Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Baseball and Improbability

In a baseball journalistic world where we are fed analytics each and every day that caution us to see the big picture and not to get caught up in short term performance, it becomes easy to become jaded. It's not that they aren't right. And the "they" is not meant derogatorily. At heart, this writer is an analyst but lacks the talent to be one. And there is beauty in the patterns that happen over a long season and over long sample sizes. But what happens is that short term stories lose their flavor. The very fact that failure is built into the game of baseball and that failure rate is a large part of the 162 game process leads to anomalies. Things happen every day we don't expect. For example, after knowing the analysts are right in that Melky Cabrera was one of the worst players in baseball last year, it's fine to predict that he won't finish this year well after a fine start. But does that lessen the beauty of his two walk-off hits thus far this season? Hardly. Like all things, you have to temper the long walk with time to smell the roses.

Monday, April 25, 2011, was one of those times to smell the roses. The short-schedule led to only nine games being contested. And yet, for that small a schedule, so many improbable things happened that you just have to smile and remember why we love this sport called baseball. Yes, that has to happen even when it is your favorite team on the wrong end of the outcome. Monday just seemed to bring it home that baseball is a daily sport to be savored. Yes, we should always keep in mind the big picture and what the numbers are telling us. But, as Bill Ivie has said recently, take time to be a fan. Go back to what drew you to the game in the first place.

Let's start with Ian Kennedy. While what happened yesterday wasn't unique to how Kennedy has been pitching, it did finally bring home the fact that this guy beat the odds to become a pretty darn good pitcher. You might remember Ian Kennedy for all the second guessing that Brian Cashman received in the pre-season of 2008 when he passed on acquiring Johan Santana and started the season with Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes in the rotation. Both pitchers started so badly that season that Cashman was roasted. Kennedy went 0-4 with an ERA over eight and a WHIP of 1.916. It was ugly.

It turned out that Kennedy was hurting and shut down after that. He made one major league appearance in 2009 and then became part of that massive trade that sent players all over the place from Arizona to Detroit to New York. Most Yankee fans were happy to be rid of the bad memory. The Yankees kept Hughes, which seemed like a good idea last year, but not so much this year.

We were all surprised then when Ian Kennedy popped up in the Diamondbacks' rotation in 2010. Really!? And he held his own in a hitters' environment and finished the season with a 111 ERA+ in 32 starts, giving up only 7.6 hits per nine innings along with a semi-impressive 2.40 strikeout to walk ratio. All of this build up leads us to Monday, that great day of improbabilities when Ian Kennedy did something he's never done before. He pitched a complete game. That's never happened before. And he pitched a shutout. He's never done that before either. And it was against the Phillies! Beautiful.

That result was fun because it brought Ian Kennedy into the spotlight. Wouldn't he look better in the Yankee rotation right now than Ivan Nova and/or Phil Hughes? You betcha.

Then there was Brandon Wood. Brandon Wood was the Angels' first round draft pick way back in 2003. He was their third baseman of the future. They liked him so much that Chone Figgins became expendable after some fine seasons in southern California. Except that it never worked out. Wood struck out 158 times in 498 big league plate appearances. He was handed the starting job in 2010 and responded by hitting .146 with 76 strikeouts in just 243 plate appearances before the Angels finally pulled the plug. His final OPS+ was 5. FIVE! They tried him again this year and Wood had two hits in 15 plate appearances before the Angels said enough. The Angels were so fed up with their guy with the 22 career OPS+ that they tried to send him to the minors and let him slide off the 25 man roster. The Pirates scooped him up on waivers and the Wood era ended with a whimper.

So Wood then gets in his first game with the Pirates on Monday, that day of improbabilities. Wood went 1-4, which is improbable to begin with. He didn't strikeout, another improbability. But the beauty comes in with Wood hitting a double that plated two runs, the two runs that ended up being the difference in the ball game. It's a beautiful thing. Sure, the important thing is not to get caught up in just one game's performance. The game doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things and Wood's results to date or in the future. But for one game, on a Monday of improbabilities, it was a lot of fun.

Another former Number One prospect also played yesterday. Phil Humber was drafted in that round a year after Brandon Wood. The Mets had gotten themselves a star. But Humber blew out his elbow in 2005 and as the nationally broadcast announcers mentioned on Monday, had bounced around from organization to organization. He was part of the Mets trade with the Twins for Johan Santana. The Twins tried to recoup their investment and let Humber pitch in a handful of relief outings. He didn't throw enough strikes. That's a no-no if you are a Twin and they let him go.

Then the Royals picked Humber up as a free agent. They let him get into eight games in 2010, one of them a start. Humber did not pitch badly. The numbers show that he was actually pretty good. But the Royals didn't protect him and the White Sox took him off waivers. All Humber did on the Monday of improbabilities was no-hit the Yankees for six innings and pitch seven innings of shut-out ball to get the win over the hottest hitting home run hitters in baseball. Right-handed batters have 28 at bats against Humber in 2011. They have three hits.

And we have to close with Dustin Moseley. The Fan wrote a piece the other day about how well Moseley has started this season and yet, how unfortunate he's been about the win-loss results from his efforts. The piece wasn't meant to be negative and yet was perceived that way. The entire piece was meant in the same theme as this one in that what was happening was so unusual that it was fascinating. Moseley is another Number One pick, the third (the Fan thinks) in this article alone. That was way back in 2000 (by the Reds).

Moseley never pitched in the majors for the Reds who traded the pitcher to Angels for Ramon Ortiz. The Reds felt they had nothing to lose and with Ortiz, they didn't gain anything either. Moseley became a swing man for the Angels in 2007. He wasn't quite good enough to crack the rotation, but he was a good guy to have around to start in spots and pitch long relief. He had some good moments. But then the Angels put him in the rotation in 2008 and it didn't go well at all. Moseley then made only three MLB appearances for the Angels in 2009 (all starts) and moved on.

Moseley's year for the Yankees in 2010 is most notable for the two strong appearances he made for them in the post season without giving up a run. His relief effort won a game for the Yankees against the Rangers in the ALCS, about the only Yankee highlight of that entire series. But his efforts landed him on the free agent market again and San Diego picked him up for $900,000, a nice payday for what was now a journeyman pitcher. Pitchers got hurt in the San Diego rotation and there was Moseley, hurling zeroes for four starts with nothing to show for it.

Moseley didn't get the win on the Monday of improbabilities, but he didn't get the loss either. For the first time this season, he gave up more than one run in a game. He gave up three. And he didn't lose. That is poetry, friends. His team eventually won in extra innings. Moseley now has a 1.99 ERA. Baseball is beautiful.

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