December 7, 2013
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The overriding picture in my head from this year's postseason is of Jim Leyland, hunched in his Tigers jacket in his last days as a manager, wearily walking his 68-year-old body out to a mound in Detroit or Oakland or Boston. He takes the ball from a pitcher a third his age and gives the kid a perfunctory pat.
Several minutes, several TV commercials and a batter or two later, the scene repeats.
Such is the case in Boston the night of Oct. 13, eighth inning, Tigers ahead 5-1. With left-handed hitter Jacoby Ellsbury coming up, Leyland brings in lefty Drew Smyly to replace reliever Jose Veras. Smyly walks Ellsbury, loading the bases. Out comes Leyland again. How's that Sunday night football doing? Switch back. Al Albuquerque is the new pitcher; he strikes out Shane Victorino, then gives up a hit to Dustin Pedroia, loading the bases. Leyland enters from from stage right, Joaquin Benoit from the bullpen. We'll be back.
And we are, just in time to see David Ortiz grandly slam Benoit, the Tigers, and Leyland's moves.
It feels like it's happened a lot in October baseball, 2013. The manager makes a pitching change, and it explodes. Has it really been that bad? The examples abound:
—Leyland brings in Rick Porcello, relieving Albuquerque, in the ninth inning of Game Two of the ALDS. The first batter he faces is Stephen Vogt. The last batter he faces is Stephen Vogt, who singles in the winning run for Oakland.
—Same series, other team: Oakland manager Bob Melvin replaces Ryan Cook with Brett Anderson, eighth inning, Game Five. Anderson walks Alex Avila, wild pitches in a run, gives up a two-run double to Omar Infante. Ball game.
—Tigers again, this time against Boston. Smyly comes out, Veras comes in to pitch to Victorino with the bases full. Home run, series to the Red Sox in six.
—Let's go to the other league. It's the 13th inning of the NLCS opener, and finally a crucial enough time in a tie game for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to go to his closer. With two on, one out, Kenley Jansen, the 13th pitcher of the night, relieves Chris Withrow. Carlos Beltran ends the almost-five-hour game with a single and the game-winning RBI.
—And then there was the third game of the World Series Saturday night. Five times Mike Matheny or John Farrell walked out to replace the man on the mound. The first batters the five new pitchers faced went single, single, double, RBI-producing out, double.
I know we tend to remember those dramatic displays of unfortunate pitching changes more than routine displays of competence, so I perused this year's postseason play-by-plays. I was looking at pitchers inserted mid-inning, presumably because the manager felt the new guy had a better shot at the next batter than the incumbent.
The fact is, the success-to-failure ratio of relievers in those circumstances has come down on the side of failure this fall. Starting with the Tampa Bay-Texas play-in game for the last Wild Card, pitchers coming in during an inning have allowed 27 hits (nine for extra bases) in 93 at-bats—a .290 average. Hitters have touched them for an on-base percentage of .336.
On the other hand, they've struck out 27 of the 106 first batters they've faced and induced five double plays.
(I have no idea how pitchers called on mid-inning do over a whole season, but for purposes of comparison, the major-league-wide batting average this year was .253, and the OBP was .318.)
As for the two teams still alive:
The Red Sox have changed horses midstream 28 times in the postseason and put out the next batter 18 times. Their relievers are just 50-50 in such situations in the World Series.
The Cardinals? Over the whole postseason, they've given up seven first-batter hits and a walk in 21 plate appearances. In the Series, Matheny has called for help in the midst of an inning eight times. The result: three batters retired, two singles, a walk and two homers.
Sometimes, when you go to the fireman, you're playing with fire.
Friday, October 25, 2013
40 years ago today, the Cubs began breaking up that old gang of theirs. On Oct. 25, 1973, they traded star pitcher Fergie Jenkins to the Rangers.
The Cubs hadn’t had much success since WWII. They won the last wartime pennant in 1945, and then had a winning record in 1946, but then entered the long dark night for Cubs fans’ souls. From 1947-66, their best record was an 82-80 record in 1963. Yeah, that’s bad.
But in 1967 they went 87-74, beginning a six-season streak of winning record. They never won a pennant (of course) but they had a really solid core. Helmed by Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher, the club had a quartet of Hall of Famers serving as the focus of their team; leftfielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, aging infielder Ernie Banks – and Fergie Jenkins.
Clearly, Jenkins was a key part of the run. In each of those winning seasons, Jenkins posted 20 or more wins. He averaged 21 wins a year, over 300 innings, nearly 40 starts – all while posting a fine 3.00 ERA.
Behind Jenkins and his fellow stars, the team had middle infielders Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert, and catcher Randy Hundley, who all started for the team for years. A series of quality pitchers worked alongside Jenkins over the years, including youngsters Burt Hooton and Ken Holtzman, as well as veterans Milt Pappas and Bill Hands.
It was a good club, and though they never finished in first they had a nice stretch from 1967-72. But then came 1973. That’s the year that old gang got old, finishing 77-84.
Banks had already retired. (Frankly, he was past his prime before the club had become good). Durocher (also past his prime) left in the middle of 1972. But they still had Santo, Williams, Jenkins, Kessinger, Beckert, Hundley, Pappas, and Hooton.
But Oct. 25, 1973 showed they wouldn’t have them for much longer. The Cubs decided to rebuild, and Jenkins was the first to go. By the time Opening Day 1974 occurred, joining him out the door was catcher Hundley (to Minnesota), second baseman Beckert (to the Padres), and Ron Santo (to the crosstown White Sox). Also, Milt Pappas retired. The Cubs would also trade Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams during the 1974 season.
The rebuild wouldn’t be very successful, as their next winning season wouldn’t come until 1984. They wouldn’t have consecutive winning seasons again until the 21st century.
This particular trade, however, didn’t work out too badly. Sure, Fergie Jenkins would have a career year in 1974 with the Rangers, winning 25 games with a personal best 328.1 innings. But the Cubs had a nice gem coming to them in the deal: young third baseman Bill Madlock.
While Jenkins tore up Texas in 1974, Madlock finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, batting .313. Then he won a batting title in 1975, hitting .354. He then repeated as champ in 1976, batting .339. Sure batting average is overrated and Wrigley Field inflates averages – but that is nice. Meanwhile, Jenkins staggered his way to a 17-18 record in 1975 with a rising ERA. And that was his last year in Texas.
In those two years, Jenkins had 10.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Madlock had 11.6 WAR as a Cub from 1974-76. Then the Cubs flipped Madlock for Bobby Murcer.
It wasn’t a bad trade necessarily for the Cubs, but it did signal the end of an era—one of the few good eras the Cubs have had in the last 70 years. And that era ended 40 years ago today.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
No, this is not a spam email. We've been asked by Major League Baseball to post the following:
MLB.com, the official web site of Major League Baseball, is seeking stats stringers to cover these clubs in 2014 and beyond:
• Arrive at the ballpark no later than one hour prior to the scheduled start time;
• Double-check and verify all pre-game information: rosters, umpires, weather conditions, etc.;
• During the game, enter the results of every pitch and game event (plays, substitutions, etc.) using our proprietary software and coding language;
• Work closely with our game-night support staff (via AOL Instant Messenger) to ensure proper scoring of all game events and accuracy of data;
• After the game, enter all post-game information: winning and losing pitcher, saves, holds, time and attendance
• Validate all stats and data in our scoring software against the official box score provided by the Official Scorer.
• Exceptional (and demonstrable) knowledge of baseball and how to score a baseball game;
• Strong computer proficiency (Windows OS and Windows-based software) and the ability to quickly learn and operate new software;
• Previous experience (including pressbox exposure) with a professional or college sports team, preferably baseball;
• Regular availability to attend games in-person as required by the schedule: weekdays, nights and weekends;
• A "team player" with a great attitude, including but not limited to a willingness to make and learn from mistakes and the ability to work closely and cooperatively (and take direction from) our game-night staff;
(New stringers undergo an 8-10 week correspondence training program, and co-score several practice games in the ballpark with a returning stringer, before scoring any games solo in the ballpark.)
Twenty years go today, one of the most famous World Series games of all time took place: the Joe Carter game.
It was Game Six of the 1993 World Series on Oct. 23, 1993, and the Toronto Blue Jays entered just one game away from becoming baseball’s first back-to-back world champions since the 1977-'78 Yankees.
Pitching for the Blue Jays was aging veteran Dave Stewart. He was clearly past his prime, but the former ace of the 1988-'90 A’s dynasty had plenty of experience working in high-pressure postseason games.
Opposing Steward and the Jays were the NL champion Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies actually won more games in 1993—97 to Toronto’s 95. They won those 97 games on the strength of their bats. They finished first or second in a host of offensive categories: runs, hits, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. They were well rounded.
But so far the Phillies had been done in by their pitching, which wasn’t nearly as impressive. Toronto had scored 8, 10, and 15 runs in its three wins so far. It was up to starter Terry Mulholland to keep the Jays' bats at bay in this game. Though he’d later become a longtime lefty reliever, Mulholland was then an effective starter, with a 3.25 ERA on the season.
But early on, it didn’t look like Mulholland had it. The Jays nearly hit for the cycle in the first inning against him, scoring three runs on a walk, triple, double and single. Mulholland soon calmed down, but the Phillies couldn’t seem to dig their way out of that early hole. After six frames, the Jays led comfortably, 5-1. It didn’t look like they’d need any late game heroics to clinch the championship.
But then in the seventh the Phillies showed everyone how good their offense could be. After Stewart let the first two batters reach, Lenny Dykstra made him pay with a three-run homers. Toronto still had the lead, but now it was a much narrower 5-4 affair.
Out went Stewart and in came reliever Danny Cox. He didn’t allow any big hits, but he couldn’t get them out either. He allowed three singles and a walk. That tied the score 5-5, with the bases loaded and just one out.
Toronto manager Cito Gaston called on a new pitcher, Al Leiter. He’d been in the Toronto system for years, but had gotten hardly any playing time until this year. Now the 27-year-old swingman was called on at this most important of moments.
He did all right. He did allow the leading run to score on a sacrifice fly, but that was it. It wasn’t ideal, but at least the Blue Jays were still in striking distance, down 6-5. But in the bottom of the seventh, Toronto couldn’t do anything, going down in order. Now the Jays had just six outs left.
The eighth looked like it might be their inning. After Carter flew out to lead off, John Olerud worked the count for a walk. Olerud then advanced on a grounder to Roberto Alomar. The good news for Toronto was the tying run was in scoring position. The bad news was there were two outs.
But the bullpen wasn’t Philadelphia’s strength. Its ERA was 4.00, ninth in the NL. Reliever Larry Anderson hit the next batter and then walked another to load the bases. It looked like Toronto could tie it without even a hit. Or not. Pat Borders popped up to end the inning.
The Phillies went down in order in the top of the ninth, and now it was time for the final three outs. To close out the win, the Phillies brought in their relief ace, Mitch Williams. Nicknamed “Wild Thing,” Williams had once set the record (that still stands) for most walks in a season out of the bullpen: 91 with the 1987 Rangers.
While he had 43 saves on the year, he’d also allowed 100 base runners in 63 innings—44 reaching by walk. He’d been especially bad down the stretch, with a 6.24 ERA in his last 15 outings, with 14 walks and 14 hits in 13 innings. Just three days earlier, Williams had given up three runs in two-thirds of an inning while helping cough up a lead in a 15-14 loss in Game Four.
Leading off the top of the ninth, Wild Thing faced Rickey Henderson, one of the few batters in baseball history to walk more than 2,000 times. Naturally, Henderson drew a free pass. Up next came Devon White, and in an epic nine-pitch at bat, Williams got the better of him, getting a fly out.
With the Jays down to just two outs, Paul Molitor came out. The 3,000 hit club member did what he did best: get a hit. Henderson scooted to second, and suddenly extra innings looked like a real possibility.
That’s when Joe Carter came up. You know what happened next. After working the count to two balls and two strikes, Williams delivered a pitch that Carter sent deep into the stands in left field. That was it. Previously, just one World Series had ended on a walk-off home run—Bill Mazeroski's in Game Seven of 1960. Now, Joe Carter made it two.
Toronto had done it—become world champions again. And the Blue Jays did it 20 years ago today.
Tim Lincecum has re-signed with the San Francisco Giants for two years worth $35 million, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Lincecum was set to become one of the more interesting free agents on the market, due to two down years in which he pitched to a combined 4.76 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. It would have been interesting to see whether a team tried to sign him as a reliever or maybe even a swing man, but the Giants clearly see him as a starter.
That’s a lot of money to give the 29-year-old coming off of a couple of down seasons, especially given his dip in velocity (he averaged 93.11 mph with the heater in 2011 and 90.9 in 2013), but it could wind up being worth the gamble.
First, Lincecum is trending in the right direction. In 2013, he might not have been the pitcher he was four years ago, but he still pitched to a 3.74 FIP and a 3.56 xFIP, which is very relevant because his xFIP over the last two years is 3.68 and his homer/flyball rate was 13.3 percent in that time as opposed to a 9 percent career average. The homers have ticked up, but the Giants are banking on him regressing back to his career average, while his strikeouts (which have stayed steady at around nine per nine innings) stay where they are.
Almost $18 million annually is a steep price to pay for a small starter who has been losing velocity and will soon be 30, but his inputs have still been pretty solid even through the last two years. He has made 65 starts in that time, so he has stayed healthy.
Maybe the homer/flyball ratio is who he is now, but the Giants had a lot of money coming off the books after 2013 (some of which they’ve already re-invested in Hunter Pence) and this is a risk that could pay off. The current starting pitching market isn’t exactly fruitful, with Matt Garza leading the group of mostly back-end types. A qualifying offer may have made more sense because I don't think any team would have touched him had he been attached to draft pick compensation, but this move does have some upside.