May 23, 2015

DODGING AN ISSUE

The Dodgers have been quite aggressive in signing Cuban ball players. The problem with scouting and evaluating Cuban players is that the U.S. trade embargo makes traditional due diligence difficult.

We don't know the full story on the latest issue with a Cuban prospect. It could be culture shock. It could be a personality problem (hot Latin temper stereotype; the macho thing). But it is almost a trend that multi-million dollar bonus babies are getting quickly into trouble.

The Associated Press reported that Dodgers prospect Erisbel Arruebarrena  was suspended for the remainder of the season for what the team said was ''repeated failures to comply with his contract.''
Club officials declined further comment.

Arruebarrena signed a $25 million, five-year contract in February 2014. He split the season among four minor league teams and the Dodgers and made his big league debut on last May 23. He hit .195 in 22 games for Los Angeles.

The Dodgers designated him for assignment on Dec. 31, and when he cleared waivers he was sent outright to the team's Triple-A affiliate.

The 25-year-old Cuban remained at extended spring training and did not play in any minor league games this year, when his deal calls for a $3 million salary. The club does not have to pay him while suspended list.

The team had previously indicated that it was not related to a testing program violation. It is unknown what other contract provision was breached to get a full year suspension. However, Arruebarrena was at the center of a major brawl in Triple-A last year, at one point taking off his helmet and throwing it at former major leaguer Mike Jacobs. If the player or his agent appeals, it would be heard by baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Other teams may not feel too bad for the Dodgers wasting signing bonus money on a suspended prospect. But there is a lesson for all general managers who are looking to the Caribbean and Cuba for the next great prospects. The mental make-up of players is just as important as the perceived skill levels.  In fact, the former could be the most important issue in a player's development.


May 21, 2015

JUGGLING ROSTER

It took less than a week to juggle the Cubs roster.

The Cubs still have a 13 pitcher heavy staff. Maddon used six pitchers last night so it seems that trend will continue.

One less catcher is one more position player: journeyman Mike Baxter is your newest AAAA replacement player. He can play outfield and first base. He was called up with Junior Lake to get the squad back up to five outfielders.

The biggest impact on trading Welington Castillo will be on catching: Miguel Montero will now have to catch more games and David Ross needs to stay healthy to be useful beyond Jon Lester's personal back stop.

Whether all these recent moves makes the Cubs a better team? Not really, since a lot of these moves have been to replace tired bullpen arms.

As it stands now, the significant moves have been:

1. Moving Travis Wood to the bullpen for T. Wada. In the overall scheme of things, this may be a wash and not an upgrade from the rotation standpoint, but some could consider Wood an upgrade over a Phil Coke.

2. Baxter to 5th outfield spot over Matt Szczur. Again, nothing special that Baxter brings to the bench.

So long as the core starters remain healthy, the Cubs can maintain their status quo in performance.

May 19, 2015

THE ROSTER SQUEEZE

This is quite the rarity for a National League Club.

The Cubs are carrying only three outfielders (Coghlan, Fowler and Soler).

Why?

Because the Cubs are carrying 13 pitchers!

With three catchers still on the roster, that leaves only a bench of one utility infielder (Herrerra).

Travis Wood has had three lackluster starts, and was put into an emergency save situation during the home stand when Joe Maddon ran out of players.  Now, the front office has given him a merry-go-round bullpen with call-ups and options to Iowa.

Tsuyoshi Wada will take Wood's place in the rotation. Wood will take the long reliever role that Edwin Jackson had once assumed, which presumed that Jackson will move down the line toward 7th inning chores. James Russell is back to be the lefty specialist. Zac Rosscup is holding a spot until Neil Ramirez returns from the DL.

The imbalance in the roster is foreboding if any position player goes down.

It is never good to have players playing out of position, especially in an emergency. Kris Bryant played an inning in center field because he was uncomfortable in left field. Wellington Castillo could play an emergency first base (we think). Suddenly, Herrera becomes the most important Everyman on the team.

With David Ross Jon Lester's personal catcher, and Castillo playing well off the bench, the Cubs will keep three catchers to the trade deadline. Ross is like another bench coach so his job is secure. The Cubs don't want to give away Castillo in a trade so it is possible he will remain as the power bat off the bench.

The Cubs are carrying two extra pitchers because Maddon likes to use a lot of pitchers during a game once a starter leaves. This may put more strain on a bullpen.

We should see this shake out in the next week.

UPDATE:

I have been blamed for pushing Beef out the door, as this morning the Cubs traded Castillo to the Mariners for reliever Yoervis Medina. The Mariners were looking for a back up catcher, and the Cubs are trying to find and stash as many bullpen arms it can find.

MLBTR stated that Medina seemingly represents "a buy-low arm" of the sort that the Cubs have targeted in recent years. Medina,  26,  has struggled with just 6.8 K/9 against 5.3 BB/9 this year — the walks are nothing new, though he had struck out better than nine hitters per nine innings in prior years — he still owns a 3.00 ERA in his 12 innings of work. And Medina has compiled 125 innings of 2.81 ERA pitching over the prior two seasons.

Medina has shown significant velocity loss this year, dropping from last year’s 94-95 mph range down to 92.4 mph with both his four-seamer and two-seamer thus far in 2015. In addition to a quality sinker, which he went away from this year, Medina also features a rather promising curve ball.

Since Medina has only 2 years of ML service, the Cubs can send him to Iowa.

May 17, 2015

PRANK

An Ohio high school baseball diamond was subject to a recent eco-prank:

Someone planted a 25 foot tall tree between the pitcher's mound and home plate.

May 16, 2015

BUMBLING VICTORY

Oh, what a strange one.

I got home and saw the end.

But before, my gawd, sending Castro on the short fly ball to right field was stupid.
He was out by a country mile.

Then the exact same inning unfolded for the Cubs.
Bases loaded, one out, same batter up (Szczur) and
same runner at third (Castro). Same lazy fly ball to
short right and . . . Polanco trips over some grass blades,
falls - - - game over.


What a bumbling, stumbling, lucky victory for the Cubs.

The game could have been lost by over-managing by both Maddon and Hurdle.
You don't run out of players by the 10th inning.

The Pirates were out of position players, and had no relievers left.
The Cubs had one position player, an injured Ross, and one reliever left, Coke.

Starters were pinch hitting for gosh sakes.

Edwin Jackson was pitching in the extras, so he should have been told he was
going to throw to the conclusion of the contest. But no, the pitcher's spot in 
double shifts wound up 4th - - - meaning in a tie game, Jackson was pulled for
a short reliever.

Lucky for Maddon, it never got that far as the Cubs won at that at-bat.

May 14, 2015

HARVEY & PRO PITCHING

Matt Harvey is a good pitcher . . . . very good. Jason Hammel is a good pitcher . . . pretty good.

It was one of those classic pitcher duels on a cold Chicago evening.

It was also nice to get a fresh broadcast perspective on the Cubs. ESPN's crew did a good, balanced job on their coverage. For all the side nonsense and controversy, Curt Schilling does know about pitching. (Poor Doug Glanville, he was exiled to Siberia in CF for most of the game.)

The game and the commentary should be a documentary for young pitchers on how to become quality major league starters. Location, command and pitch efficiency were all on display last night.

As Schilling eluded, a top pitcher can control a game from the mound, but an ace pitcher can get himself out of jams even when he makes "mistakes" such as a breaking ball that backs up into the zone (in a few occasions, it backed up inside jamming the hitter into lining out.) It was a clinic on cold weather pitching, the grip, the strategy to attack pitchers and fielders in such conditions.

This is the hardest transition for pro pitchers. It is not about getting strikeouts, it is about getting outs. It is about how to set up a hitter to a) swing and miss; b) take a strike; c) or induce preferred contact such as a ground ball to start a double play. Most young pitchers who have dominant fastball rely too much on it to get the big leagues. However, the problem is that every major league hitter can gauge a fastball, adjust and crush it.

Both starters were excellent last night:

Harvey threw 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 9K, 2 BB. He threw 100 pitches, 70 for strikes (70%).

Hammel threw 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 6 K, 1 BB. He threw 97 pitches, 68 for strikes (70.1%).

Cub manager Joe Maddon is becoming a risk taker. In the 9th after Anthony Rizzo got a single, Maddon replaced his best hitter with a pinch runner, Matt Sczcur. In a tie game that could go to extra innings, this seemed to be an odd move. Then Starlin Castro got a single, with Sczcur getting to third base. This put additional pressure on the Mets bullpen. An intentional walk, then a strike out to Jorge Soler, Mets closer Jeurys Familia walked Coghlan to give the Cubs the win.

It was the bullpen that cost the Mets the game. As discussed, the game of baseball is now constructed to rely more on a solid bullpen than on five solid starting pitchers. Teams are carrying 11 or 12 pitchers now just to bolster the bullpen which is now expected to take the game from the 7th inning to the end game after game. It is rare to get a box score where both starting pitchers throw past the 7th inning.

During the cable pregame, there was some discussion on how good and young the Mets pitching staff is - - - that it could contain five aces. The staff is jelling to comparisons of the great Atlanta Braves staffs of the 1990s. So there is a natural thought pattern that the Cubs and Mets would be ideal trade partners since the Cubs have a surplus of young hitters.

A few people believe that the Mets would be foolish to trade any of their young starters. Finding an ace pitcher is very hard. Finding more than one is rare. Having three or more on a staff is unheard of. One commentator believed that he would never trade a HOF caliber starter for a HOF caliber hitter.

The example would be trading Harvey for Kris Bryant.

Bryant is expected to play 155 games in the field, bat .275, hit 30 HR, 85 RBI.
Harvey is expected to start 33 games, have 16 wins, 2.37 ERA, 1.000 WHIP and 5.0 WAR.

Yes, Bryant will play in more games, but his production and impact  is the 4 times he is at the plate. Harvey directly impacts 20 percent of the Mets starts, and controls the ball for at least 25 batters a game.

It is often said that great pitching will temper great hitting. So who is more valuable?

A professional pitcher like Harvey may be more valuable as a central foundation piece for a franchise. Quality starts create stability in the pitching staff. Quality starts give teams the ability to win series. Winning series consistently means a winning record and playoff berth. A professional pitcher will share his knowledge of the game with his teammates, thus increasing the coaching efficiency of the team. (Greg Maddux was credited with the same mentoring in Atlanta and Chicago).

The Mets rebuilt their franchise through young starting pitching. The Cubs have rebuilt their franchise on young power hitters. It will be interesting to see which club has the better run, short and long term.

DIFFERENT APPROACH

The Mets have had a series of quality young starters come to the majors. In this homestand, the Mets latest young gun, Noah Syndergaard made his debut.

He threw 5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 6 K and 4 BB. He threw 103 pitches, 56 for strikes (54.3%). The Mets lost the game to the Cubs, behind Jake Arrieta who went 8 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 10 K, and 2 BB. Arrieta threw 116 pitches, 70 for strikes (60.3%).

An infield hit by Kris Bryant, who flew down the first base line, kept an inning going with two outs. It seemed to rattle Syndergaard. He threw many more pitches because of that hustle play, so it ended his night early.

What was interesting to see is the contrasting styles of the two starters.

Syndergaard has a short arm power delivery which can get his fast ball up to 97 mph. His motion is a bit of a mechanical cheat to increase velocity since he is whipping his forearm and wrist during the motion to the plate. This adds velocity but it also adds torque to his elbow ligaments.

Young pitchers are fixated from youth baseball through the minors on two points: fastball velocity and strikeout totals. Those two stats gets pitchers noticed in high school, college, the draft and signing a pro contract. Young pitchers try to get the most velocity they can with their mechanics. Every person is built differently; each with his own body tolerances and elasticity. Chris Sale has mastered a buggy whip delivery which most other pitchers could never control. During the telecast, Syndergaard was compared to Wade Miller, a former pitcher with a short arm delivery.

Miller had a so-so career. He had shoulder and elbow problems which caused him several stints on the disabled list. And that should be the concern for the Mets, that Syndergaard's delivery could increase the risk of injury. During his pro start, one could tell that he began to fall off the side of the mound instead of pushing straight toward the plate. This slide adds another motion (or force plane) to an otherwise stressful delivery.

In contrast, Arrieta has a long straight arm motion delivery to the plate. It is a circular catapult-like motion that looks "easy" and flowing. Pitching coaches like this style of delivery because it puts less stress on shoulder and elbow. And that this motion is easily repeatable - - - getting a pitcher in an early game rhythm is important.

Arrieta averaged 4.83 pitches per out in his victory.
Syndergaard averaged 6.4375 pitches per out.

Rookie pitchers tend to try to overpower hitters because that is what has worked throughout their development. But pitching in the majors is more an art form than power play. Arrieta was much more efficient in getting outs, therefore he lasted longer in the game. And being efficient does not mean Arrieta could not gather strike out victims.

It is clear that Arrieta is a more polished pitcher than Syndergaard. However, if Syndergaard can keep off the disabled list he should be another fine addition to the young Mets rotation.