March 27, 2015

EDWIN PROBLEM

The fallout from not getting Anibal Sanchez continues to haunt the Cubs since the front office knee jerked a long term free agent deal with Edwin Jackson.  Jackson has been a major disappointment, and the butt of fan remarks, most recently in his ability to find the Cubs old spring training facility on the day he was supposed to start against the A's.

The rotation appears to be set. Lester, Arrieta, Hammel, T. Woods and Hendricks. Jackson is clearly the odd starter out. Whether he will take the old Carlos Villaneuva role of being a long reliever-spot starter is unclear since he has said in the past that he is only a starting pitcher.

The Cubs still owe Jackson $26 million for the next two years. That is a huge dead money contract if the team cuts him. The Cubs cannot mysteriously DL him since he a veteran and the union does not teams messing with veterans under contract. The pressure is on the Cubs to keep him on the 25 man roster. The problem is that the bullpen is already filled with better arms.  Justin Grimm is out of options so he has to stay in middle relief. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Jason Motte are the back end of the pen, along with Neil Ramirez and probably lefties Phil Coke and Felix Doubront, who is also out of options.

With the Cubs apparently keeping Welington Castillo, who is also out of options, as the third catcher, there is no space to keep Jackson on the 25 man roster.  Even in an era of more pitchers having arm issues, there has been no buzz lately in the trade rumor department on Jackson.

The Cubs have claimed the Kris Bryant situation is not about the money, but in reality it is. Adding one year of control means one year more without having to pay a large free agency deal at Bryant's peak earning years. However, if Bryant is a superstar player, play him now and pay him in due course since baseball history is littered with teams missing the playoffs by a single game.

If it is about "not" eating the money, Jackson will be shoehorned on the roster at the expense of another pitcher. That will not sit well with Cub fans.


March 26, 2015

A NEW SPIN

Manager Joe Maddon did not like what he initially saw with this new club. He saw poor fundamentals.

Now, as spring training is ending, he is looking beyond the home run swings and hype of prospects.

Defense and baserunning are the two parts of the game that Maddon keeps stressing, but don’t show up much in a spring box score. If other things are equal, or the Cubs believe they might have enough power at the plate, these are the areas that can win or lose jobs.

Junior Lake and Matt  Szczur, in particular, have shown better defensive skills than Ryan Sweeney, which bumps him from 5th outfielder consideration.

Welington Castillo has thrown out 50% of the runners trying to steal on him. He also has a .375 batting average. The Cubs may be forced to keep three catchers considering Castillo is the best insurance they have if Montero or Ross come down to injury.

“I’m seeing some things differently,” Maddon reiterated mysteriously. “I like defense, man. I like [the] ball being caught. There’s no unilateral decisions being made here.”

Whether Maddon's preaching about defense and base running sticks with the Cubs is going to be a key to early team success.  It is a new spin on how the Cubs are going to play in 2015.

March 25, 2015

THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PITCHING

There continues to be a debate on how to handle professional pitchers.

Pitch counts have been instituted throughout a player's career - - - from youth baseball, college, the minors and even the pro level.

The theory is that a pitcher's arm is like a machine. It only has a certain amount of wear and tear before it physically wears out and tears (and goes for Tommy John, shoulder or other surgeries.)

This theory presupposes that each individual has a limited amount of "capital" i.e. innings that his body can tolerate. 

The other more old school theory is that modern pitchers are too muscle bound by weights and constricted by pitch counts to allow the elasticity of their bodies to reach its full potential and lessen the risk of injury.

Count Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander in the latter camp.  In an interview with ESPN, Verlander was critical of how teams "coddle" their young pitchers.

Verlander is looking to make  at least 30 starts for the 10th straight season and nine straight with no less than 201 innings pitched. Verlander has been quite durable for a power pitcher. 

Verlander believes that teams are spending too much time coddling pitchers before they reach the big leagues. In doing so, Verlander adds, teams are only managing to delay the inevitable breakdown until they start counting on those arms as major league contributors, which ends up costing them even more.
“I think baseball coddles guys so much now that you delay the inevitable. I think the reason you see so many big leaguers blowing out at a young age is because they would have done it before. But now teams limit pitch counts so much, even at the major league level, that now a guy in his second or third year will pop, when it would have happened in the minors.
“Before,” he continued, “when there wasn’t such an emphasis on pitch counts, I think you kind of weeded that out. Then guys would have surgery [in the minor leagues]. Then they’d come back. And then they’d get to the big leagues.”
Verlander is suggesting that teams that view pitchers as limited resources which will blow up their arms at some point in their career should blow up in the minors first, have surgery, then be ready for a major league career. 

 Science says there is more variables in the breakdown of each individual pitcher. In a Yahoo Sports article, research director at Dr. James Andrews’ American Sports Medicine Institute, Dr. Glenn Fleisig,  has studied countless numbers of elbow injuries. He's looked at when they occurred, how a pitcher felt leading up to the injury and the extent of the damage. His findings suggest that poor mechanics and pitching while fatigued are often the biggest factors, which supports the theory for coddling.
“I have tremendous respect for Justin Verlander. You and I are not Justin Verlander. We’ve never thrown 200 innings in the major leagues, or even one inning. So he has a different perspective than we have. But I also have a different perspective. I have science.”
"With biomechanics, we can now identify who has poor mechanics, and there are a lot of progressive organizations that are now modifying kids' mechanics in the minor leagues after they're drafted and as they develop."
Pitchers in the 1950s through 1970s often referenced the fact that the most critical aspect of their training was running as their legs were the key to pitching mechanics. The power was generated by one's legs and the arm was merely the catapult motion of the ball. As in a catapult, the arm has to be a flexible rope to transfer the mechanical energy of the lower body to the ball at release. A pitcher like Rick Reuschel used to push off the rubber and effortlessly release the ball semi-side arm toward the plate. Reuschel was not what today's fitness gurus would call a great athletic body, but he was "country strong" meaning that he toned his body parts to fit his pitching mechanics. Ferguson Jenkins was also another proponent of being lanky and flexible. He also believed that pitchers needed to pitch more in order to have their bodies adjust and get past the normal body fatigue and pain. Jenkins was from the era when a starter got the ball in the first inning, he was supposed to finish the game. As a result, pitchers were no longer "throwers" but artists trying to get outs in the most efficient manner.

Pitchers come up from youth baseball, college and the minors holding on to two stats: velocity and strike outs. In Jenkins world, strike outs are not important in the majors - - - it is getting batters to make outs. A two pitch ground out is better than a six pitch strike out. Greg Maddux made a career not on a blazing fastball, but change in velocity and spin of pitchers to elicit ground balls.  Knuckleballers like Tim Wakefield and Wilbur Wood could grind out more innings than a normal pitcher while having the least velocity on their pitches.

Then you have the perfect prospect pitcher like Mark Prior. In college, scouts raved that he had the "perfect" mechanics and smooth delivery. But once Prior got to the majors, an emphasis on strike outs made him begin to throw across his chest at release (like power pitcher Kerry Wood). As a result, Prior's career got boggled down with injuries. 

A pitcher may have the perfect body type to be a major league starter or reliever. It is the science of finding out how your body performs under the stress of the throwing of a baseball. But careers are still made by understanding "the art" of pitching at the major league level. 

March 24, 2015

MICROSCHEDULING

MLB announced that the last games of the season will all start at the same time.

Looking to add even more excitement to the race for the postseason, Major League Baseball has announced a scheduling change they hope will do just that.

Every game on the regular season's final day will start at the same time. The 2015 season ends Sunday, Oct. 4, and first pitch is set for 3 p.m. ET in all 15 games across MLB.

Here's what the league's COO, Tony Pettiti told the LA Times about the decision:

"If a game impacts another game, they're all occurring at the same time, so no team would be put into a lame-duck situation because their fate already had been decided by an earlier result. If we do have games coming down to the wire, we want to make sure we maximize that day. We're hopeful that the races will come down to the last day of the season. We want to make sure we celebrate the end of the season properly."

The reason is that if one team knows the outcome of an earlier contest, it could affect the playoffs (such as resting players or a starting pitcher for the play-in wild card game).

On the positive side, uniformity at the end of season evens the playing field in regard to making teams play the game like a playoff contest. However, if it is a meaningless contest between also-rans the start time of the contest really does not matter. In fact, an early start could hurt the home team's attendance (which could be lagging if they are not in the playoff picture).

It used to be the domain of the home club to schedule the times of their home games. The league creates the schedules, and the teams put in the times, with the exception of getaway days where an afternoon game is held (but not always, as I recall the White Sox having to play a night game on the West Coast then come home to play a day game, which I think was a holiday to get the family crowd) The Sox were upset with their opponent about how they had to play, then fly home for an early game but there was no recourse.

Now, the only other national game changer is the networks who have the right to flex or change telecast times to meet their schedules. They often only give the teams a week's notice or less if there is change. I recall a network moving up a Cub game time by an hour, so the game started with a nearly empty Wrigley until the third inning when fans started to show up at the printed start time on their tickets.

Perhaps the league is slowly trying to micromanage everything. It has its own on-line streaming and network to push content to subscribers.

March 23, 2015

DECISIONS

MLBTR reports on the Cubs players in camp who are out of options.

The following 40-man roster players have less than five years service time and are out of minor league options.  That means they must clear waivers before being sent to the minors, so the team would be at risk of losing them in attempting to do so.  I’ve included players on multiyear deals.  This list was compiled through MLBTR’s sources. 

The Cubs who are out of options are P Drake Britton, C Welington Castillo, P Felix Doubront, P Neil Ramirez, P Hector Rondon, P Pedro Strop, P Jacob Turner and P Travis Wood.

Wood, Turner, and Tsuyoshi Wada  were expected to battle for the Cubs’ fifth starter job this spring.  Turner has been shut down due to a flexor strain and bone bruise on his elbow, and Wada has had hamstring issues. Both could wind up on disabled list or on an injury report which could allow them to clear waivers.

Wood's solid spring makes him the favorite to become the fifth starter.  That would force Edwin Jackson and his $22 million contract as the bullpen's long, mop up reliever, unless the Cubs can trade him (which is doubtful).

Rondon, Strop, Ramirez, newly acquired Jason Motte, Justin Grimm all appear to have roster spots.
Lefty Phil Coke is expected to break camp as the team’s primary southpaw reliever.

That leaves one potential spot for Jackson, out of options lefties Britton and Doubront, and a host of other candidates including Wada if his groin injury proves minor.  Doubront has been hit hard in his two spring outings, while Britton began his spring with five scoreless innings.

The Cubs have been hinting that they may carry three catchers on the roster. It would make sense if 39 year old David Ross cannot make the grade as Jon Lester's personal catcher. The versatility of Arismendy Alcantara and Tommy LaStella allows the super utility players to add another pitcher in the pen or handle the luxury of a third catcher.

It would seem that the Cubs liked Doubront as a potential starter. The core of last year's bullpen was solid. Coke and Britton would probably be the lefties of choice of Maddon if the season started tomorrow, with Jackson not being on the roster.

March 22, 2015

ANNUAL PISSING CONTEST

Every spring, sports agent Scott Boras gets on his soap box to yell at owners about holding back his talent from accumulating service time toward free agency.  Boras wants his clients in the majors as fast as possible because that speeds up the clock on signing big money deals.

The CBA has many holding patterns clubs can use to stop the clock.

Boras is railing against the Cubs early announced plan to shelve his client, Kris Bryant, in Iowa at the beginning of this season from anywhere from three weeks to three months.  If Bryant accumulates 172 service days in his first call up, then he can be a free agent one year earlier. If he does not, the Cubs effectively control his contract for an additional season (which projects to be near his peak production).

In addition, if when a stud young player hits his season season, he could earn an "early year" if he qualifies as a Super 2, in the top 22 percent of players between years 2 and 3 of club control.

An early arbitration hearing gives the player a salary boost, then raises the salary flow for future arbitrations or contract extensions.

Boras claims that the Cubs owe it to their fans to put the best team on the field from Day One. That best team would include Bryant. He is right in that assertion.

The Cubs counter by saying this is a business. Bryant is still just a prospect. He needs time to develop, even though he has crushed every level of minor league play. Bryant needs to work on better defense at third, or switch to learning LF which is best done in the minors. The Cubs have some valid development points they can make to hold back Bryant.

But sitting Bryant in the minors, based on ZiPS projections of a full season, could cost the Cubs at least 2 games. If the Cubs truly believe they can contend or win the NL Central, 2 games could be the difference between a championship and disappointment. But that is the risk that the Cubs are willing to take in order to hold onto Bryant for an extra year.

March 21, 2015

THE WINDY QUESTION

An unreported story in regard to the New Wrigley Field is the affect the new signage and scoreboards will have on the wind patterns during games.

Prior to construction, it was clear that when the wind was blowing in (northerly), balls hit into the outfield were held up, pushed back and down. When the wind was blowing out to center (south-southwesterly), balls would carry especially in the power alley of LF.

I have not seen any published study about the effects of the new scoreboards will have at Wrigley. It is an important factor in considering on this team is being constructed (with young power hitters).

I am not an aerodynamic engineer, and I realize the the dimensions, angles, and variables in wind speeds can led to differential results, but using general urban wind patterns on structures, I postulated the following diagram:

One would think that if the wind was blowing into Wrigley, the large new scoreboards would "block" the prevailing wind and make it easier to hit homers in the power alleys. Except, the opposite is apparently true as the winds climb up the back of the structure then dive over the top to create a drag or low pressure area (like a air foil). Therefore, there may be actually more down force coming off the scoreboards than in a regular breeze.

Then, one would think that if the wind was blowing out of Wrigley, the large new scoreboards would have no effect on home runs. In the past, the center field scoreboard had little difference in air patterns blowing out since it is set back away from the 410 mark of the outfield wall. But from the air flow charts, air hitting a solid object will drop towards the ground. Since the new scoreboards are so close to the outfield walls, they could take the winds blowing out downward near the outfield wall (in effect increasing the distance for a home run to travel to clear the wall).

Now some may say that the space between the signs and scoreboards could create a canyon effect when the winds are blowing out of Wrigley (at some point increasing the air flow to the path of least resistance.) Whether that is true will have to been observed this year. Hitters could have to then thread a needle to find the super power alleys.

Besides affecting hitters, the down draft zones could cause problems with outfielders trying to judge hard hit fly balls. Even before the renovations, many players have publicly said that Wrigley Field outfield is a challenge to play due to the wind patterns and lack of safe foul territory. Adding another element of new wind circulation and down draft patterns could complicate defenses.

After writing this post, the Chicago Tribune posted a new graphic to help fans understand how "big" is the new jumbotron.

As I have said before, fans are going to be shocked at the size of the new scoreboards and the change in character of Wrigley Field.