May 6, 2015

LASTING LEGENDS

Perhaps since it is the oldest American sport, baseball legends have a shelf life that lasts multiple generations. The best current example of this was today's article marking the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's first home run.

It never occurred to me that anyone would be interested in knowing that on May 6, 1915 Ruth hit his first of 714 major league home runs.

But even today's causal fans know about Ruth. He was a larger than life legend from the Golden Age.

He began as a pitcher with the Red Sox. The team owner got in financial trouble, so he sold Ruth to the dreaded rival New York Yankees. This led to the Curse of the Bambino, an excuse fostered by Red Sox fans for decades since their team failed while the Yankees became a championship dynasty.

Ruth, being in New York, held the attention of the national media. He was a celebrity. His off the field pursuits, beer, food, women, were covered as much as the game stories. He was an every man and a superman. His home run totals for his era far exceeded his peers. His career WAR is still the gold standard for player performance.

But why does his legacy endure?

Today, we have only scratchy black and white short films and photographs of Ruth. He looks like a large grizzly bear at the plate whipping a stick through the strike zone. He does not look like a modern baseball player.

But the connection is that baseball adores its history. It is stat driven game where people can compare eras based upon objective evidence. Old baseball tales were the bar stories for generations. Fathers past down stories from their fathers to their sons. When a fan base appreciates their sport's history, old players can have a lasting legacy.

AN OPPOSING VIEW


Cameron says the the pre-season forecasts had the White Sox only going 78-84, with just an 8% chance of winning the AL Central and a 6% chance of winning one of the two Wild Card spots; the Rangers and Twins were the only AL teams with a lower chance of reaching the postseason. There was a scenario where things broke right and the White Sox became legitimate contenders — the Astros are currently in the midst of that scenario at the moment — but it was going to require the team’s role players step up and fill some of the areas where the team was expected to get replacement level production. 

That hasn’t happened. 

The projectionists concerns were  at catcher, second base, third base, right field, and the last two spots in the rotation. Conor Gillaspie had been adequate at third but lacked power; Tyler Flowers can play adequate defense but was a offensive liability; back end starters John Danks and Hector Noesi were not very good last season; and the team would have to rely upon rookies at second base in Micah Johnson or Carlos Sanchez. So far, all those players  have all been below replacement level. That’s just too many voids for a contender, and when guys like LaRoche, Cabrera, and Samardzija struggle too, then you end getting pummeled by a lousy Twins team on your way to an 8-14 record after the season’s first month. 

After getting outscored 31-8 in their four game series against Minnesota, there is a great deal of "badness" to pause.  By BaseRuns projections, the White Sox  should actually be 7-15. The Sox have played worse than any other team in baseball, including the Brewers, the team that just fired their manager. The White Sox aren’t actually the worst team in baseball, but this isn’t a team that has played well and just run into some bad luck, or given up runs at the wrong time; as Cameron writes: they’ve just been straight up awful. 

The White Sox are so far behind the Tigers and Royals at this early stage of the season,  the White Sox a 2% chance of winning the division and a 3% chance of capturing a Wild Card spot. Thus, the irony of having one of the best off-seasons in baseball has quickly turned to having one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

Cameron opines that the White Sox  have roughly 80 games to get back in the race before the trade deadline  and if Detroit and Kansas City play at even their modest projected rest-of-season winning percentages, the White Sox would have to play  approximately .650 baseball to overtake them by the end of July. That means the White Sox will have to win every series (2 of 3 games) until the All-Star break to make a competitive run in the second half of the season.

Cameron doesn't think the White Sox have to start the fire sale tomorrow. There is still the core of a good team  but there are just too many weak spots on the current roster to make a real serious run in 2015. 

However, Sox fans will disagree.  If one believes that players will eventually get "back to their baseball card numbers" the White Sox pitching staff will rebound. And pitching is still the key to win in the American League Central. Sale, Carlos Quintana and Samardzjia are three quality starters. Robertson is a proven closer. Matt Albers and Nate Jones will come off the DL this summer to bolster the bullpen. Carlos Rodon will get better in the bullpen (he has not been that bad so far). Geo Soto is an upgrade as a back up catcher and could easily move into the starter role over Flowers. Avi Garcia, coming back from an injury last season, could be a steady influence in the middle of the batting order, helping to protect MVP candidate Jose Abreu. Like most NL players, LaRoche is having a tough time adjusting to being a full time DH. A quick fix would be to platoon LaRoche at first base.

The counter position is that the White Sox need not be Sellers, but could actually "buy" one or two pieces to help solidify the club. A starting pitcher and/or a third baseman could all that is necessary to turn things around. But those pieces are hard to come by.

Now, some fans think that the real problem is manager Robin Ventura. The question is whether he is getting the most out of his players. A few have called for his firing, with the Sox rehiring firebrand Ozzie Guillen. Guillen led the Sox to their 2005 championship, which was built on a brilliant four man starting rotation (who threw 4 consecutive complete game victories in the ALCS). But hiring Guillen is not an option for the front office. 

So it is too early to write off the White Sox 2015 season. Baseball is a strange game. If the Astros can run off a ten game win streak, so could the White Sox.

May 4, 2015

FIRE IN THE HOLE

The old saying is true: it is better to get off to a hot start.

Or get burned.

The Associated Press reports that the Milwaukee Brewers fired manager Ron Roenicke on Sunday night, hours after their 5-3 victory over the Cubs in Chicago.

The Brewers are a major league-worst 7-18 (.281 winning percentage) after a 2-13 (.133 winning percentage) start. Even the slow improvement in winning percentage could not keep Roenicke's job. The team said it will announce a replacement today.

"This has been a difficult start to the season, something that we certainly didn't anticipate," president and general manager Doug Melvin said in a statement. "Over roughly the last 100 games, we have not performed at the level that we should. It's all about wins and losses, and after the first month of play this year we didn't see the progress and improvement we had hoped for.

"We appreciate all that Ron has done for our organization, and he has handled his duties with great professionalism and dedication. The reasons for our disappointing start are many, but we determined that it's in the best interests of the club to make this move."

The victory Sunday gave the Brewers their first consecutive victories of the year and first series win. Before this year, the most games Milwaukee needed for consecutive wins was 18 in 1972, according to STATS.

In four-plus seasons, the 58-year-old Roenicke was 342-331.

The Brewers slow start included a few injuries, including their starting catcher. However, every team has to deal with injuries.

By comparison, league laughing stock Houston Astros are in first place in the highly competitive AL West. The Astros 18-7 start (.720 winning percentage) shows that if the team merely goes .500 for the rest of the season, the Astros will have an 87 win season (.537 winning percentage) and a possible wild card spot.


April 29, 2015

BUYING IN

Joe Maddon has the young team buying in on his vision of the game.

Two major differences we have seen so far this season.

First, hitters are much more patient at the plate. Maddon says that the players have "bought in" on the concept that they should "accept" walks as being a positive at-bat. He allows them to work the count to have a home run cut, but then try to coax a hit or a walk to finish the at-bat.  The Cubs were taking almost double the amount of walks than the league average/opponents.

The idea of having a baserunner is key to putting pressure on the opposing pitcher and his defense. It seems to work because Pirate third baseman Josh Harrison has had a bad two series against the Cubs.

Second, the Cubs are stealing bases. In the last three years, the Cubs' stolen-base totals were 94 (2012), 63 (2013) and 65 (2014), and the 2012 total was that "high" (they ranked 11th in the National League) only because of Tony Campana stealing  30 bases.

The Cubs stole five bases Tuesday night, four of those in one inning.


Anthony Rizzo has already matched his career high with his sixth steal. He hasn't been caught yet. In fact, the Cubs are picking their spots extremely well for stealing bases, with a team total of 25 with just six caught stealing (80.6 percent success rate). The 25 steals leads the National League. 

This leads to the production increases - - - teammates are picking up for each other. It is like an assembly line moving players around the bases. The focus of attention is not home run swings but driving in runs. Kris Bryant has yet to hit a home run, but he quickly amassed 10 RBIs.

So far, this Cubs team has been fun to watch.

April 28, 2015

POSTPONING GAMES

The Houston Chronicle notes that in the modern history of the game, there have been two major postponements due to community riots.

In 1992, the Dodgers had four games postponed in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict.

In 1967, the Orioles and Tigers had a game postponed because of riots in Detroit. The next two games were shifted to Baltimore.

The White Sox-Orioles game was postponed last night due to riots in Baltimore. The protester-police conflicts were near Camden Yards. The team and league were concerned about the safety of the fans and the players. No decision has been made what to do with the rest of the series. The Maryland National Guard has been called in to protect areas of the city. 

It seems that there is an increasing cycle of community unrest in the nation. The Ferguson Missouri riots kept the national media fires burning for weeks. Like the Ferguson situation, violent riots stem from the alleged killing of unarmed black men. The Baltimore violence was triggered from the death from spinal injuries of a black man who was in the custody of the police. Sadly, this is not a unique event. Reason Magazine has been documenting the growing number of police misconduct cases.

There is no excuse for a community angered by police misconduct to go out and loot, burn and destroy their own neighborhoods. Two wrongs do not create a right of entitlement.

Baseball has been a means of getting away from the stresses and pressures of daily life. Going to a sporting event as entertainment helps to recharge individual's batteries to work another day. But more and more real world events are encroaching on this escapist venue: drug use, cheating, on field violence and now community riots.

Postponing games is the easy decision. But if the city's violence continues, will the Orioles have to begin to forfeit home games? If they are forced to move games out of Baltimore, perhaps to their hated rival the Nationals park, the city and community loses more money, jobs and the cycle of despair increases which could lead to more violence.

 

April 27, 2015

GETTING HURT

Nationals megadeal starter Max Scherzer got hurt batting in his last game.

According to the Sporting News, the right-hander said he was unable to throw Sunday morning because of the jammed thumb, which he suffered while batting in last Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Cardinals. 

“I’m not ready to rule it out completely, but I also have to be honest with myself,” Scherzer said. “Anytime you deal with an injury to your pitching hand, you literally have to be 100 percent to go back out there.”

Scherzer described the injury as a sprained ligament and said his thumb is still sore. The 30-year-old pitcher says he wants to play it safe.

“It’s my pitching hand,” Scherzer said. “Any type of discomfort’s going to alter the way I throw the ball. If I alter the way I throw the ball, I can really run the risk of major injury to my arm. So I really respect that. I really respect that I have to be at 100 percent. That’ll be my test: If I can throw all my pitches on flat ground at 100 percent.”

Scherzer said he dealt with a similar nagging injury while at the University of Missouri, returned too soon and almost suffered a major injury as a result.

“I’ve dealt with an injury before in college where I had a cut on my middle finger, and I went back out there and pitched in pain,” he said. “And two weeks later, I had biceps tendinitis and really almost kind of messed up my shoulder. I really respect the fact that you really have to be 100 percent to go back out there. And in this case, that’s how I’m going to treat it.”

This comes on the heels (pun unintended) that Adam Wainwright pooped his Achilles running out a pop fly ball. He is probably lost for the season.

Now, there have been cries that the National League immediately adopt the Designated Hitter rule to save multi-million dollar pitcher investments from getting hurt at the plate. But no where in the story says Scherzer advocated a change to the AL system. Probably a majority of starters in the NL enjoy picking up the lumber during their games.  A good hitting pitcher, like Travis Wood, is a real asset on a team with a short bench.

The DH does take out many strategy options that have been with the game since its inception. The DH rule does propagate the Earl Weaver idea of 3-run HRs is the way to win ball games instead of manufacturing runs with walks, steals, and hit-and-run plays.

Throughout the season, pitchers will get hurt. On and off the field of play. 

April 24, 2015

RIDING EMOTIONS

You can beat fun at the old ball park by beating up each other.

Things started in the bottom of the seventh inning of Thursday night's White Sox-Royals contest.  With two outs, White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton  hit a comebacker to Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura. As Eaton was running to first, Ventura appeared to yell a not so friendly phrase at him. Ventura, yelled back at Eaton running down the line,  prior to throwing the ball to first.

The first base umpire immediately got in front of Eaton, while the home plate ump came out in front of Ventura.


At that moment, both benches cleared.  There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but no punches were thrown. As these tea kettle situations usually lose steam quickly, everyone had stopped their sumo stances and were just about ready to go back to their dugouts.


But then new White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija went after Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain,  causing a scrum on the field. As Samardzija charged at Cain, another Royals player, (another ex-NL Central rival,  the later ejected) Edinson Volquez, took a swing at Samardzija.


Samardzija was eventually separated from the fray. He was held back by Geovany Soto, his teammate with both the Cubs and Athletics. After the game, Cain told reporters Samardzija had been chirping at him during the game - - - probably a hold over from Oakland's post game series. Earlier in the year, Samardzija hit Cain with a pitch that Cain thought was intentional (a carry over from last season).


Once the fight was over, the umpires gathered to figure out which players needed to be ejected from the contest. For the White Sox, that wound up being Samardzija and starting pitcher Chris Sale. Sale was still in the game at that point, though had thrown 99 pitches, so it was unclear whether he would have returned for the next inning.


The Royals lost Ventura, Cain and pitcher Volquez for the rest of the contest. For Ventura, this is the second straight game in which he has been ejected. Ventura was ejected in his last start against Oakland after hitting Brett Lawrie on the elbow with a pitch.  This was an alleged retaliation for a hard slide Lawrie made in breaking up a double play. But that entire Royals-A’s series was mired with hit batters and scrums.


Given his recent history, it would be surprising if Ventura escapes this one without missing some time. Samardzija is also probably in line for a suspension. It's unclear whether Sale or Cain will be punished once Major League Baseball is able to review the entire brawl. Also, if Volquez was the player who threw the punch at Samardzija, it's likely he'll miss a start or two.


Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said the Royals might be playing with too much emotion at the moment, and stressed that fights are never a great way to handle this type of situation.

The Royals are playing with a chip on their shoulder despite last season’s success. Some people thought the Royals just lucked out after decades of small market futility. But a very quick start to 10 wins gave the Royals some swagger which has turned into a macho Bad Boy Mentality.

It is the manager’s job to keep his team’s emotions in check, and channeled to productive aspects of the game. Losing three players in a fight is not a productive use of talent.

The new commissioner has a big decision on his hands. He will need to punish Ventura for his repeat behavior. It is a question whether he can corral the tempers to avoid baseball becoming a poor man’s hockey game.