The Sultans of Swipe

Ask any Bostonian to tell you the single greatest moment in Red Sox history and you’re almost certain to hear about Dave Roberts’ stolen base in game four of the 2004 ALCS (I did and my buddy “Boston Steve” immediately cited Roberts’ larceny as his #1 Red Sox moment). After working a lead-off walk, Kevin Millar was immediately replaced with the recently acquired Roberts.  The Dodgers had dealt the speedster to the Sox on July 31st in exchange for minor leaguer Henri Stanley.  In 45 games for Boston Roberts slashed .256/.330/.442, stole five bases and was caught twice over 101 plate appearances.  This is one of those situations that occurs in baseball where everybody on both teams, in the stands, and watching on TV, knows exactly what is about to happen.  It was never, ‘Will he go?’ it was ‘What will happen when he goes?’  Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera threw over to first three times before finally throwing a pitch, at which point Roberts broke for second.  Posada was set up over the inside corner (Bill Mueller was batting left-handed) but Rivera’s offering to Mueller was high and outside, towards Posada’s left shoulder.  His release was quick but due to the pitch location he couldn’t fully close his front side, which limited his hip rotation and cost him some velocity.  His throw was high and to the Shortstop side of second base, forcing Jeter to catch the ball up near his head and bring his tag down to the bag, some two to three feet away.  While this probably only added another few tenths of a second onto Posada’s pop time, baseball, as they say, is a game of inches.  Roberts dove headfirst toward the bag, Jeter tagging him on the forearm a split second later.  Safe.  The rest is history.

2004_alcs_gm_4_roberts_sets_up_scores_tying_run

 

Today, traditionalists still fume at Oakland’s continued assertion that attempting to steal bases is inefficient and unnecessarily risky. But ask yourself; Where’s the excitement in watching Billy Butler work a 9 pitch walk then trod down to first base only to stand 2 ½ feet from it, motionless?  While Billy Beane and his brainy charges can definitively back up their claims using statistics, this single play is the antithesis of Oakland’s station-to-station approach.  Boston, both the team and the city, was barely clinging to life.  Fans, despite holding signs that said, “BELIEVE” and “THE GREATEST COMEBACK IN SPORTS HISTORY!” were surely preparing for another off-season of heartache and despair.  The previous season they had at least made it through seven games before Aaron Boone stomped all over their dreams, but now they were being swept (swept!) by their long-time nemeses.  Until one play, one single play, changed everything.

Dave Roberts is certainly not the first pinch runner to steal a base (10 career attempts, 8 steals, 10 runs). Ironically, Oakland (yes, Oakland) seems to have been at the forefront of the “specialist base runner” movement.  While pinch runners have been used for decades, the idea of having the human equivalent of a Thoroughbred racehorse sitting at the end of your bench didn’t emerge until the late 60’s.  After stealing 116 bags for the Royals’ single A affiliate, the Leesburg A’s in 1966 (exactly 50% of the team’s total of 232), Allan “The Panamanian Express” Lewis was called up by the Royals for 34 games in 1967.  During his rookie campaign, Lewis stole 14 bases, scored seven runs and was thrown out five times.  Ignoring the likely cries of a then five year old Billy Beane, the Athletics brought Lewis to Oakland where he played 122 games but made just 25 plate appearances from 1968 to 1973.  During that span Lewis stole 30 bases, 27 of them when employed as a pinch runner.  In 1973, listed as a DH, Lewis appeared in 35 games, had no plate appearances and played zero innings on defense.  He stole seven bases and was thrown out four times.

The A’s continued to experiment with the use of specialist pinch runners when they acquired former sprinter “Hurricane” Herb Washington in 1974. Washington signed as an amateur free agent at the age of 22 and in 105 games with the A’s in 1974 and ’75, he made a grand total of zero plate appearances.  The ’74 A’s went on to win the World Series (their 3rd of three straight), with Washington taking home 29 bags and scoring 29 runs in the process.  He was however picked off during a crucial ninth-inning situation in game 2 and was released early in 1975.  To this day, whether or not Washington actually owned a glove is unknown.

They say less is more, but in Oakland, when it comes to guys who do nothing but pinch-run, apparently more is more. Following Washington’s departure in 1975, Don Hopkins and Matt Alexander were drafted in to fill the void.  Hopkins had 21 pinch-steals, scored 20 runs and was caught 7 times during the ’75 season while Alexander put up numbers of 17SB / 8R / 9CS.  Hopkins left the following year but Alexander, in three seasons with the A’s, made 88 plate appearances over 214 games, stealing 63 and getting caught 31 times.  From 1975 to 1977 Alexander pinch-stole 17, 19 and 20 bags respectively.

During his career, this green-and-gold-clad Prince of Thieves pinch-stole a total of 90 bases in 126 attempts, 26 more than Otis Nixon’s 64 bags in 88 tries. Alexander reached base more as a pinch runner than he did of his own accord, amassing just 36 hits, 18 walks and one hit-by-pitch over his career (55 times on base).  He had just 195 plate appearances in 374 games.

Pinch-stealing was most prevalent during the mid-70’s, with the top seven single season totals coming between 1974 and 1978, three of which belong to Alexander. The single season leader is another Oakland speedster, Larry Lintz, who swiped 30 bags (caught 11 times) in 1976 and ranks 4th all-time with 47.  Herb Washington is second with the 29 he stole in 1974.  The downtrend can, at least partially, be attributed to the Sabermetric assertion that in order to have a positive impact on a team’s run totals, a steal must be successful at least 75% of the time.  Clearly, many of these proprietors-of-pace are well below that mark.  The top 21 all-time pinch-base stealers have a combined success rate of just 74.79%.  The top 10 are even worse at 72.54%.

career-sbs

But what could have sparked this sudden need for speed in the first place? Was the league’s motivation (or Oakland’s at least) based on gut feeling, some kind of statistical trend, or just the thought that; because there are specialist pinch hitters, there should be specialist pinch runners too?  It’s possible that, during the decade of the pitcher (1960’s) when hits, and offense in general, were scarce, teams were trying to gain a completive advantage by stealing bases in order to manually generate more opportunities to score.

hrs

Other than a few minor exceptions, home runs had plateaued or decreased throughout the 60’s, the low-point being 1968. It was around this time that “The Panamanian Express” first appeared.  Home runs got a small bump in 1969, due mainly to expansion, but the renaissance was short lived as long balls again began to wane in 1971.  The AL went so far as to adopt the designated hitter in 1973.  Judging by the figures, these “specialist hitters” must have finished developing around 1977, as evidenced by the subsequent increase in AL home run totals.  While the NL also saw a rise in round-trippers, the AL totals were well and truly separated from their NL counterparts.  This remained so until the steroid era’s hey-day in the mid 90’s.  Interestingly, 1977 was right around the time that the use of specialist pinch-base stealers began to decline.

sbs

Was this decline in base stealing due to an emergence of power across the leagues? Perhaps managers felt it would be more beneficial to carry an extra slugger on their bench, who could bring a handful of players (as well as himself) home with one mighty swat, rather than waste a roster spot on a base path bandit who could do little else on a ball field.  Remember, stealing second only puts a runner into scoring position.  He still needs one of his teammates to bring him around.  A muscled up basher is in scoring position the moment he steps into the batter’s box.

Inevitably the practice died off. The 80’s single season pinch-stolen base leader Bob Dernier pilfered just 14 bags in 15 attempts in 1983.  Damian Jackson led the way in the 2000’s with 12 bags in 18 attempts in 2003 while Jarrod Dyson currently carries the torch in the 2010’s, grabbing seven bags in 2013 and eight bags in both 2014 and 2015.  Regardless of whether or not it’s statistically beneficial to attempt to steal bases, no one can deny that it’s one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A single, glorious moment that can change the outcome of a game, a series, or in Boston’s case, franchise history.  Just ask my buddy Steve.

Fool’s Gold: The Great Hideki Irabu Hoax

 

hideki-irabu
Hideki Irabu

 

Most baseball fans remember Hideki Irabu as the Yankee’s pseudo-superstar Japanese pitcher who, after playing five years of mediocre major league ball, found himself in the minor leagues before eventually moving back to Japan. He was touted a “Japanese Nolan Ryan” and given a four year contract worth $12.8 million before so much as throwing a baseball in a competitive game on American soil.  But the great Hideki Irabu hoax doesn’t begin with him joining the Yankees.  It begins with a little known player named Masanori Murakami some 30 years earlier.

Even the most grizzled baseball aficionados would have to think long and hard were you to ask them who Masanori Murakami is. The first Japanese player to play in the big leagues, Murakami’s career has been mostly forgotten.  Murakami, which means ‘upper village’ was born May 6th, 1944 in Otsuki, Japan.  Murakami first appeared in America in 1964 when he suited up for the San Francisco Giants at the tender age of 20.  Over parts of two seasons in the Bay area, Murakami posted the kind of numbers that, although solid, were likely to be overlooked by anyone not named Bill James (unfortunately for Murakami Bill James was only 15 years old at the time and people wouldn’t even consider listening to him for another 30 years).  During the 1964 season Murakami also spent time in Fresno with the Giants single A affiliate.  He dominated opposing hitters going 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA and 159 K’s in 106 innings.  He allowed just 64 hits and 34 walks and posted a 0.925 WHIP.

The left-hander, who was labelled a “soft tosser” regularly baffled hitters with a dazzling array of off-speed junk and pin-point control. All in all he threw just 89 1/3 innings in the Majors, posting a 5-1 record and a respectable 3.43 ERA.  During those 89 1/3 innings he allowed just 65 hits and 23 walks (0.985 WHIP) to go along with 100 punch-outs (10.1 K’s/9).  His K’s/BB ratio was 4.35.  Almost as soon as he had appeared he was gone again, back to Japan to again suit up for his former club, the Nankai Hawks.  Why the Giants didn’t put up a fight to retain his services is understandable considering the player evaluation methods of the day.  Murakami was unassuming, of slight build and didn’t even throw that hard.  Murakami finally retired following the 1982 season at the age of 38.

Following Murakami’s departure in 1965 things on the Japan front went quiet to say the least. For 30 years no Japanese born player would enter the big leagues.  That all changed when a lanky, 26 year old with an nasty forkball and a grotesque delivery showed up in L.A. in 1995.  Hideo Nomo was initially sent to high A ball in Bakersfield where, during his first game on U.S. soil, he allowed 2 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk in 5 1/3 innings.  Early jitters aside, Nomo promptly established himself within the Dodgers rotation going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA in 28 starts on his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award.  He allowed 124 hits and 78 walks in 191 1/3 innings while racking up a league leading 236 K’s.  All in all Nomo pitched 323 games in the Majors over 12 seasons.  He finished his career with a 123-109 record and a 4.24 ERA.  Although his career tapered off after that amazing start, he had done something much greater than any stat recorded by Major League Baseball; he had kicked open the door to America.

Perhaps, as a result of teams trying to find the next Nomo, the next eight Japanese players to play big-league ball were pitchers. After Nomo appeared in 1995 there was an influx of hurlers from Japan as MLB teams scrambled to unearth the next diamond in the rough.  Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Takashi Kashiwada, and Hideki Irabu all made their Major League debuts in 1997 which begs the question: how much, if any, research went into these signings?

A closer look at Irabu’s NBL stats shows an unsettling amount of walks combined with a lower K’s/9 (9.08) than you’d expect from the “Japanese Nolan Ryan.” From 1988 to 1996 Irabu appeared in 243 Nippon Professional Baseball League games where he compiled a 59-59 record, and a 3.67 ERA.  He allowed 924 hits and 507 walks in 1101 2/3 innings pitched.  His 1.3027 WHIP was suspect even by major league standards, but in Japan, against has-been major leaguers and never-were minor leaguers, it was downright awful.  I mean, Irabu was 27 at this point.  It’s not like he was some raw fireballer who had yet to harness his powers (see Expos washout, Randy Johnson).  If Irabu was so great, why did the Dodgers choose Nomo?  In 1994, Nomo’s last year in Japan, Irabu went 15-10 with a 1.273 WHIP while Nomo went 8-7 with a 1.596 WHIP.  Remember all of this was before the creation of the Japanese Posting system, so it’s possible that the Dodgers did want Irabu, but had to settle for Nomo who was able to get out of his Japanese contract when his agent discovered a loophole.

So how did the Yankees get it so wrong?  For starters, they didn’t look at Irabu’s stats.  Not seriously anyway.  If they had they would have seen that despite his low ERA and high K’s/9 he also walked one batter every two innings.  Sure he threw gas but what good is that if you can’t throw strikes?  In Japan, apparently it’s fine.  If Irabu walked a few guys, so what?  He’d just strike out the next guy anyway.  Some of these hitters were barely good enough to play in the low minors.  Some of them couldn’t play in America, period.  Irabu’s Japanese stats were inflated because he was pitching against guys the majority of whom were essentially Rookie league and low A ball calibre, at best.  Add to that the fact that he was still walking 4.5 guys per game in Japan, where even if he just fired it right down the middle he was unlikely to get hurt, and you had a disaster in the making.  Putting a pitcher like that up against MLB hitters, who would not only take the walks Irabu handed them but could actually hit his fastball, was always going to end in tears.  In the Show everybody can hit a fastball.

A perfect example is that of Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder.  After a woeful 1988 season in which he slashed .230/.289/.431 for the Jays, Cecil knew his days were numbered.  Fielder’s ever increasing girth, combined with his shrinking average and diminishing power were responsible for his exile to Japan.  Once there however, Fielder feasted (sorry, couldn’t resist) on the sub-standard pitching and began swatting home runs at a rate of one every 10 at bats.  In 384 at bats he mashed 38 dingers and drove in 81 runs while slashing .302/.403/.628.  What’s the point?  The point is Japanese baseball isn’t as good as Major League Baseball and it’s obvious to anyone who looks at the stats for more than 2 and a half seconds.  Unfortunately for the Yankees, Steinbrenner didn’t.

 

Fielder
Big Daddy Cess!

 

In three seasons with the Bronx Bombers Irabu posted a record of 29-20 and a 4.80 ERA.  Over 395 2/3 innings of work he allowed 397 hits, 142 walks and had 315 K’s.  His WHIP was an under-whelming 1.362.  Other stats: 9.0 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, 7.2 K’s/9, 2.22 K’s/BB.  He went on to make stops in Montreal and Texas before the league finally wised up and gave Irabu his walking papers.  Baseball Reference shows Irabu’s career earnings as $15,550,000.00 and lists Irabu’s top five similarity scores as; Ryan Drese, Brandon Backe, Ray Phelps, Chris Knapp, Geremi Gonzalez.  Nope, I don’t remember any of those guys either.

Irabu’s body was found on July 27th, 2011 in his L.A. home.  Irabu had hanged himself.

The Perfect Storm: Could 2016 be a career year for Jay Cutler?

When people use the term ‘Career year’ they’re usually only referring to a player’s individual statistics.  Often times, one player’s statistical dominance overshadows, and serves to divert attention from, the team’s sub-par record.  One could argue that Smokin’ Jay himself had his career year in 2008 while playing for the Denver Broncos.  In his third NFL season he tossed up 25 TD’s, had just 18 picks (this is good for Cutler), averaged 282.9 yards per game (still his career best) and threw for 4,526 yards (also a career best).  Since then he hasn’t thrown for more than 3,812 yards (2014) and his season high TD’s is just 28 (2014).  During Jay’s career year in 2008, in which he finished 3rd in passing yards behind Drew Brees (5,069) and Kurt Warner (4,583) the Bronco’s posted a gloriously unsatisfying record of 8-8.

In 134 career starts Mr. Cutler has a perplexing record of 67-67, the epitome of average.  So what do I mean when I say the 2016/2017 NFL season could be a career year for Jay?

jay-cutler
Cutler needs to take control if the Bears are to be successful in 2016

 

He knows the system

Despite OC Adam Gase taking the head coaching job at Miami during the off season, this will be Cutler’s 2nd season in this system.  Head Coach John Fox has already confirmed that the system will not change much, if at all.  New OC Dowell Loggains was the QB coach in 2015 and reportedly has an open, no nonsense relationship with Cutler.  This increased familiarity should translate into more synergy and greater cohesion on offense.  Brian Hoyer has also joined the team which means that for the first time in his career, Cutler will have a QB actually capable of starting an NFL game pushing him for playing time.  Hopefully having the possibility of being benched hanging over his head will finally give Cutler the impetus to break through that glass performance ceiling that he’s been squashing his face into for the past eight seasons.

 

D  IIII! (clap-clap-clap) D  IIII! (clap-clap-clap)

In 2015 the Bears switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under first year DC Vic Fangio.  An adjustment period is expected in situations like this as shuffling out 4-3 scheme players (Jared Allen) and acquiring 3-4 scheme players (Danny Trevathan) takes time.  The Bears 3-4 defense has had a season to settle in and should provide Cutler and his offense more time on the football.  They should also allow fewer points, thus taking some of the burden off of Cutler.  He has a reputation of being a bit of a gunslinger and can at times try to squeeze balls into tight windows when chasing the game.  Less of this can only be good for the Bears.

 

He has two big, quality targets

Alshon Jeffery is healthy again and can hopefully remain so for the entire season.  He’s also the proud recipient of the Bears’ franchise tag, meaning he is in a contract year for the second straight season.  While not a deep threat in the traditional sense, his massive wingspan and Cirque du Soleil-esq body control make him without a doubt one of the league’s best when it comes to high-pointing, and thus winning, jump balls.  He knows better than anyone that it’s in his best interest to put up #1 WR numbers if he wants to be paid like one.  Kevin White has recovered from the broken shin which kept him side-lined for the entire 2015 season.  Getting him back is as if the Bears had an extra 1st round pick in the 2016 draft.  Plus, unlike an actual rookie, he’s had all of 2015 to study the playbook, watch film and just generally acclimatize to life in the NFL.  Should hit the ground running in 2016.

 

The running backs will actually run

Despite GM Ryan Pace letting the best running back since 2008 walk during the offseason (before you get all upset and start sending angry tweets and sad emoji’s, I’m basing this on the simple fact that Forte has more yards from scrimmage than any other back since 2008), the Bears have a good, young group of backs at their disposal.  RB’s coach Stan Drayton has a reputation for developing and mentoring young runners (Ohio State 2011-2014) so shouldn’t have any problem with the task at hand.  He’s a seasoned vet at the college level and the effect he had on Ohio State’s ground game is there for all to see.  Things cooled off a little when Braxton Miller was out with a medical redshirt in 2014 but Ezekiel Elliott had a fine season under Drayton and was subsequently drafted 4th overall by the Cowboys.

RBs

While question marks surround Jeremy Langford, he has shown brief flashes of being a genuine #1 back.  His workload was obviously lighter than Forte’s but the Bears don’t seem reluctant to use him when he’s on the field.  He played 392 snaps in 2015 amassing 170 touches (getting the ball 43.3% of the time he’s on the field) while Forte had 262 touches in 597 snaps (43.9%).  Forte was traditionally more of a pass-catcher than a bruising runner, evidenced by his 102 receptions in 2014.  He had just 44 in his first year under Fox.  It’s no secret that Fox likes his running backs to actually run, combine that with the fact that Forte has lost a step since his mid-20’s, (average yards per rush dipped from 4.9 in 2011 – long of 46, to just 4.1 in 2015 – long of 27) and letting Forte walk was a no-brainer from a business standpoint.  Enter Fox’s new running back committee – Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Yes, Forte is undeniably one of the greatest Bears of all time but Cutler dropping back to pass him the ball is still Cutler dropping back to pass.  Rather than having to put eight in the box, teams can key on the pass and staff their defense with faster, more athletic players.  ‘Establishing the running game’ is one of the oldest clichés in football for a reason; it works.  Teams can’t simply drop back and drape players all over the receivers.  Imagine you’re a boxer who only throws punches at your opponent’s head.  If this is the case, he’ll just cover up his head while you tire yourself out punching the backs of his gloves and forearms.  Long story short, you need to sock him in the gut every once in a while.  Remember, Cutler’s arm strength and accuracy aren’t the issue here, it’s his decision making (or lack of it) and his gunslinger attitude that get him into trouble.

 

Yeah, so?

So, many people forget that statistically speaking, Jay Cutler is the greatest QB in Bears history.  Despite the fact that Jim McMahon led the Bears to a Superbowl victory in 1985, his stats were nothing to write home about.  That year McMahon posted a TD/INT ratio of 15/11, threw for 2,392 yards and had a QB rating of just 82.6.  Being backed up by arguably the greatest defense in the history of football is a difference maker to say the least.  During Cutler’s reign however, the Bears defense has been decidedly hit or miss (mostly miss):

PPG

You’ll notice they did have a good defensive unit in 2010, allowing just 17.9 points per game.  Chicago finished 1st in the NFC North (11-5).  They beat the Seahawks 35-24 in the first round to advance to the NFC Championship where they then lost 21-14 to the Packers.  A good season by anyone’s standards.

Snake bitten in 2012 the Bears somehow finished 3rd in the NFC North despite posting a 10-6 record, causing them to miss the playoffs.  Other than these two seasons Cutler and his offensive unit have pretty much shouldered the load themselves, all the while receiving unjustifiable and downright ignorant criticism.  During Peyton Manning’s record breaking 2004 season in which he tossed 49 touchdown passes, the mighty Colts averaged 32.6 points per game.  This is viewed by many, and rightfully so, as the greatest year by a QB, ever.  Jay Cutler is no Peyton Manning so when you think about it objectively, with the defense they had, the Bears had no chance in 2013, 2014 or 2015.

I feel like we’ve shown that a player putting up great individual stats doesn’t always correlate to the team being successful, and vice versa.  But, could Cutler emerging as a reliable game manger and leading the Bears to a 12+ win season (something he’s never done before) be considered a career year?  The Bears are in a good position with regard to coaching, playbook familiarity and talent.  Cutler himself wouldn’t necessarily need to put up the huge aggregate numbers we traditionally associate with upper echelon quarterbacks, just to tie all of these resources together and stay within himself.  Oh and he’ll need a little help from his defense of course.

MLB Predictions – 2016

The other day I came across an email that I had sent to my buddy Steve prior to the start of the 2016 MLB season.  In it I made a few predictions about how I thought certain players would perform and how one would be busted for using PEDs.  Without further ado…

 

Maikel Franco hits 30+ home runs

Last year Franco burst on the scene for the Phillies by socking 14 dingers in just 304 at bats (That’s one every 20 at bats for those of you counting at home).  I created an excel sheet which projects a part time player’s stats over 550 at bats; useful when trying to get a feel for guys who may have been injured or who’ve come up midway through a season.  My projections show Franco as a 25 HR, 90 RBI guy.  After 107 games he’s on pace for a 27/89 season, and if he can accumulate upwards of 600 at bats, which I was counting on from the beginning, he’s projecting to be a 30/100 guy.

Franco
“I bet he acted all aloof, like he didn’t know me.”

 

The Phillies are 52-63, 15.5 games back in the NL East so it’s safe to say that their season is effectively over.  Despite the line up not turning over as often as one might like, which could potentially reduce Franco’s at bat totals, he should still get lots of playing time as the Phillies look to continue his development.  For now we’ll call this one, ‘on track’.

 

Jason Hammel has a great, but possibly unnoticeable, year.  Wins 15+ games.

I found Hammel while trying to round out my fantasy team following this year’s draft.  My draft didn’t go exactly as planned (does it ever?) and I needed to add another starter.  There was just one problem; all the half decent starters had just been auctioned off to the highest bidder.  I opened my trusty excel spreadsheet and removed every unavailable starting pitcher.  I then began the arduous process of whittling down the list of potential signings.  Traditionally speaking, none of them had great stats.  Remember, these were the guys who no one wanted.  They all had mediocre numbers as far as wins and strike outs went so those were essentially useless to me.  Choosing a guy who’s 11-10 over a guy who’s 10-11 is nothing more than a crapshoot, at best.  Using obscure stats like ground ball percentage, pitches per inning pitched and adjusted strike outs (my own creation, click here for more info), I began sifting through the remaining names on my spreadsheet,  like someone combing through a sandbox trying to find an earring.  Sure you start off calmly enough but after 15 minutes of searching panic sets in.  There didn’t seem to be any continuity.  One guy had a great GO/AO ratio but that was only when he could actually find the strike zone.  His 1.78 WHIP definitely wasn’t what I was looking for.  After a while I noticed that Hammel’s name kept popping up near the top of these categories.  He wasn’t first in anything but seemed to hover around the top five in everything.  I decided to dig a little deeper.  He put up some solid numbers in Chicago in 2014 and stumbled a little when he moved to Oakland (he still posted a 1.29 WHIP which is nothing to sneeze at).  In the time he spent in Chicago during the 2014 season he went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in 17 starts.  In 108 2/3 innings he allowed 88 hits and 23 walks while fanning 104.  The Hammer of Glamour put up more solid numbers in 2015 going 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in 31 starts.  He allowed just 158 hits in 170 2/3 innings and struck out 172.  I pulled the trigger and he was mine!

Arietta and Hammel
It’s not just their stats that look alike… Seriously though, what’s the story fellas?

 

Through 21 starts in 2016 Hamm-dawg is 11-5 with a 3.07 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP.  During his 120 1/3 innings of work he’s allowed 95 hits and just 37 walks while punching out an even 100.  He’s collecting the win in 52% of his starts which means that a 15+ win season isn’t out of the question.  The one potential problem here is that for some reason, Hammel is the #5 starter for the Cubs.  As progressive and forward thinking as Joe Maddon is, you can bet that whenever possible he will skip over Hammel in order to get the ball back into you-know-who’s hands, every time.  Most back end guys get 30-31 starts so again, as long as Hammel continues to get the ball (almost) every 5th day, we’ll call this one ‘on track’.

 

Giancarlo Stanton hits 60+ home runs.

The projection methods I used when looking at Franco were also used to evaluate Stanton, who had just 279 at bats in 2015.  He mashed 27 home runs though, which equates to one every 10.3 at bats.  Ruth hit one home run every 9 at bats in 1927 and Maris hit one every 9.6 in 1961.  It’s no cake walk however.  We’ve all heard the stories of a chain-smoking Roger Maris losing his hair from the stress of it all, but Stanton has definitely shown that, if he can remain consistent, he could do it one day.  Currently he has 24 bombs in 371 at bats, which equates to one jimmy jack every 15.5 at bats.  I think it’s safe to say this one looks ‘unlikely’.

Maris
Kiss my asterisk.

 

 

And Finally…

Jose Bautista will be busted for using performance enhancing drugs.

No I haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years.  I know these types of accusations have come up before and so far nothing has been proven.  To be honest I kinda just threw up a Hail Mary with this one.  Bautista is in a contract year and wants a big raise.  His teammate Chris Colabello had just been caught using a banned substance.  He’s also 35 which is generally when power hitters start to decline.  I guess I just had a feeling that he might try to ensure that he had a great season in order to create interest from other teams and either; A) Force Toronto to give him the mega-deal he wants, or B) Trick the [insert name of struggling team desperate to appease their irate fan base here] into giving him an abbreviated version of the Pujols deal.  Let’s call this one ‘who knows’ for now.

BautistaJeans
The Canadian Tuxedo: If this is wrong, why would anyone wanna be right, eh?

For Love of the Game?

 

I do want to be remembered as someone who was madly in love with the game of baseball, someone who loves it at every level,”

– Alex Rodriguez

 

Alex Rodriguez is facing yet another test of character, perhaps his biggest yet.  It was announced Sunday that his days as a player for the New York Yankees would be coming to an end in the very near future.  Anyone reading this already knows that A-Rod has been underperforming at the plate this year, and those same people know that the Yankees’ front office has been trying to unload A-Rod’s albatross of a contract to no avail.  New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman confirmed that no other teams are interested in acquiring Rodriguez.  The situation is as follows:

  • The Yankees want to get rid of A-Rod.  If they can’t trade him they are still required to pay him the remainder of his contract ($27 million approx.)
  • A-Rod wants to play baseball, not sit on the bench
  • A-Rod currently has 696 career home runs and desperately wants to reach 700 before he retires, something only three players can lay claim to (Bonds, Aaron, Ruth)
  • A-Rod also wants to collect the $27 million remaining on his contract

So in an attempt to unload A-Rod’s monster contract Cashman devised an ingenious plan.  He basically tells A-Rod that his skills are diminishing and he should retire.  A-Rod refuses.  Cashman lays his cards on the table – retire now, or you’ll never see the field again anyway.  A-Rod stands firm, he wants to collect the 27 million owed to him (who wouldn’t?).  This is where Cashman makes his most brilliant move.  He knows that A-Rod is too proud to sit on the bench for the rest of this year and all of 2017, so he offers him an out; become a “special advisor”.  Now A-Rod can avoid the humiliation of riding the pine and still collect the money owed to him, unless…

ESPN reports that, “Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, however, acknowledged that Rodriguez has a right to change his mind and pursue any potential opportunity. And for his part, Rodriguez never used the word “retire.”

If A-Rod does decide to make a run at 700 he can opt out of his contract with the Yankees (best case scenario for Cashman) and sign with any team he chooses.  But which teams might be interested?  Certainly it would have to be a team with issues.  No contender is going to sign an aging slugger, especially one who no longer slugs.  Even if a contender did want him we know A-Rod doesn’t want to be a role player so pinch hitting is out of the question.  He wants to play every day and the only teams who are likely to let him do that are teams whose current hitters are even more woeful than A-Rod.  Surely there must be at least one out there, right?  There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, each with eight or nine starting hitters.  That’s 135 AL hitters and 120 NL hitters for a total of 255 hitters.  So, is A-Rod in the top 255 hitters in Major League Baseball?  Currently his OPS ranks him as the 154th best hitter in baseball (although currently he does not “qualify” as far as at bats go).

A-Rod’s stats are underwhelming to say the least.  His current slash line is .204/.252/.356.  He hits a home run every 24 at bats and strikes out once every 3.32 at bats.  Of course his at bats have been sporadic at best and it’s possible that he could get into a rhythm once he’s getting regular plate appearances.  His potential salary could also be appealing to a team attempting to boost ticket sales until the end of the season.  The minimum salary of $507,500.00, pro-rated over the remaining 50 games of the season, would work out to approximately $156,000.00.

 

Tampa Bay Rays – Located in A-Rod’s home state.  Last in AL East (45-65).  Average attendance 16,503 (last in MLB).  A-Rod can chase his 700 home runs and the Rays can cash in on a boost in ticket sales without jeopardizing their rebuilding efforts.

Comparable players:

  • Kevin Kiermaier    .206/.311/.376    AB/HR – 31.50    AB/SO – 4.73
  • Desmond Jennings    .200/.281/.350    AB/HR – 28.57    AB/SO – 3.45
  • Alex Rodriguez    .204/.252/.356    AB/HR – 24.00    AB/SO – 3.32

 

Miami Marlins – Located in A-Rod’s home town.  2nd in NL East.  Average attendance 21,837 (27th in MLB).  Like the Rays option A-Rod can go after his milestone and the Marlins can collect some extra bank.  This one is trickier however as despite the Fish being eight games behind the Nationals in the NL East (and unlikely to catch them), they’re only three games behind the Dodgers for the NL Wild Card spot (a much more reasonable target).  So can the Marlins give A-Rod the at bats he needs to hit four home runs without risking a shot at the playoffs?

Comparable players:

  • Miguel Rojas    .261/.297/.326    AB/HR – 0 HR’s    AB/SO – 6.90
  • Chris Johnson    .231/.282/.338    AB/HR – 48.75    AB/SO – 3.15
  • Alex Rodriguez    .204/.252/.356    AB/HR – 24.00    AB/SO – 3.32

 

So now Rodriguez has a choice to make, become a special advisor and collect another $27 million, or sacrifice the money and go for 700 home runs, presumably while earning the league minimum.  Baseball Reference shows his career earnings to date as $393,285,104.00, so we know he doesn’t need the money.  But what about reaching 700 home runs?  He’s only four short of his goal.  It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy.  Imagine this, it’s 2066.  Alex Rodriguez is 91 years old and laying on his deathbed.  At that moment, looking back on his life, his legacy, would he trade the $27 million ($14 million after taxes) he made as a special advisor for four more, just four more, home runs?

We’re about to find out just what Alex Rodriguez truly loves the most.

 

 

Mike

Eat Your Heart Out Ray Kinsella

Every year for the past 20 or so years my men’s baseball league has hosted a tournament during the May long weekend. Our league enters the prospective All-Star team, which gives the players a chance to play a few games together and the coaches a chance to evaluate guys whom they may have reservations about.  Local rivals from the neighbouring city of Nanaimo often enter a team and a handful of teams come up from Washington and Oregon.  Although I was never selected to the “pre” All-Star team I was usually able to pick up a few games with some of the visiting American teams as they would often show up with anywhere between 8 and 11 players.  I’d usually be at the park anyway, watching games, scorekeeping etc. so I’d just throw my gear in the back of my truck and wait for the call.  Inevitably a team would put the word out that someone got called into work, missed their flight, or just plain bailed out at the last minute, and they needed an extra guy.

So one year, as I’m getting ready to head up to the yard, I get a call from my dad. He tells me that a bunch of his old buddies have decided to enter a team and they wanted to know if I would like to join.  They played first thing Saturday morning and originally they had about 35 players.  As can happen with 50 year olds, the injuries were quickly starting to mount up and they realized that they would need some new blood in order to complete their remaining games.  I was probably 25 or 26 at the time which means my dad was 53 or 54.

I get up to the park and immediately spot my old man, sitting in the beer garden with a bunch of other old guys. The term “rogues gallery” doesn’t come close to describing these guys.  The newest pair of baseball spikes must have been 20+ years old.  Some guys had soccer boots.  One guy just had running shoes.  One guy finds a huge, dead spider in his glove which in all likelihood, he dug out of the attic/shed/garage/basement only a few hours earlier.  There are more ankle and knee braces than I can count.  One of our outfielders has metal, NFL O-lineman style knee braces on both legs.  He was also sporting a huge bobandy which I estimate was made up of at least 15,000 beers.  But the crown jewel of this group was a former major leaguer named Frank Williams. Frank had pitched for the Giants, Reds and Tigers between 1984 and 1989.  Through the 4712/3 innings he pitched in the show he’s compiled a 24-14 record, had an ERA of 3.00, a WHIP of 1.367 and a K/9 of 6.0.

Amongst this rag-tag group of soon-to-be pensioners were a few other guys who, like myself, were still young (I.E.: under the age of 40).  There was Charlie Stratford and his cousins Jason, Trevor and Mike.  Charlie was an amazing player who played college and independent league ball.  If he wasn’t the size of Dustin Pedroia he’d surely be playing in the minor leagues somewhere.  He could play pretty much any position on the field better than pretty much anyone else.  His cousin Jason, who was about 35 at the time, was a seasoned veteran and up until recently, was a key component of the league’s aforementioned All-Star team.  There were also the Engen boys, Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Danny.  Despite both of Dale’s sons having chosen soccer over baseball in their late teens, they were extremely athletic and knew what they were doing.

After a few introductions I ask when our next game is. A brief debate ensues.  Finally it is decided that our next game is about an hour away.  “Shouldn’t we start warming up?” I ask.  “What do you think we’re doing?!” shouts some old guy as he raises his plastic cup of beer.  Everybody within earshot cheers and laughs.  One guy makes the proclamation that us rookies need to ‘learn a thing or two about baseball’.  Sweet.  Eventually a line up is written by consensus.  Players are selected as follows: Young guys (again, this is anyone under 40), old guys who aren’t injured, followed by old guys who ‘aren’t hurting that bad’.  Some groan and protest but they’re quickly swayed when the de-facto coach announces that there will be ‘lotsa subs’.

I’m a first baseman by trade but that went out the window as soon as they found out that I had two knees that actually worked. I get ready for a day in the outfield until someone notices that the starting first baseman Jeff (I forget his name so we’ll call him Jeff) is missing.  Apparently he went home after the first game to get something and hasn’t returned.  He would turn up Sunday and announce that he’d fallen asleep in the bath.  So wrecked was he from the first game that he’d gone home and taken a load of pain killers.  He then got into an Epsom salt bath and promptly passed out.  In baseball, first base is often a place where a poor fielder can be stashed, as all he really needs to do is catch a ball thrown directly at him.  I would find out later that in the first game, some of these old guys’ throws were a little wild and a younger, quicker first baseman is now required.  The coach sees me playing catch with a trapper and I am drafted in to fill the void.  Unlike traditional first basemen, I have almost no power and hit more like a leadoff man than a corner infielder.  But what I do have is a knack for making outs out of horrible throws.  Scooping short-hops, coming off the bag and making a tag, ‘accidentally’ impeding the runner when there’s an overthrow… those are my specialties.  The game starts.

I don’t remember much about the game itself. Only two specific events stand out in my memory.  The first one was my first at bat.  There were two outs and a man on first.  I got into a no ball, two-strike count early.  I could hear the guys encouraging me from the dugout.  My dad was one of them, which was pretty cool.  He and I had never played in the same game before, which is probably why this stands out.  I go into two-strike mode.  I foul off pitch after pitch, take the occasional ball and eventually work the count full.  At this point it’s gotta be a 10 or 12 pitch at bat.  I keep hearing tons of encouragement from the dugout.  Guys I’ve never met (or met when I was a kid and haven’t seen since) are cheering me on, as if we’ve been teammates for years.  It’s a great feeling.  I step in for what feels like the 15th pitch of this at bat.  The pitcher has either grown tired of our game or just straight up makes a mistake and leaves a batting practice fastball belly high over the middle of the plate.  I’ve never claimed to be a great hitter (because I’m not) but I can certainly handle straight, 75mph fastballs tossed right down the chute.  I pull a line drive over the second baseman’s head for a base hit.  The dugout cheers.  This feels awesome.

The second event that stands out to me was near the end of the game, when our team was in the field. Whether it was by design or by accident, we ended up having three families on the field at one time.  There were four Stratford’s (Charlie at short, Jason catching, and Trevor and Mike in the outfield), the Engen’s (Dale Sr. pitching, Dale Jr. at second base and Danny in left field) and my dad and I (third base and first base respectively).  I can’t remember if someone pointed it out or if we all just kinda noticed but it was pretty surreal.  Dale Sr., a crafty left hander of the Jamie Moyer variety, was dealing an array of slow, frustrating junk, designed to induce huge hacks and slow grounders.  He wastes no time in getting the first batter of the inning out (although I can’t remember how) and proceeds to start working on the next guy.  I keep checking on my dad at third base, I mean, the guy hasn’t played baseball in over 20 years.  He’s wearing huge Rance Mullininks-esq glasses which would surely explode into thousands of shards of glass were a ball to take a bad hop and hit him in the eye.  I know he knows what he’s doing but let’s be honest, he’s in his early 50’s and refers to his knees as his bad knee and his worse knee.

Dale Sr., pitching out of the stretch, comes set. He delivers a big, overhand curve which the hitter tries to crush.  Instead, he dutifully hammers it into the ground, down the third base line.  My old man crosses over to his right, back-hands the ball and throws it to me at first.  The release is quick and I can already see that it’s dead accurate but because of his bad knees he can’t really push off his legs to put much velocity behind his throw.  I stretch forward to attack the spot where the ball is going to bounce, essentially nullifying the short-hop.  The throw beats the runner by a step and I pick it easily.  I point my glove at my dad as if to say “nice play” and throw it around the horn.

donaldsondrs
It wasn’t quite as awesome as this, but it was close.

 

The scorekeeper will record it as a routine 5-3 putout but it was much more than that.  That routine 5-3 was bookended by a nice play from both a father and his son, playing in the same game, on the same team for the first, and last, time ever.  When we got back to the dugout after the inning ended, we fist bumped.  He said “Nice scoop, thanks for saving me”, “Good throw, way to get it out quick.  That guy was fast.” I replied.  For any first baseman it was a routine short-hop, something that we’ve all done thousands of times.  While it wasn’t the best play I’ve ever made it was certainly the most memorable.

 

Mike

 

Man vs. Owl

Many years ago I worked in a produce warehouse.  Basic stuff really, restaurants and smaller, independent grocery stores would order wholesale produce and we would ship it out to them.  I was 18 and it was the first job that I’d ever gotten through a connection that I myself had made.  My boss was a guy named Rich who looked like what you’d get if you took Bruce Willis and Michael Chiklis and mashed them together.  He was in his mid-30’s and we played in the same senior men’s baseball league.  He was funny and relaxed but rode me enough to teach me how to actually work.  After a few months I was able to get my buddy Klinger a job at the warehouse.  Despite making minimum wage, it was actually an enjoyable job.  I was working with one of my best friends and for a boss who was really easy to get along with.  The only downside was that we started work at 5am and didn’t really have an established quitting time.  We would just kinda work until all the work was done.  Sure the night crew would come in around 1pm but us morning guys would then switch from loading trucks to sorting through rotting tomatoes or bell peppers, picking out the bad ones and re-boxing the good ones.

So one day Klinger calls me up and says that he’s had his licence suspended for drunk driving.  He proceeds to tell me the following story:

He lived way out of town, down some country roads.  It was a heavily wooded area with few street lights.  So he was driving home down these back roads one night and he comes across a guy who has somehow gotten his Ford Explorer stuck in a ditch.  Being a good Samaritan, he pulls over and offers to help.  The guy in the Explorer says he has a tow-rope and asks if Klinger will pull him out of the ditch.  Klinger’s dad was a car guy and had taught his son a fair bit about cars and how they’re built.  Kling (yes, we gave him a nickname for his nickname because his nickname was too long apparently) immediately knows that his ’84 Monte Carlo cannot pull this Explorer out.  He doesn’t have a trailer hitch and doesn’t feel like ripping his rear bumper off in the middle of the woods at 2am.  All of a sudden another dude in an SUV pulls up.  He asks what’s going on and they bring him up to speed.

“Pffft.  You don’t need a trailer hitch.  Just tie your tow-rope around my bumper.  I done it before.”

Klinger is sceptical and removes himself from the situation.  He stands clear and watches the two guys hook up the cars.  The 2nd guy then jumps in his SUV and starts trying to pull the 1st SUV driver out of the ditch.  While all this is happening another car drives by, slows down to look at what’s going on, and drives off.  The guys spend the next few minutes trying to ease the SUV out of the ditch.  To use one of Klinger’s favourite sayings, things were going “nowhere slowly” so the guy doing the pulling decides to step up his game.  All of a sudden he shoots forward then quickly screeches to a halt.  There’s a loud crash as his freshly torn off bumper lands on the road.  He gets out to assess the damage.  It was right around then that a cop, which the passer-by had called a few minutes earlier, shows up.  Questions are asked and tickets are written.  Everyone is told to blow, Klinger blows over.  End of story.

So not only do I start work at 5am but I now have to get up at 4am so I can drive out to Klinger’s house in the middle of nowhere, pick him up and get us both to work on time.  At the time I actually lived about 5 minutes from the warehouse and used to get up at 4:50am.  I just lost almost an hour of sleep which sucks but hey, you gotta take care of your boys.  A man who doesn’t take care of his friends, well there aint much to say for him.  So I’m driving out to get him one morning in my 1974 Dodge Dart custom.  Before you ask… Yes, it looked as awesome as it sounds.

Dodge-Dart-sedan-2
Still takin my time to perfect the beat…

 

So I’m driving down these windy, un-lit back roads and I’m half asleep.  I come around a blind corner and there’s an owl standing in the middle of my lane.  At first he’s looking the other way.  He slowly does that 360 degree owl-head-turn move and looks me straight in the eye.  He doesn’t even flinch.  Instinctively I slam on the brakes.  The car starts skidding right.  I crank the wheel back to the left.  TOO MUCH!  I crank the wheel back to the right.  Now I’m heading straight for a tree!  I crank it back to the left but the car just keeps going straight!  BANG!!!  Straight into a massive tree.

owl
The eyes of a killer

I do a quick self diagnostic, like the Terminator did when he had that steel pole shoved through him by that other Terminator.  I didn’t hit my head, no broken bones, nothing.  The car didn’t even stall.  I look around for the steely-nerved owl who just kicked my ass in a game of chicken but he’s long gone.  I reverse back on to the road.  Hitting the massive tree actually turned out to be a good thing.  If I hadn’t hit it the car would have gone over a steep, 30 foot, 30 degree embankment.  I drive to Klinger’s house and tell him the story as we drive to a gas station to get coffee.  He can’t believe it.  Neither can I, to be honest.  Under the lights of the gas station we inspect the damage.  The right side of the bumper is completely pressed in.  Not bent, but pressed in so that it now sits at an angle across the front of the car.  The right, front quarter panel is all bowed out over the wheel well.  Klinger kicks it back to straight, sort of.  A proclamation was made that my car was “In-dart-structible”.  We then proceeded to drive to work like it was any other day.

 

Mike