30 September 2019

Homer-Prone Kimbrel the Impetus for Maddon's Firing

The Cubs had a really rough second half, largely owing to the ineffectiveness of their closer, Craig Kimbrel, signed to a three year contract in the middle of the season after sitting out the first half.  The Cubs had won 95 games last season, making the playoffs for the fourth straight season (a Cubs record), and much was expected of them this year, from both pundits and fans. 

And things were looking pretty good.  They were tied for first place in the NL Central on June 7th, the day they signed Kimbrel.  He was a big name, with a long track record of success, at least 30 Saves every season back to 2011, with a strikeout rate that never dipped below 13 per 9IP, and an ERA that only once exceeded the 2.74 he put up for the World Champion Red Sox in 2018.  He led his league in Saves four times in a row, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the first of those.  He won a championship with Boston last year, despite some shakiness in the winning of it.

He took a few weeks to make it up to the majors, pitching well in four outings for AAA Iowa before getting called up to the majors and debuting on the 27th of June.  He pitched well there too, but not for long.  He soon began blowing Saves left and right it seemed, taking four losses while compiling an ERA of almost seven. 

Even more alarmingly, he's surrendered nine homers in just 20 innings and change. 

This, it turns out, is fairly unique.  There have only been 14 pitchers in history who have allowed a homer rate of 3.9/9IP or more while pitching at least 20 innings. 

They're an odd bunch, and interestingly, all since the year 2000.  I guess before that anyone giving up homers so often didn't get a chance to pitch 20 innings. 

Six of the 14 were in their first or second major league season.  Five others were in their final or penultimate MLB season.  (Three of them qualify as both, owing to short careers.)  Only three of the 14, other than Kimbrel, have had a modicum of success in the majors after a season like this, though the jury is still out on a few of them.  The details of each are as follows: 

  • Mike Lincoln, age 25 in 2000, had a couple of years of growing pains when he first got to the majors with the Twins, and got released before the Pirates picked him up and helped him figure... something out.  He had a couple of decent years as a useful bullpen cog for a couple of forgettable Bucs teams, compiling 112 innings with a 2.96 ERA at the height of the Steroid Era in 2001-2002.  He struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for the next half dozen years, with an ERA over 5.5 while pitching just 166.2 innings total over that span.  He was out of baseball in 2010.  
  • Jim Parque, age 27, had been a first round draft pick in 1997 and had won 13 games for the White Sox in 2000, but by 2002 he was still trying - unsuccessfully, it would prove - to regain his prior form after a shoulder injury and surgery had derailed his career.  He surrendered 11 homers in 25 innings of work that year, for an ERA of almost 10, and would pitch only 17 more innings in the major leagues, for the Rays, in 2003.  He was out of organized ball after the 2004 season, and his comeback attempt in 2007 lasted only 11 games with Seattle's AAA team.   
  • Tim Worrell, by 2006, though he had amassed over 950 innings already in 13 previous MLB seasons, he was 38 years old and proving that pro baseball is a young man's game.  His nine homers allowed in 20.1 major league innings showed the Giants that he clearly did not belong in a MLB uniform anymore, and they released him at the end of June.  
  • Anthony Vasquez, well, you could be forgiven if you don't remember him.  He's the only guy on this list who was only in the majors for a single season, which is a little surprising.  He only spent about five weeks in the majors, for a Mariners team that lost 95 games in 2011.  Amazingly, Vasquez was only in seven games, but got the decision in all of them, going 1-6.  That, as it happens, is the most games for any pitcher who has gotten a decision in every game of his career in over 100 years.  He's kicked around the minors and foreign winter leagues ever since, played for five different organizations besides Seattle, but has never gotten the call back up to the big leagues.  
  • Brett Myers had already won 97 games in the majors and compiled 40 Saves from 2002 to 2012, but by 2013 he was apparently toast.  He gave up 10 homers in 21 innings, pitching parts of four games, and was released by the Tribe.  He's been out of baseball ever since.  
  • Kirby Yates was only in his second year in the majors with the Rays, having had a fairly successful rookie year in 2014 (3.75 ERA in 36 IP), but he had one heckuva sophomore slump.  After surrendering 10 homers in a shade over 20 innings that year, the Rays sold him to Cleveland in November, and then they sold him to the Yankees in January, before he had ever thrown a pitch for them.  He was not particularly good for the Yankees either, who waived him in October.  The Angels did the same in 2017 and he went to San Diego, where he has put together three good seasons, gotten promoted to be their closer, and they're now discussing a long term deal.  So good for him.  
  • John Moscot, Dillon Overton and Erik Johnson were all in their mid-20's in 2016 and either in their first or last year in the major leagues.  
    • Moscot, a smart, polished college pitcher from Pepperdine, made his MLB debut at 23 in 2015 but a year later could not keep the ball in the park, surrendering 22 runs in 21 innings, including ten homers, which is a lot, even for a Reds pitcher. He took a couple of years to rehab after Tommy John surgery, and has not pitched professionally since, working for the Reds as a coach or instructor or something.  He is now pitching for and helping to promote Israel's Olympic baseball team, which is pretty cool.    
    • Overton was another polished college pitcher, drafted by Oakland in the second round in 2013 - who worked his way back from a mid-2013 Tommy John surgery and still managed to get batters out despite reduced velocity.  He climbed the A's ladder quickly, earning a call up to the majors just two years after his minor league debut, but was rocked for a dozen homers in just 24 innings of work, and was designated for assignment and traded to Seattle shortly thereafter.  He pitched poorly for Seattle and its minor league affiliates for a couple of years, then got picked up by the Padres.  Still just 26 years old, he pitched well in 2018 (8-2 with a 2.90 ERA in almost 100 innings) but was, alas, accomplishing it all with smoke and mirrors, having fanned just 48 batters in over 80 innings in the PCL.  The decision to use the Titleist-like major league ball for the highest level of the minors in 2019 was disastrous for Overton, who allowed 25 homers in 115 innings, for a 5.46 ERA, though somehow he still managed to go 10-5.   
    • Johnson, another polished college pitcher drafted in the second round, out of Berkley in his case, had impressed enough over the course of his minor league career to keep getting called up to pitch for the White Sox, albeit only for 5 or 6 games a year, every year from 2013 to 2015.  In 2016 he was traded along with Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the Padres for James Shields.*  Anyway, for Johnson, that 2016 season was a doozy, in which he gave up 14 homers in 31 innings and change before blowing out his elbow.  He missed all of 2017 rehabbing after (stop me if you've heard this one...) Tommy John surgery.  He pitched 40 decent innings as a reliever for the Padres' AA and AAA affiliates in 2018, but did not pitch professionally this year.  Interestingly, Johnson is the only one on this list who pitched for more than one team in the season in which he gave up homers at such an alarming rate.  That means the Padres watched him surrender 5 homers in just 11 innings of work in 2016 after allowing 8 in 35 innings in 2015), and decided they wanted him anyway.  They were rewarded by seeing him pitch even worse, and this in the best pitcher's park in the majors.  He surrendered 9 more homers in less than 20 innings for the Padres, and has not thrown a pitch in MLB since.  His Wikipedia page says he's a free agent, which, I guess if you're using that to advertise your services, you may be on the way out.  
* Now there's a trade I imagine the Pale Hose will regret for a long time, though not for the loss of Johnson.  Shields went 16-35 with a 5.31 ERA over three seasons for them and Tatis tore up the minor leagues for a couple years, then leapfrogged AAA entirely and played like a Rookie of the Year candidate before he got hurt in August. 
  • Shawn Kelley had already compiled a record of 19-19 with four Saves and a 3.67 ERA in parts of seven MLB seasons for three different teams by the time 2016 rolled around, which is to say that he'd been decent-but-forgettable.*  He parlayed one good season with San Diego into a three-year deal with the Nationals, and rewarded them with his best season yet in 2016, with a 2.64 ERA and 80 K's in 56 innings, including three Wins and seven Saves.  He was however the pitcher who gave up the two-run triple that Justin Turner hit in the deciding game of the NLDS  against the Dodgers that year, and reportedly had some arm "discomfort" when he was removed from that game, and suffered through various ailments in 2017, which might help explain how that became his worst season.  He compiled a Boeing ERA (7.27) while serving up a dozen homers in just 26 innings of work.  In 2018 he had been pitching pretty well (3.34 ERA in 32.1 innings) but earned the ire of basically everyone in Washington when he threw a temper tantrum after allowing a homer in a game in which the Nats had been leading 25-1 at the end of July.  He was DFA'ed a few days later and the Nats evidently thought so little of him that they traded him to Oakland for International Bonus Slot Money.**  Anyway, he was tried as the closer and setup man for the Rangers this season, and still allows too many homers (12 in 47 innings in 2019) but not like he did two years ago.  

* I, for one, entirely forgot that he pitched for the Yankees for two years, in 2013 and 2014, though in my defense, those were two of the more forgettable Yankees teams in recent memory, the only time they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since the Wild Card was implemented in 1994.

**Which isn't even a real thing.  I mean, forget being traded for cash, this is being traded for permission to spend your own cash, something the A's don't actually have in the first place.

  • Andrew Heaney, a first-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2012, was sent to one LA team (the Dodgers in the Dee Gordon trade) in December 2014 and then, five hours later, to the Angels, straight up for Howie Kendrick.  He looked like a legit prospect in 2015 but got hurt and needed (surprise!) Tommy John surgery in 2016, and was not yet particularly effective when he made his comeback in 2017, allowing 12 homers in not quite 22 innings.  He made it all the way back, logging 180 innings of league average work in 2018, including a one-hitter on his birthday, which must have been cool.  He suffered from more injuries this year, logging only 95 innings in the majors, one of many reasons the Angels were not as competitive as they had hoped to be in 2019.   
  • Drew Gagnon is still technically a rookie, having logged only 35 innings for the Mets over parts of the 2018 and 2019 season, but his performance did not exactly inspire much confidence in the Mets' staff or its fans, I would think.  He pitched to a 2.33 ERA, allowing only 12 homers in 89 innings at AAA Syracuse, but then surrendered 11 homers in just 23 innings in the majors.  It's not like was serving them up to just anybody, either.  Other than Odubel Herrera, who hit his only homer of the season off Gagnon (turns out he's better at hitting girlfriends than baseballs...) everyone who homered off him had at least 12 dingers on the year, and the group averaged almost 25 homers for the year, if you include Freddy Freeman twice.  He's not super young, at 29, but is still under team control, for whatever that's worth.  Maybe he'll pan out after some growing pains, or maybe he'll benefit if they go back to using baseballs that don't immediately turn and fly away screaming at the sight of a baseball bat.    
  • Dan Straily is an 8-year veteran, a journeyman who has won 10 or more games in the majors three times, and no doubt the woeful Orioles hoped he would provide some stability in the rotation.  However, after 47 innings, during which he had allowed an AL-leading 22 homers, even Baltimore had seen enough.  He got DFA'ed and then traded to Philly in June where he languished in AAA for the rest of the season.  Only 30, and with a dozen decent starts for Lehigh Valley, he presumably feels like he can still contribute in the majors, but that remains to be seen.
  • And last, but not least, Craig Kimbrel.  😒
Easily the most expensive, highest profile guy with the greatest track record on this list, Kimbrel perhaps just seemed a little rusty when he got called up in late June, but that rust never got scraped off or painted over, and he's a large part of the reason the Cubs are not playing for the Wild Card right now. 

Three of his four losses came against NL Central contenders, one against Milwaukee in July and then two in three days against the Cards in September, leaving the Cubs three games out with seven left to play. Save just those two games and Chicago is still within one game of the Wild Card with a week left in the season. 

Instead, Joe Maddon never used him again.  Unable to trust his bullpen, he tried to stretch Yu Darvish the next day, an ill-advised gamble to say the least.  Darvish had not pitched more than eight innings in a game since June 11th.  Of 2014!  Five years and two long DL stints (including one for Tommy John surgery) ago.  He has only two complete games in his entire career and the other "complete" game was a 4.1 inning rain-shortened affair against the Yankees in July of the same year.  So this was a Bad Idea, and the Cardinals made him pay for it.

Then the Cubs somehow allowed themselves to get swept by the Pirates, who lost 93 games this season.  By the time the Cardinals hosted them and dropped two of three in the season's final series, it no longer mattered.  They finished five games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card (and two behind the Mets and one behind the Diamondbacks, just to be fair) but perhaps with Kimbrel not turning from one of the premier closers in baseball into a walking dumpster fire in less than a year, they might have made a late push and gotten themselves into the playoffs again. 

And Joe Maddon might not be out of a job. 

The irony there being that Maddon is not the one who signed Kimbrel.  

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25 September 2019

Why Not Use Aroldis Chapman in a Tie Game on the Road???

The 2019 Yankees have lost five games on walk-offs on the road this year, and their best relief pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, has appeared in exactly none of them.

These games were:

1. Yankees Lose 8-7 to Kansas City in the 10th on May 26th

Domingo German had stunk up the joint for five innings, allowing 7 runs, but then Nestor Cortes Jr. inexplicably turned in four scoreless to keep the Yanks in the game while the offense chipped away at the Royals' soft underbelly, the bullpen. To be fair, it turned out that all of the Royals' bellies were soft, since they've now lost 100 games, but this one particularly so. Their collective 5.40 ERA is the 4th worst in MLB.

Jonathan Holder entered this game to start the bottom of the 10th, got a strikeout, but then walked Billy Hamilton, who hit just .211 for the Royals before being released, and is not known for his patience at the plate, having walked on average about once every 14 plate appearances throughout his MLB career. Naturally Hamilton stole second, then scored on a walk-off single by Whit Merrifield.

Why No Chapman???

The Yankees had played a doubleheader the day before, and most of the bullpen had worked, including Jonathan Holder, though he had thrown just nine pitches. Chapman had thrown 21 pitches, but had not pitched at all the day before so he was technically available. We have to presume that Aaron Boone was preserving him to either save the game if they got a lead or for the next day's game.

2. Yankees Lose 4-3 to the Rays in the 9th on July 6th

With CC Sabathia both literally and figuratively on his last legs right now, it's easy to forget that for a while this summer he looked like a pretty darn good pitcher. This outing, his longest of the season (7 IP, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) fell right in the middle of his best stretch of pitching in a while, four straight Quality Starts, totaling 25 innings and just nine runs allowed. Three of those came against Tampa Bay. (Unfortunately he's 0-4 with a 7.82 ERA since the last game of that streak.)

After Adam Ottavino pitched his typical scoreless inning in the 8th, they gave the ball to Chad Green, who seemed at first like he would continue his excellent streak of scoreless innings (he had not allowed a run in a month), getting Kevin Keirmaier to ground out on the first pitch and then striking out Willy Adamaes looking on four pitches. But then Travis D'Arnaud* came up and hit the first pitch he saw into the seats.
Which made Chad Green a Sad Green. :-(

* D'Arnaud may seem like a fluke, hitting 16 homers this season in part time work, after being released by the Mets and playing just one game with the Dodgers before they decided they had seen enough, but he was once a pretty highly regarded prospect. He was a first round draft pick by the Phillies in 2007, and was used in the package that pried Roy Halladay out of the Blue Jays' hands, and then (along with Noah Syndergaard and others) RA Dickey away from the Mets. Though he'd never done much in the majors, he's hit over .300 at both AA and AAA and has slugged over .500 in AA and over .600 in AAA in parts of several seasons, adding up to about one year's worth of at-bats in each. Its like his career was just waiting for the 2019 Rabbit Ball to happen.
Why No Chapman???
Chapman had thrown 17 pitches in nailing down a Save the night before, and 29 pitches in blowing one the day before that, so he really was unavailable. The Yankees have not used a reliever three nights in a row all season, either because of policy or because their bullpen is so deep that they don't have to, but either way, that was not going to happen.

And Green had been mostly great for the two months before this outing, since returning from a minor league stint (1.99 ERA in 22.2 IP with 34 K and just 2 walks since returning from AAA). Sometimes you throw a 95-mph fastball on the outer half to try to get strike one and the the guy fists it into the opposite field stands. You tip your cap and move on.

3. Yankees Lose 12-11 to the Tigers in the 9th on September 10th

Boone managed this game as though he almost didn’t want to win. Nestor Cortes, Jr., with his 2019 ERA over 5.00, and an ERA of almost 9 in his previous eight outings spanning a month, started and gave up 4 runs (2 earned) in 2+ IP. He now has an ERA of 7.40 since the start of August, surrendering at least one run in 13 of his last 18 appearances, including seven in a row. He's gotta have some pretty incriminating photos of Aaron Boone if he's gonna make the 25-man postseason roster... :-/

Other pitchers who will be able to enjoy October form the comfort of their own couches followed, including Luis Cessa, Cory Gearrin, Jonathan Loaisiga and Ryan Dull (who was released shortly thereafter). Those last three had just joined the team a few weeks before, one after an injury stint, the other two after having been waived by their former teams.

The offense also included a lot of second-stringers. Tyler Wade, Clint Frazier and Mike Ford started. Aaron Judge and D.J. LeMahieu never entered the game, Luke Voit only as a pinch hitter. Though there was only one official Error, a dropped double play ball and other miscues led to five unearned runs, the most the team has given up in a game since April 10th. Of 2018. This was not a typical Yankee game.

When the Yankees tied it up and went ahead, Boone used Ottavino and Britton in the 7th and 8th, but then with the game tied again in the 9th, Boone called not on Chapman or Tommy Kahnle or Chad Green, but on Chance Adams.

Chance. Frikking. Adams.
Adams now has 15 total appearances in his burgeoning MLB career and has given up at least one run in 11 of them. Clearly, this game was not that important to Boone.

Adams struck out Travis Demerritte but then allowed a double to someone named Grayson Grenier, who it turns out is not a character in a 50 Shades... novel but rather a third string catcher who was hitting a buck-seventy-five coming into that game. Willi Castro pinch ran for him and then Jordy Murcer hit a 2-2 pitch to right to walk it off.

Why No Chapman???

No idea. Chapman had not pitched in three days, and only once in the last two weeks. Even if you think the game is meaningless, you'd think you'd want to get your closer some work to help keep him sharp for the playoffs. This was a Tuesday game, and they had one scheduled the next day, though it got rain delayed into a doubleheader on Thursday, they didn't know that would happen at the time. Still, it was the 100+ loss Tigers, and they needed a closer only in one of those two games, it would turn out.

4. Yankees Lose 6-5 To the Blue Jays in the 12th on September 13th

Masahiro Tanaka was not particularly sharp, but he bulldogged his way through five innings and after a 5-run fifth by the Bronx Bombers, went to the showers with a slim lead. The bullpen blueprint was followed to plan, with Kahnle, Ottavino and then Britton, except this time Ottavino suffered from some pretty bad luck in the 7th.

He allowed a single, then a wild pitch allowed the runner to advance, then walked the next batter on a borderline pitch that he felt he should have gotten. You could see it frustrated him. He induced a grounder toward first for an "easy" 3-6-1 double play, but was late covering first and had to settle for a fielder's choice at second, leaving runners on first and third.

Then he balked home the tying run.

He got Vladdy Jr. to fly out, then intentionally walked the next batter and struck out Randall Grichuk to end the inning, but without the lead. Zach Britton pitched a scoreless 8th, followed by two scoreless from Luis Cessa. Then in the 10th, Boone brought in Tyler Lyons, a lefty the Yankees had just picked up less than a month before because he'd been released by the Pirates. If the last-place Pirates couldn't find a use for this guy, it begs the question of what the heck the Yankees want with him, but Boone had him on the roster so he figured he ought to use him, I guess.

Lyons did not disappoint, at first, getting a strikeout, a lineout and a foul pop for a perfect 11th. But then Bo Bichette took him deep on his third pitch of the 12th to end the game. Bichette Happens, right?

Except it didn't have to.

Why No Chapman???
Boone could have taken the scoreless inning from Lyons, thanked his lucky stars, and then brought in his closer to pitch the 12th. Chapman had pitched on previous night, but had thrown only 13 pitches, getting two easy outs against Detroit to nail down a 6-4 win. He was surely available, since that was only the second time he'd pitched all month. Again, tie game on the road and all that, I know, but these are the Blue Jays. Their bullpen is actually decent overall, but they had already used nine pitchers to this point in the game. The good ones were basically gone by now. The remaining five guys in the bullpen who were not tabbed for the starting rotation had a collective ERA of almost 6.00! The Yankees would have gotten to them soon. Alas, we'll never know because Lyons served up that gopher ball instead.

And finally, (I hope)...

5. Yankees Lose to Tampa, 2-1 in the 12th on September 24th

Another 4-hour, 12-inning marathon ends in a walkoff loss with the Yankees' best reliever not even warmed up. Yes, the Yankees have already clinched their division, but they still have home field advantage to play for, which will matter if they have to face Houston again. (Recall that in 2017 both teams won all their home games in that 7-game ALCS.) The Rays are still trying to win a Wild Card. This is not a meaningless game.

But it was managed more like an audition for the playoffs than a meaningful in-season game. Boone used 11 pitchers, only one for more than an inning, Jordan Montgomery who started and went two. Stephen Tarpley allowed a homer in the 5thbut otherwise the Rays were held hitless from the 4th inning on. Cory Gearrin, however, allowed a homer to Ji-Man Choi, suffering his third loss of the season, and giving the Rays a tenuous half-game lead on the Indians for the second Wild Card.

Why No Chapman???

Again, Chapman was surely available. He had not pitched since the 19th, and has pitched just three times this month. The Rays' bullpen is not as thin as Toronto's, but the Yankees have some pretty good hitters, and might have taken advantage of a mistake or two if Boone had not made his own first by allowing Gearrin to pitch in the 12th instead of Chapman.

So, there you have them. Five losses, four of which may have been prevented or at least delayed by using Chapman. Instead, you have losses attributed to Chad Green and four guys that most people who aren't Yankee fans would not even know were on the roster: Chance Adams, Cory Gearrin, Tyler Lyons and Jonathan Holder. The four of them have a combined ERA of 6.35 in 85 innings of work for the Yankees this year, compared to Chapman's 2.28 ERA in 55 innings. They have one more strikeout than Chapman does, 83 to 82, though it took them 30 more innings to get them. They've also allowed 18 homers in those 85 innings, compared to just three for Chapman.

The real concern here is - it has to be - whether Boone will manage such games this way in the postseason. Those teams - who might include Tampa, who has beaten the Yankees twice in this manner - all have better bullpens than the Royals or Tigers or Jays, but they're not unlimited. The Yankees have to be willing to put their best pitcher out there in a tie game in extra innings if it comes to that, or else risk losing the game with a sub-optimal option out there on the mound.

Chapman has pitched in consecutive games 15 times this season, so he's certainly capable of it. But will Boone allow it? Will he live up to it? At least if they beat Chapman, you can stand up tall and say you had your best out there and they just got to him. Yankee fans will never forgive Boone if he ends up blowing the ALCS or the World Series with Jonathan Holder or Cory Gearrin on the mound.

The old adage about not using your Closer in a tie game on the road (because who will then protect the lead if you get one?) seems to me a bit of old wisdom that is frankly not so wise.

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16 September 2019

Talking Tanking: Why Are So Many MLB Teams So Terrible???

In case you were as yet uncertain of the State of Things in Major League Baseball, i.e. whether teams were really tanking in order to try to A) be more competitive in the future, or 2) make more profit in the meantime, I submit the following:

In the entire history of major league baseball, there has, I think, been only one season in which four teams finished with 100 or more losses. That was in 2002, which if you recall, was right in the thick of several MLB owners crying poor all the time and insisting that if the players union did not accept a salary cap immediately, if not sooner, they would need to contract two teams. The Twins and the Expos were most often cited, though also occasionally the then-Florida Marlins, as examples of teams the sport could better do without.

Ironically, none of those teams were the ones that lost 100+ games in 2002. Those teams were in fact: Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. The last two of those also had their names bandied about as possible contraction options, though not as much as Montreal and Minnesota.

This year, there are already two teams in MLB with 100+ Losses, Detroit and Baltimore, and two more (I know, I know...) on a pace for 100 or more.

The 2019 Miami Marlins, with a baker's dozen worth of games left to play, will face only teams with winning records the rest of the way. They have three games each against Arizona, Washington and Philly, and four against the Mets. Only the games against the Nationals - who currently lead the NL Wild Card race - are at home for them, not that they have much of a home-field advantage, with the third worst home record in MLB.

Believe it or not (Phillies Phans sure do :-/ ) The Marlins actually have winning records against The Diamondbacks and the Phillies, but are a combined 7-24 against the Nats and the Mets. :-( They could reach their 100th loss before payday this week! Unless you get paid on Tuesdays for some odd reason.

The other potential 100-loss team, the Royals, currently sit at 95 losses, with 12 to play, but again they face only winning teams for the last two weeks of the season. They play three at Oakland, who has one of the best at-home records in MLB, then four at Minnesota, who's good at home, but better on the road. Then the Royals host a two-game series (two games??) against the NL East winning Braves, who have the third-best road record in MLB, followed by a season ending three-game set against the Twins...who actually do have the best road record in MLB.

This is, I believe, will be the only time other than 2002 when four teams lose 100 or more, as I mentioned above.

Not that there haven't been a couple of close calls.

In 1985, three teams (out of 26 total) lost 100 or more: the Giants, Indians and Pirates, and the Rangers may very well have joined them had they made up a rain out. They finished 62-99, and could very well have lost their 100th to the Brewers if they'd played all 162 games in their proposed schedule, though the Brew Crew was no slouch in the Losing Games Department that year either, finishing 71-90 themselves.

The Giants and Pirates at the time were in the midst of a couple of down years, but both were about to get really, really good, at least for a while. The Tribe was always a mess in those days, which is hard to imagine now, but they had only one season with a winning record between 1981 and 1994, and even that was just an 84-win season in 1986 before returning to 100-loss form in 1987.

The other close call was 1969, an expansion year with 24 teams in MLB  That year, two teams lost 110(!) games - the expansion Expos and Padres, of course - and two others lost 99 (Cleveland and Philly). Again, with a shortened season, Cleveland missed its chance for 100 L's, finishing 62-99. Philly went 63-99.

So, in short, there has never been a season in which four teams finished with at least 100 losses if they were actually trying to win. It's worth noting that some of the examples of times when it has happened or has come close to happening, come with extenuating circumstances.

In 1969, for example, two of the 99+ loss teams were hamstrung by the slim pickings available from an expansion draft. Given a variety of options, I promise that you would not choose to start off the first Canadian MLB franchise with the likes of Bobby Wine and Gary Sutherland and a 36-year old Maury Wills, quite literally on his last legs (or so he seemed, until he went back to the Dodgers).

Or a San Diego franchise with Jose Arcia and Tommy Dean and what used to be Johnny Podres, whom I'm pretty sure the Padres just picked up because they thought it would be a good marketing ploy or something.

In 2002, the Devil Rays were only in their 5th season, right in the middle of a decade of not just not winning, but losing at least 90 games every season. That team took a while to get its footing. Mostly it took new owners.

The Royals in 2002 had their first 100-loss season in history, but they had been bad for years under the Foundation ownership group that took charge of the team after Ewing Kauffman died in 1993. They would have a winning season in 2003 before sinking even lower into the depths, with three straight 100-loss seasons. Similar to the Astros of a decade ago, those terrible teams helped lay the foundation for the teams that would eventually appear in two World Series, and even win one.

And that's really what this all comes down to. The Marlins, Orioles, Royals and Tigers are essentially cutting everything unessential out, tanking on purpose to try to get better draft picks, and more of them, to win in the future, while still making profits now. They're doing what Houston did a decade ago, and even then some people could see it, as Sports Illustrated famously predicted in 2014 that the 100-loss Astros would win the 2017 World Series.  I can't say it doesn't make business sense, but I can tell you this:

All four of them cannot win the 2022 World Series.

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10 September 2019

In response to Joe Posnaski's riveting, highly important, gritty journalism piece on the handedness of a computer graphic, I present the following:

The Statcast hittter! 

1) The initial graphic: 
2) Drawn as a righty
3) Then as a lefty, 

 ...all using the same image.

The thing to notice here is not that it magically works both ways.  The thing to notice is that both batters are using one of those giant red plastic bats you give to toddlers

And you thought homers were up before!

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03 September 2019

Verlander's No-Hitter and Considering Context

Justin Verlander threw his third career no-hitter on Sunday, against the Blue Jays.  This is apparently a record as he's the first opposing player to ever no-hit the same team twice in their own stadium, which I guess is something people count now.  Verlander's no-no (kept from perfection only by a first-inning walk to Cavan Biggio) may or may not have sealed his Hall of Fame resume, but in any case, it was certainly a cool feat. 

For whatever it's worth, I do think the feat comes off as a little less impressive when you consider the opposing lineup:

* Bo Bichette, SS: Though the rookie phenom has cooled off of late, his cooling off period is still pretty solid.  Seems like a pretty darn good, if not terribly patient, major league hitter.  No disrespect to him. 

* Vlad Guerrero, Jr., 3B: Another real player.  He hit .341 in August. 

...aaaand that's about where the real threats in the lineup stop.  Sure, Randall Grichuk had 23 HR (24 now) but he was hitting .234 coming into that game, and he rarely walks. He and Justin Smoak are respectively ranked 118th and 129th in batting average among the 130 qualified MLB hitters this season.

Backup catcher Reese McGuire had a .300 batting average coming into the game, but that's a small sample size mirage.  He has a .239 batting average in almost 170 games in AAA, and is only on the roster because the Jays' normal lousy backup catcher, Luke Maile, hitting .153, is on the DL.  McGuire's not really a threat, his 3-for-3 night with a homer on Friday notwithstanding. 

As of the end of the game, the whole rest of the lineup was barely above the Mendoza Line.  Cavan Biggio (.214), Rowdy Tellez (.218), Justin Smoak (.215) and Yankee castoffs Brandon Drury (.222) and Billy McKinney (.216) rounded out the lineup, which managed not to get a hit all night.

For that matter, it's almost surprising that the Blue Jays had not been no-hit yet this season, as their team average of .236 is the worst in the majors. (The Mariners, 4th from last with a .241 team BA, have been no-hit twice this season.) 

Granted, the Jays, like everyone else this season, can hit homers.  Smoak has 20 HR, and Biggio, Tellez and Drury are all in double-digits, with McKinney at 9 homers.  But if a pitcher can keep them from homering - and that's by no means a sure-thing with Verlander, who has allowed 33 dingers this year, third most in MLB - they almost don't hit at all. 

It reminds me a little of Erik Milton's no-hitter against the Angels in 1999.  That lineup - also during the expanded September roster period - included a few of their regulars (Todd Greene, Troy Glaus, Orlando Palmiero) but also a bunch of extremely marginal players. 

  • Leadoff man Jeff DaVannon was making just his second MLB appearance ever.  
  • Steve Decker and Matt Luke were each making one of their last, as neither would ever play in MLB after 1999.  
  • Backup catcher Bret Hemphill was amazingly doing both, as he played only 12 games in MLB.  This was his 5th.  
  • Trent Durrington was in the middle of a miserable rookie season in which he hit .180 with 2 RBIs in 136 plate appearances.  
  • And #9 hitter, journeyman infielder Andy Sheets, "hit" .197 that year.  And I don't mean a modern, Rougned Odor-style .197 in which, yeah, he hits under the Mendoza Line but also hits 20-25 homers.  Sheets hit a traditional .197, with three homers in 244 ABs.  

So this is not quite that bad, as while the Blue Jays' lineup did include five rookies, a few are really promising rookies, unlike Hemphill and DaVannon, for example.  Plus, some of the regulars with low batting averages are established veterans, not washed-up roster filler like Decker or Luke. 

It's still an amazing accomplishment for Verlander, of whom I'm generally a fan, except when he faces the Yankees, but like many things in baseball, it's best not to just hear the storyline and take it at face value.  In this modern age of nearly everyone swinging for the fences, maybe it's not so surprising that a whole team of swing-and-miss batters faced one of the best swing-and-miss pitchers of all time and simply, well, missed them all


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15 August 2019

Wain You're Wright, You're Right

I don't know if this really means anything or not, but it's something I've been noticing all season because - after a decade-long hiatus from the practice to be a dad* - I've started playing fantasy baseball again.  I finished 5th last year in a 12-team league of mostly strangers who never talk (trash or otherwise) and almost never trade, which I figured was not too bad for someone who had been paying attention to baseball but not PAYING ATTENTION the way you have to if you want to be competitive in a Fantasy League. 

I mean, I'm still a dad, but my 8 and 11 year olds don't take two hours to rock to sleep every night anymore, so I have a smidge more time.  

Anyway, because I'm playing again (currently 3rd in my league, though honestly I'm closer to 7th than I am to 2nd) I look at all kinds of things when trying to decide whether or not to start a player on any given day.  Particularly starting pitchers, as in a 5 x 5, head-to-head league, a couple of bad starts can really ruin your week.  Most of the info available is either not very useful, like batter vs. pitcher splits, which almost always have too small a sample size to be meaningful, or are so obscure and inexplicable that you can't use them to justify a decision. 

It may very well be true that so-and-so has hit .375 with seven homers and 15 RBI in Tuesday afternoon games this year...but do you want to count on that??  A few years ago I wrote about how AJ Burnett was terrible whenever he pitched for the Yankees on national TV, but just fine when his starts were broadcast only locally.  No good reason for it that I could detect, but there it was. 

But sometimes, there may be something to these splits.  Case in point: Adam Wainwright. 

Wainwright is a seemingly known commodity, albeit an aging one.  Having been in the majors for 15 years, he's nearly 38 now, and had struggled with injuries the last few seasons, but he's basically been healthy in 2019.  He finished 2nd or 3rd in the NL Cy Young Voting four times, but he also missed all of 2011 and parts of 2008, 2015, 2017 and 2018 due to various ailments, including Tommy John surgery and a torn Achilles tendon. 

This year his overall stats seem eminently mediocre: 8-8 4.35 ERA, 118 Ks, 49 walks and 15 homers allowed in 120 innings of work.  The league as a whole allows slightly fewer walks and slightly more homers, plus Busch Stadium is a decent pitcher's park (park factor of 94, where below 100 favors the pitcher) so his adjusted ERA is 97, just 3% below average.  None of this is unusual for an aging, once-nearly-great, occasionally injured starting pitcher.     

What's unusual is how he's gotten there:

Home 6 2 2.19 11 65.2 58 17 16 6 23 2 68 1.234 9.3 2.96
Away 2 6 6.96 11 54.1 62 42 42 9 26 4 50 1.62 8.3 1.92

At home, Wainwright is the perennial Cy Young contender he was half a dozen years ago, albeit without the requisite longevity, averaging only 6 innings per start.  His best ERA in his heyday was a 2.38, and his best ERA+ was 155 (2.42 actual ERA), back in 2010 when the NL averaged slightly fewer runs per game.  

But on the road, he's a disaster.  You know who else is 2-6 with a 6.96 ERA right now?  Drew Smyly, who was so bad that he got DFA'ed by the Rangers, lasted about three weeks with the Brewers before getting released again, and had to achieve two decent and two mediocre starts with Philly just to get to that level.  That's pretty bad.  

Put another way, Wainwright's home/road opponent slash lines are as follows:

Home: .238/.311/.369
Road: .298/.383/.510

For perspective, that means hitters on the road against Wainwright are about as productive as Justin Turner has been this year (.292/.375/.506) whereas his opponents at home are Jake Bauers (.233/.308/.379).  If his name doesn't ring a bell it's because he was sent back to the minors at the end of last month when the Indians, so desperate to improve on his abysmal production, traded away their second best starting pitcher for a known head-case outfielder in Yasiel Puig and a DH waiting to happen in Franmil Reyes.  That's also pretty bad, which of course means Wainwright has been quite good at home.  

The how or why is the real question though.  One thing for certain is that this is not normal for Wainwright, at least not to this extent. His career ERA at home (2.83) is considerably better than that on the road (3.98) but not THAT much better.  Most players are better at home, and Busch Stadium is a pitcher;s park, so that makes sense.  

He has experienced severe splits like this before.  In 2017, his last (mostly) healthy season, he was 8-1 with a 3.08 ERA at home and 4-4 with a 7.32 ERA on the road.  Ditto for 2016: 3.20 ERA at home, 6.18 on the road.  He was hurt for most of 2015, and 2014 was the reverse: a 3.27 ERA at home, but a remarkable 1.72 on the road.  Before than, the two years before that were more of the same, modest splits with an ERA advantage around a half or three quarters of a run at home, the kind of thing you expect.  

So what's happened in the last several years?  How has Wainwright become so completely inept on the road in the last few seasons?  According to Fangraphs, since the start of 2016, he's got a 3.06 ERA in 264 innings at home, but a 6.58 ERA  in 220 road innings.  His walks and homers and hits allowed all go way up, his strikeouts drop.  

The biggest difference, looking at all his summarized batted ball data for the stretch since the start of 2016, is that his home run rate, and especially his homers per fly ball, go way up on the road.  His fly ball rate goes up slightly (about 4%) but also more of those flies become homers - about 50% more - which makes for a bad combination in this Era of the Rabbit Ball.  An aging pitcher who gets by on cunning and defense more than stuff is going to have a hard time in a league where the balls fly out of the parks like Titleists, and even moreso in parks that tend not to favor pitchers.  

I'm not really sure what it all means for Wainwright.  Maybe it means he's nearing the end.  He is almost 38 after all.  Maybe it means that Cardinals' manager Mike Schildt should just reverse-Ed-Whitson his ass and only start him at home, come hell or high water.  Maybe it means he has some kinda special signal system at home and can somehow figure out just how to pitch to everybody there, but has no such system on the road.  Maybe he and his wife (does he even have a wife???) are on the outs and he never gets a decent night sleep on the road.  

I really have no idea.  I do know that Wainwright has not pitched a Quality Start on the road since the end of June.  I also know that I will not be putting him in my starting lineup when he faces the Reds at Great American Bandbox tomorrow night.  

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25 March 2019

Howard & Power

Joe Posnanski posted a fascinating, albeit sad, story about Pumpsie Green, the first African American player to play for the Red Sox, which was the last team to integrate, more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson's debut. The Red Sox, and owner Tom Yawkey in particular, were really, really terrible at the time.  I mean, by most accounts, Yawkey was just a truly awful person, short sighted, irredeemably racist, who ran the team like a rich man's toy.  Which, I guess it was.

Despite the Red Sox ill treatment of him (Green was forced to not just stay apart from the team, but to travel apart from them), he thrived in the spring of 1959:

And still, Pumpsie Green hit — .400 for the spring — and he played good defense anywhere they put him, and numerous reporters called him the star of Red Sox camp. Red Sox reporters later said that it was clear from background conversations that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris fully intended on keeping Pumpsie on the roster.
But quotes from our hero Tom Yawkey, who is in the Hall of Fame, were not as promising.

“The Sox,” Yawkey said, “will bring up a Negro if he meets our standards.”

Evidently the Red Sox standards for a Negro were that he be Caucasian, because Green didn't make the major league roster out of camp.  Still, he hit .320 at AAA, stole bases, walked twice as often as he struck out, played well all over the diamond, so eventually they had to bite the bullet (read: fire their racist manager) and bring him up.

One of Posnanski's commenters lamented that the Yankees at the time were just as racist, just less obvious about it:

The racism was indeed shameful. But the Yankees owners were just as racist, but they knew how to say the right things in public. They also refused to hire black players until the end of Jackie Robinson’s career. Nothing against Elston Howard, who was an excellent player, but the Yankee brass picked him as a token to shut up protesters, and deliberately looked for a player who would never complain about how he was treated. 
And in this time, the Yankees won 5 in a row. 
It would be nice to live in a world where doing the wrong thing meant you suffered the consequences. We usually don’t.

This got me looking into Howard and the Yankees' history, and I don't think it's as cut and dried as that.  While he didn't debut with the Yankees until 1955, Howard had been with them much longer than that, and was hardly a "token" player, as he got over 300 at-bats in 1955, mostly as an outfielder.  

In any case, it seems fairly clear, from the Red Sox failure to sign both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays when they had the chance, that at least some teams did suffer the consequences of doing the wrong thing, even if the Yankees weren't suffering so much.  I think if they had not been so good, they may have tried a little harder to find an African American for the major league team, but we'll never know.  

Anywho, Elston Howard was signed by the Yankees in July 1950, barely a year after Robinson won the MVP.  He did well enough in half a season at Class A Muskegon (.283 with 9 HR in 54 games) but got drafted and spent all of 1951 and 1952 in the military.  He hit well in AA in 1954 (.286, 10 HR, 70 RBI) then  tore the cover off the ball at AAA Toronto (.330, 22 HR, 109 RBI) while being converted to catcher.  The Yankees brought him to the majors in 1955 and he spent the whole year there.  Also the 13 years after that.  Evidently he was ready by then.  

Which is not to say the Yankees' record is impeccable in this regard.  Far from it.    

One early possibility for the First Black Yankee was a young pitcher named Frank Barnes, who played at Muskegon with Howard in 1950 and 51, but he had control issues.  He walked 121 in 179 innings, mostly in Class A in 1951, for example, so you could at least kinda justify holding him back from a purely baseball perspective.  He did eventually go on to have a few cups of coffee in the majors with the Cardinals in 1957, 1958 and 1960, but didn't do much there.  

But they also had a young first baseman named Vic Power, who hit like crazy everywhere he went: He hit .328 with a .501 slugging percentage in more than 400(!) games at AAA from 1951 to '53.  His reward for such prowess on the diamond, you ask?  Power was never even invited to Yankees Spring Training. And you thought today's free agents had a tough time of it!  

Part of the trouble was that the Yankees were loaded at the time, in the midst of winning five straight World Series, with 1951 AL RoY Gil McDougald at 3B, and an outfield consisting of Gene Woodling (who led the AL with a .429 OBP in 1953), perennial All-Star Hank Bauer and some kid named Mickey something in center.  

First base was manned mostly by decent-but-unspectacular Joe Collins and sometimes Johnny Mize or Bill Skowron.  Why they thought Joe Collins needed a yet another caddy or why they didn't think Vic Power could do it better than Eddie Robinson (more on him later) is not entirely clear, but you know: Racism.  

Apparently Power was not the humble, turn-the-other-cheek kinda "Negro" that then Yankees owners Del Webb and Dan Topping wanted to be the one to break the Color Pinstripe. He dated white women, played first base too "flashy" (i.e. fielding the ball with one hand instead of two) and quipped back at some of the racism he experienced in his travels.  When a waitress told him that her restaurant didn't serve Negroes, he told her, "That's OK.  I don't eat Negroes."  He was what the white establishment at that time might have called uppity, and that just wouldn't do for the straight-laced, starched collar Yankees of the 1950s. No sirree.     

So they traded him in an 11-player deal to the Philadelphia A's.  We're used to hearing of all the talent that went from the Athletics to the Yankees in those days for seemingly little return (Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry...the list goes on...) but here at least is one case where the A's clearly got the better of the deal.  

Anyway, the details of the trade are unimportant, but basically it was Power and a bunch of forgettable spare parts for the husk of what had once been 4-time All-Star first-baseman Eddie Robinson* and a bunch of different forgettable spare parts.  Robinson hit an occasional homer over the next couple of seasons, and he gave Yankees manager Casey Stengel the platoon options he loved so much, but otherwise, well...they coulda done without him.  

*Whom I discovered when researching this is 98 years old, the oldest living member of three different franchises (Yankees, Tigers and Senators) and the last surviving member of an Indians World Series winner.  Cool, right?

In Philly, and later in Kansas City, Vic Power kept up doing just what he'd been doing at Syracuse for the last two years.  He hit for average, nearly winning a batting title in 1955, and  (ironically only modest) Power.   He hardly ever struck out, just 14 times in 620 plate appearances in 1958, for example.  He slashed doubles and triples all over the place, scored and drove in runs, and when someone invented the Gold Glove, well, he won a bunch of those, too.  Seven in a row!  

So while Howard was seemingly not exactly held back by the Yankees, the real story is that Power was not there two or three years before that.  

Not that the Yankees could have been a whole lot better in that span!  They finished out of first place only once between 1949 and 1958, and that year they won 103 regular season games, finishing second to the 111-win Indians.  

But in a more "fair" world, one where (as Joe's commenter suggests) both the Yankees and the Red Sox get punished for their poor treatment of African Americans, maybe Vic Power debuts with the Yankees in 1951 or '52, becomes a hero the the city's huge Puerto Rican and black population, supplants Joe Collins at first and helps the Yankees overtake the Tribe in 1954, keeping that streak alive!  

As a Yankee fan, it's unseemly for me to be too greedy here. Let's just say it would have been nice for Power to have been given a fair shake in Yankee pinstripes.     

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