June 29, 2015

RECORD DEBUT

We knew the Mets were loaded with young starting pitching.

Well, the best of the bunch made his debut Sunday. In record fashion.

Steven Matz limited the Reds to two runs on five hits and three walks while striking out six in 7⅔ innings in his major league debut. 

Yet manager Terry Collins was more thrilled with the offense Matz provided. The southpaw drove in four runs, the most ever by a pitcher in a debut in major league history. It also was the most RBIs by a Met -- pitcher or position player -- in a major league debut in franchise history.

"I love hitting, so it's pretty cool to have that record," Matz said.

A good hitting pitcher is as rare as a perfect game.

While Matz stroked his way into the record books, more Cub fans begin to grumble at Joe Maddon's line up card where the pitcher is hitting eighth in critical situations. The losing streak does not help, and Maddon has been consistent with his explanation that batting a pitcher in the 8th spot gives Addison Russell better pitches therefore, better for his development. In essence, Maddon is sacrificing scoring opportunities to develop a young player. This shows that the Cubs were not planning to be a contender this season.

Starters BA for the Cubs:

Hammel .216
Wood     .120
Hendricks .074
Arrieta   .034
Lester .000

Maybe the Cubs should concentrate more on developing contact hitting pitchers.
  

June 28, 2015

WILL THE AXE FALL?

Baseball has been steeped in history. It is that the game has fundamentally NOT changed is why the game continues to survive.

Nothing is more true than with the layout of the diamond dimensions. Nothing is as true as the shape and construction of a baseball, its seams and its skin. And the baseball bat, a simple rounded stick of wood.

Until now.

Jeff Passon of Yahoo Sports reports that the simple bat handle is about change.

The man who may help create the change is Red Sox infielder Dustin Pedroia. He is the only major leaguer currently using a bat that has an axe handle. Pedroia has spent a month using it as his lone bat, and the results are promising: Over the 28 games since he switched, he is hitting .353/.386/.504. His 42 hits over the past month are tied for the fourth most in baseball.

Now, unless you were a boy scout or a mountain logger, most kids today have no idea what an axe is or what is its purpose. The flattened wood frame is put through a heavy metal cutting tool to create a powerful yet top heavy tree cutter and wood splitter. This long used axe shape seems to have developed to maximize the power of the arm through the hands (palm).
 
"I think it's only a matter of time before the axe-shaped handle is the standard," said Hugh Tompkins, the director of research and development for Baden Sports, a Seattle-area company that created the Axe Bat, which this year received permission from Major League Baseball for in-game use. "The round-handled bat will be like a rotary telephone."

The Axe Bat replaces the knob with an oval-shaped handle that tapers into a curved, angled bottom. The Axe bat that grew out of a simple question: Why does the knob – the one piece of the bat known to hurt players, particularly those who grip it on the lower edge of the palm and put their hamate bones in danger – still exist when it imperils those it's supposed to help?

The current shape of most bats with the knob at the bottom is to keep the lower hand on the bat during the swing motion. If the knob was not at the bottom, the bat could be fly out of the players' hands. Even the Axe bat has a contoured bottom to keep the hand from slipping off.

Can a flatter hand surface help create more power and stability of a batter than a round bat?  There is not enough statistical evidence to draw any conclusion. But it is an interesting innovation.
 

June 27, 2015

WHAT TO DO

Joe Maddon, the optimist, is not shy on telling the press (and the fans) where he stands on his club. He is a field general who has gotten his young, raw squad marching forward into battle well ahead of expectations.

He  believes Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will deliver more weapons to him before the July 31 trade deadline.

“I am confident that Theo and Jed and the boys – as long as we’re pertinent – (will) do whatever they can to augment what we’re doing,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field. “I totally believe that.

“So if it’s a pitcher, it’s going to be a pitcher. Whatever we need, I believe that they will attempt to make it happen.”

So the bandwagoneers are screaming that the Cubs make a big splash, a big trade, because "this is the year."  On paper and in words, this was not supposed to be The Year. It was supposed to be a transition year where Theo's "plan" would start to come together with the next wave of core players being called up to the major league roster. It would still take several seasons for the team to gel. This was the season to find out whether Kris Bryant could play a respectable third base (or have to be moved to the outfield), whether Jorge Soler could adjust to major league pitching, and whether Addison Russell could adapt to a new position.

So what do the Cubs need? More than people realize because this is still not The Year.

In the second game of the Dodger series, the Cubs played a Class AAA outfield (Coghlan, Szczur, Baxter).Yoshi Wada has arm cramps and that puts the team in a rotation hole. The bullpen has not been as good as last season. There is a consistent creep of injuries. There is a lack of bench depth.

But the press and fans want the Cubs to "go for it," because this seems like a great chance to get into the playoffs (then anything could happen). They are stuck on the Back to the Future reference that the Cubs win the World Series in 2015. Fiction.

The reality is that a "win it now" trade could badly backfire. The Cubs should know that well since they were the beneficiary of such a move last season, when the A's sold off the farm to try to win it all.

On July 5, 2014, Samardzija, along with Jason Hammel went to Oakland in exchange for the A's top prospect, Addison Russell, a AAAA pitcher in Dan Straily, and very good outfield prospect in Billy McKinney and cash considerations. 

The A's with the Shark and Hammel could not make a playoff run. In the off season, the A's lost Hammel to free agency and moved Samardzija to the White Sox.  On December 9, 2014 the Athletics traded Samardzija along with another player for shortstop Marcus Semien, Chris Bassitt, Rangel Ravelo and catcher Josh Phegley.  Clearly, the A's did not get the same return for Samardzija that the Cubs did from Oakland.

To get a big fish like Cole Hamels, the Cubs would have to mortgage their farm system with probably three or four players going to Philadelphia. But does Hamels make the Cubs a contender? Not this season. Maybe not next season. One can keep their best prospects and wait for the next free agent period and upgrade the rotation with a David Price.

So it would not be surprising that the Cubs do nothing by the trade deadline.

June 26, 2015

WHITE SOX WOES

During the Twins series, the Sun Times discussed the plight of the White Sox with a veteran baseball scout who said:


‘‘The White Sox, they should be ashamed of themselves the way they’re playing,’’ a veteran scout who has seen the Sox play about a dozen times in person this season.

 ‘‘They had two good games against the Rangers [victories Saturday and Sunday], played good baseball, and then they come out and play a game like [a 13-2 loss Monday to the Twins]. It’s unacceptable. It’s shameful.’’


‘‘Errors, bad throws, mental errors,’’ the scout said. ‘‘Defense and guys not hitting in the clutch. For players, it’s not OK. This is the major leagues.’’


‘‘Ramirez is going backwards on both sides,’’ the scout said of the 33-year-old shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who had an All-Star last season but who is on pace to have his worst season ‘‘He was one of the best in the game last year. Now he’s one of the worst.’’


‘‘I’m sure Robin (Ventura) is doing his best,’’ the scout said. ‘‘Maybe one time he should fake it and throw something against the wall. This is unacceptable, and Robin has to know it. Maybe he has handled it. I don’t know what is done behind the scenes.’’

‘‘The fans see it; they aren’t dummies on the South Side,’’ the scout said. ‘‘All they want is to see the game played the right way.’’

The White Sox skipper may be resigned to his fate. ‘‘There’s plenty [blame] to go around for everybody,’’ Ventura said. 

WHEN A CATCHER EARNS A SAVE

Many believe the Cubs should not have the luxury of starting every five games  a .180 hitting, old catcher.

But the value comes in other forms.

David Ross may have saved two careers yesterday.

Ross is Jon Lester's personal catcher. They were teammates in Boston. The Cubs front office put in their banked savings on signing Lester to a $155 million contract to be the staff ace. Well, so far, the results have been underwhelming as Lester is (4-6) is now 0-4 with a 4.43 ERA since beating Pittsburgh on May 16.

In the Dodger series finale, Lester was again bad in the opening innings. He allowed four runs, four hits and four walks, while striking out five. His frustration showed in the second inning after he walked A.J. Ellis.  Lester said he turned around with his head down and yelled something to himself, but apparently home plate umpire Andy Fletcher thought it was aimed at him. So, in a rare and unprofessional move, Fletcher started to go to the mound to confront Lester. However, quick thinking Ross blocked Fletcher from getting closer to his pitcher. In fact, Fletcher began to bump Ross out of the way, who had to raise his arms up by his sides like during a police stop. 

That gave Joe Maddon enough time to come out to interject himself between Fletcher and Ross.

"Rossie did a great job of going out there and got between him, and I was able to talk to Andy and I think it settled down after that," Maddon said.

If Fletcher had gotten to the mound and contact with Lester happened, it would have been ugly. Fletcher, as instigator, could have been fired for cause since umpires are supposed to maintain their composure, objectivity and cool since they are the policemen on the diamond. Lester has shown this season to be very moody, surly and angry on the mound. If he would have retaliated or hit Fletcher, he would have been suspended for a long time. This was the classic bar fight preamble that Ross defused very quickly.

Ross' role on the Cubs is that of back up catcher and on-field coach. Considering how volatile his battery mate can be, Ross has his hands full. Ross has to keep runners close to first because Lester has a phobia about throwing to the bases. So Ross has to fire pick offs to Rizzo to keep runners honest. Ross has to call a different game to try to throw out runners stealing second; more fastballs away to get a lane to throw. Ross has to be the buffer between a hot-headed pitcher and umpires who hate being shown up. Yesterday, Ross earned his paycheck.

June 25, 2015

TRADE BLOCKS

Why some teams handcuff themselves by giving players "trade blocks" in their contracts is one of those annoying realities of baseball. It is a player perk that agents have been pushing for, even in the richest of contract deals. In normal business, an employee has some say in where he or she works if there is a company consolidation, merger or relocation. Employees can leave their companies and find new jobs to their liking in any city they choose. So in that sense, star baseball players with no trade clauses are similar to other parts of the American employment landscape.

If it is not the money, then it should be about winning. But some players have home life quality of life issues to think about, too. That may be the hidden driving force on why more and more players are demanding trade blocks.

Phillies ace pitcher Cole Hamels is adamant about one thing: he will not be suiting up for the Houston Astros. According to KHOU, the left-hander's contract accords him up to 20 teams that he can refuse to be traded to, and the Astros are at the top of the list despite leading their division and boasting an outstanding pitching staff.

Hamels has turned out a decent season for the Phillies so far, sitting on a 5-5 record with a 3.55 FIP and 103 strikeouts through 94 1/3 innings. His 2.96 ERA is the 11th best among National League starters, and though his efforts have yielded a team-best 1.7 fWAR, the Phillies can better utilize him as a trade chip during the weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

Hamels may not have an adversity to the State of Texas, because it is reported that talks with the Rangers have been made about a trade. The Rangers and the Yankees are in the mix because both of whom could use an upgrade to their pitching staffs as they approach the All-Star break. Hamels is set to earn $70.5 million between 2016 and 2018, and while his price tag isn't holding big money teams like the Rangers or Yankees from swinging a deal, the cost in return players and prospects may be the key.

But it hurts a GM that he can leverage a star player on the market if the player's contract effectively eliminates two-thirds of the potential trade partners. The Yanks and Rangers know this, too. If the Phillies are looking for a big haul (like a team's #1 and #2 prospects, a major league ready pitcher and some additional bullpen help) the Astros have a deeper farm system than the Yankees.

There will be soon daily speculation stories about Hamels. In the end, he may not even be moved by the Phils.


June 24, 2015

STUCK

While Cubs fans have been gassing up the huge playoff bandwagon, the team itself is slowly getting stuck in the mud by the weight of anticipation.

Jake Arrieta has been good, Jason Hammel has been okay and Jon Lester has been really good or meh. With Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood demoted to the bullpen, the Cubs actually now have a shortage of starters now that Ysuyoshi Wada turned up lame.

The Cubs at 38-30, in third place 6.5 games behind the Cardinals, are still in the hunt. Pursuing an  serviceable starting pitcher certainly seems a reasonable strategy, but every team has that same strategy. Wood may get the call by default, since Jacob Turner is still on the DL and he is working his way back to health and could soon be available, but he has much to prove at this stage of his career.

There may be better arms at Iowa.  Don Roach is 7-1, 2.29 ERA in 14 games started. Carlos Pimentel is 5-4, 3.45 ERA in 12 GS. Dallas Beeler is 1-5, 7.35 in 11 GS. And Eric Jokisch is 3-3, 4.40 ERA in 9 GS. There is a problem with Roach and Pimentel: they are not on the active 40 man roster. Someone current would have to go, and probably another when Neil Ramirez is ready to return to the bullpen.

It may come down to moving up another reliever to the pen, and have Jackson and Wood do a spring training split game (3 innings each) as a short term solution.