .362 OBP, infusing them with just enough extra lineup length that the team overtook the Milwaukee Brewers and won the division crown. I went to 12 of their last 15 home games that season, as a freshman in college, and was the only person disappointed each time Geovany Soto got a start instead of Kendall during September. I still have a Jason Kendall shirsey, purchased for a pittance after he signed with Milwaukee that winter.

Kendall made over $83 million in his career, a thoroughly remarkable three-year peak baiting the Pirates into signing him for six years and $60 million, just before injuries and a high workload in his early years began to eat away at his value. The thing that interests me most, speaking objectively now, is how many people would likely be stunned by that number. Kendall is perceived, I think, as a journeyman, an injury-ravaged yeoman but nothing more. He was scrappy, sure, but Kendall was a superstar at his best, and it seems to me he’s remembered too much for his career’s second act, too little for its first. Eight times, Kendall led his league in games caught. Thirteen times, he was in the top five. He was as durable as his peak was electrifying, and as a result, the numbers say he was actually about 75 percent of a Hall of Famer. He’s not likely to see a second season on a Cooperstown ballot, though.

Curt Schilling: Famous and infamous for being a smart, ambitious, aggressive guy, Schilling made $114 million and change over a nearly-20-year career. He was so savvy, or thought himself to be, that he at least partially represented himself for a stretch later in his career. I wanted to see how well he leveraged that business sense. John Smoltz is a very fair comparison for Schilling, though, and he made a shad over $127 million, so being a sharp guy didn’t make Schilling any extra cash. If only it had, maybe he could have kept his video-game company afloat.

Gary Sheffield: Not only was Sheffield his own agent toward the end of his playing days, but he served as an agent himself after retiring. He made over $168 million in his career, and was the highest-paid player in MLB in 1998—while playing for the scorched carcass of the defending champion Florida Marlins.

Did I say a few notes? Oops.

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:

image

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!

image

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.

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