Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beneath the Pirates' Wave

Can fans of Major League Baseball taste the improbable? Do we dare to hope again after the San Diego Padres broke our hearts on the last day of the season in 2010? It doesn't matter if you are not a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. You don't have to be a home town fan to be a fan of a story like this. The Pirates haven't had this much fun since Barry Bonds wore their uniform and that was a long, long time ago. It almost seems obligatory to look for reasons why the Pirates can't continue this success. Heck, Baseball Prospectus still predicts the Pirates will finish the season 30-41 and finish way out in the standings. But why can't we dream a little?

To continue to win, the Pirates need to continue to defy long odds. None of their starting pitchers except James McDonald strikes out more than five and a half batters per nine innings. Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm both have BABIPS under .250. As a team, only the Minnesota Twins strike out less batters than the Pirates do. And yet they have the eighth best ERA in baseball. They limit walks pretty well, but only five other teams have a worse strikeout to walk ratio.

On offense, they are twentieth in the majors (out of 30 teams) in runs scored. Only five teams have hit less homers. No team in the majors gets hit by pitches less, perhaps because their offense doesn't instill fear in people. Only six teams have a lower team OPS than the Pirates. Only seven teams have a lower OBP than the Pirates.

On defense, only six teams have a worse fielding percentage than the Pittsburgh Pirates. They do much better in defensive efficiency where their athleticism allows them to score twelfth in the majors in that category. Their team is second only behind the Tampa Bay Rays in fielding runs above average. The bottom line is that they make errors but they really do a great job of going and getting the catch or the grounder.

One of the things this writer likes to look at is the Pythagorean win-loss record. Based on runs scored against runs allowed, the statistic tells you what your actual record should look like. Based on those figures, the Pirates have only won one more game than their Pythagorean record. That's comforting. But it's based on the team's continued ability to get people out on a regular basis and besides the offense (which can be aided by a smart trade), the starting rotation for the Pirates continue to be scorned by most analysts because they don't strike people out.

Could this be a test case for the old pitching to contact debate? All of the starters except for McDonald have a higher ground ball than fly ball ratio. Three of the starters have double-digit double plays induced. Their pitchers invite you to mash the ball into the ground in the hopes that one of their fielders will make the play. Both middle infielders, Ronny Cedeno and Neil Walker already have more than 250 assists this season. Lyle Overbay has the seventh most put outs of any first baseman in baseball.

Everything about the Pirates' run looks similar to the Padres run a year ago. The Padres ran with good but surprising starting pitching, a great bullpen and opportunistic scoring. It's also a formula the Giants ran with all the way to the title. The big difference between the Giants and the Pirates though is that their rotation is a power rotation unlike the Pirates staff. This staff looks more like the Padres of last year if you give James McDonald the Matt Latos power role.

Sites like Baseball Prospectus don't have faith the the Pirates can finish strong. If you follow some of the big time guys on Twitter like Keith Law, they scoff at the success of Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, Keven Correia and Paul Maholm. Perhaps they are right. But wouldn't it be cool if they weren't? Can the improbable trump the statistically expected? Wouldn't that be fun?

After the Pirates finish this series with Houston, they have thirteen straight games against the Reds, Cardinals, Braves and Phillies. That's a heck of a schedule and perhaps we'll know more about things after that. For the Pirates to hold on, they will need to play that schedule at nearly .500. There is talk about them trading for some hitting. That might be easier said than done since a lot of their young talent is already playing on the field in the majors.

The odds, the analysts and the skeptics are certainly against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But is it uncool to root for them anyway?

Game Picks - Saturday: July 16, 2011

Can we say this all together--The Pirates are tied for first. The Pirates are tied for first place! How cool is that? The Pirates win backed with an improbable shutout by the improbable Jeff Karstens propelled the improbable Pittsburgh Pirates to a tie for first in the NL Central. It also propelled this picker into another good day. The correct picks included the Blue Jays over the Yankees behind Brandon Morrow, the Bay Rays over the Red Sox behind David Price, wins by Kershaw for the Dodgers, Vance Worley of the Phillies, Tim Hudson of the Braves, Colby Lewis of the Rangers and Tim Lincecum of the Giants.

The Reds blew a lead against the Cardinals but then a walk-off homer by Brandon Phillips won them a game and this picker a pick. On the down side, Justin Verlander got shelled by the White Sox and Ryan Dempster shut down the Marlins. Didn't see those coming. Matt Capps blew yet another save for the Twins as Eric Hosmer was the hero. And the Oakland A's beat Dan Haren and the Angels.

But it was a good day and it's been a good week. Today finishes it and hopefully, it will be on a positive note:

  • The Cubs over the Marlins: Carlos Zambrano takes the third game of this series over Javier Vazquez.
  • The Yankees over the Blue Jays: Verlander getting popped yesterday makes picking C. C. Sabathia today. But the big guy is on a serious roll and the Yankees should score a couple off of Ricky Romero.
  • The Athletics over the Angels: See how much one game sways this emotional picker? The gut feeling here is that Trevor Cahill comes up with a gem against Jared Weaver and the Angels.
  • The Angels over the Athletics: The teams play two today and the Angels should beat Rich Harden behind a rekindled Ervin Santana.
  • The Bay Rays over the Red Sox: James Shields should be better than John Lackey right? That's the theory behind this one.
  • The Tigers over the White Sox: Max Scherzer comes back to beat the White Sox. Edwin Jackson has been a hard luck loser for several games in a row though and is due for some luck. Hmm..
  • The Mets over the Phillies: Jonathan Niese beat the Phillies in a repeat of today's match up against Cole Hamels. This is the upset pick of the day.
  • The Indians over the Orioles: The Fan hates games like this. The Orioles are starting Alfredo Simon. How can you know how that will go? Carlos Carrasco was really good and for the last two games has been really bad.
  • The Astros over the Pirates: The Fan just has this thing about Bud Norris. Every time Norris is predicted to lose, he wins and vice versa. Paul Maholm has been really good. But Norris beat the Pirates last time.
  • The Royals over the Twins: Crap. Another of those games that is an awful choice. Carl Pavano has been much better of late, but Jeff Francis was very good his last time out. Crap.
  • The Cardinals over the Reds: David Freese makes a difference in this line up and in the field. The Cards should rally against Bronson Arroyo and give Chris Carpenter enough runs to win.
  • The Diamondbacks over the Dodgers: Both Hiroke Kuroda and Ian Kennedy are really good. Going with the Diamondbacks at home.
  • The Brewers over the Rockies: Okay, which Zack Greinke will we get today? Which Jhoulys Chacin will we get? Ugh.
  • The Padres over the Giants: Barry Zito has teased us with several good outings. It has to end. It simply has to. Cory Luebke with the win.
  • The Rangers over the Mariners: The Rangers might go 152-10 if they faced the Mariners every day. C. J. Wilson out duels Felix Hernandez.

And the Game of the Day!

  • The Braves over the Nationals: Tommy Hanson is really good. John Lannon is making his first start since breaking his nose off a lined shot up the middle.

Yesterday: 10-5
Week: 23-14
Month: 92-75
Season: 746-636
Games of the Day: 67-37

Friday, July 15, 2011

Melky and Emilio Down By the Schoolyard

When one writes about baseball for long enough, there are always going to be times when the writing leads to eating a little crow. Back in 2009, the Florida Marlins gave Emilio Bonifacio 509 plate appearances and he produced the worst major league season that year with a negative WAR of -0.4. Last year, the Atlanta Braves gave Melky Cabrera 509 plate appearances and the Melkman came up with one of the worst seasons in memory with a negative WAR of -1.0. After those two disastrous seasons with ironically the same number of plate appearances, this writer appeased the sabr-gods and dutifully blasted the Marlins for sticking with Bonifacio and the Royals for signing Cabrera. So far this season, this writer has been dead wrong.

Look, neither player will ever be considered an elite player in the major leagues. But what they are doing this year adds consistent value to their teams. Bonifacio plays nearly every day for the Marlins at several different positions. In fact, he's played six different positions and played them all reasonably well (except maybe as a shortstop). And he's always added value with his legs. His base running statistics have always been positive. But this year, he's added much more on base capability.

Bonifacio has really improved his ability to hit a line drive somewhere and it shows in his batting average, which currently sits at .288. His walk percentage still isn't astounding for a speed guy, but at 9.8 percent, it's the highest of his career. Thus, his on base percentage is at a very respectable .360. His increased percentage of being on base has led to runs scored (third on the team) and given him an $8.5 million value of play for the Marlins thus far this season. Again, for a utility guy...a super utility guy, that's good stuff.

Melky Cabrera's addition to the Royals was roundly scorned when it happened before the season, and rightly so. He was awful last year and except for a few flashes here and there for the Yankees, he's really not been that good a player over the course of his career. An indication of that is his career win probability added or WPA. Coming into this season, Cabrera's career WPA was -4.32. In other words, his play did much more to help his team lose than to help his team win.

As mentioned, Cabrera was awful for the Braves last year. His OPS last year in 509 plate appearances was .671. His fielding metrics were awful too and his base running (for a guy that seemed sort of fast) was always in the negative numbers. It was that kind of season, with it's negative WAR, WPA and other metrics that caused all of us to deride the Royals for signing him, even if it was simply viewed as a stopgap move until its younger players were ready. The Royals have certainly struggled, but not because of Melky.

Melky Cabrera has never been a patient hitter and this year, he's even less patient than normal. His walk rate is awful at 5.8 percent and he swings at more than 35 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Even so, his batting average is the highest it has been in his career at .295 and he's hitting for more power. He already has 12 homers and 23 doubles this season to give him his highest slugging percentage ever at .456. Melky's OPS is more than 100 points higher than last year.

To get a good gauge on how well Melky is playing this season, Fangraphs currently ranks him the seventh best centerfielder in baseball this season. With their being thirty teams, that's pretty darn good. After posting a -1 WAR last season, he's posted a WAR this season of 3.0 with the first positive base running score of his career and much better fielding numbers. Cabrera also has several game winning hits, especially earlier in the season. Fangraphs ranks his play to be worth $13.5 million this season. Perhaps it is time to stop laughing at that signing.

Again, these aren't two of the elite players in baseball. And for at least one season each, they were among the worst players in the league. And perhaps, given their career paths to this point, we could very well see regression as the season rolls along. But for right now, both players have added unexpected value to their teams and perhaps it is high time this writer shut up when it comes to their playing time. The Fan has been wrong about these two players. Admission complete.

Game Picks - Friday: July 15, 2011

There were more ayes than nays in yesterday's limited scope of games, but the eyes still couldn't believe what they were seeing. The two picks that were wrong were really wrong as the Blue Jays pounded the Yankees in Toronto. The Yankees didn't pitch well or field well and the Blue Jays took full advantage and scored sixteen runs without the benefit of a home run. In the other bad pick, the Royals start well but never seem to end well as the Twins scored eight runs in the blink of an eye to win going away.

The five games that were predicted correctly were also wild ones. The Marlins couldn't score all day against the Cubs' Matt Garza. But Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood couldn't find home plate and in the few times they could, they got pounded. The bottom line was six runs in the ninth for the Marlins and the win. The Rangers got three homers with one each by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to back up Derek Holland, who threw his second straight shutout. As feared here, Yovani Gallardo is just not the same this season and he was crushed by the Rockies. Ubaldo Jiminez was good enough for the win. The Giants needed twelve innings and a Luke Gregorson meltdown with his arm and his fielding to finally win their game against the Padres in the twelfth inning. And finally, in the Game of the Day, Justin Masterson wasn't terrific, but the Indians scored enough runs to make him a winner. Poor Jeremy Guthrie is now 3-13 and Buck Showalter's team has lost eight in a row.

Today, everyone gets back in action for the first time since Sunday. Finally, this picker has a full slate of games to pick!

  • The Marlins over the Cubs: The Cubs sure can find creative ways to lose, can't they? The Marlins are rolling after their dirge like June. Ricky Nolasco over Ryan Dempster.
  • The Tigers over the White Sox: The All Star Break and the day off yesterday allows the Tigers to come back with Justin Verlander after his start on Sunday. That's good news for them and not for Gavin Floyd or the White Sox.
  • The Blue Jays over the Yankees: With the Tigers jumping Verlander ahead, why wouldn't the Yankees do the same to C. C. Sabathia? Instead, the Yankees will stick to the soft side of their rotation and Freddie Garcia will get the ball. Hmm.. The Blue Jays counter with their best arm, Brandon Morrow.
  • The Indians over the Orioles: The improbable seasons of the Indians and Josh Tomlin will continue with another win tonight at the expense of Jake Arrieta, who is 1-3 after starting the season 8-3.
  • The Bay Rays over the Red Sox: This is a tough game to call. David Price hasn't looked like much of an ace lately. But his big left arm has got to bring it around sooner or later. Meanwhile, Andrew Miller is 3-0 for the Red Sox. That seems too good to be true.
  • The Phillies over the Mets: Who is going to close for the Mets? Well, it won't matter this game because Vance Worley is going to shut down the Mets' offense and the Phillies will damage R. A. Dickey.
  • The Reds over the Cardinals: This great rivalry is back in action, this time in Cincinnati. This picker just can't seem to warm up to a start for Jake Westbrook, especially against Johnny Cueto.
  • The Braves over the Nationals: Tim Hudson used to own the Nationals. But he's lost two of his last three against them. No team benefited more from the break in action more than the Braves did though and they should score against Livan Hernandez.
  • The Pirates over the Astros: You would think Brett Myers is going to be traded. But it hasn't been going well for him lately. Meanwhile, Jeff Karstens doesn't have great stuff, but he seems to keep winning.
  • The Twins over the Royals: Picking the Royals just causes too much heartache. Luke Hochevar has an ERA of 5.46 but has been even worse lately. Nick Blackburn has a 4.24 ERA but has a lifetime ERA against the Royals of 5.40.
  • The Brewers over the Rockies: Not exactly a warm feeling picking Chris Narveson to win a game against a good hitting team. But Juan Nicasio hasn't exactly looked good lately either.
  • The Dodgers over the Diamondbacks: Clayton Kershaw has been throwing strikes and if he continues to do that, he'll be unstoppable. Joe Saunders has been surprisingly effective but it won't be enough today.
  • The Angels over the Athletics: The Angels can certainly compete well in their own division and with Dan Haren pitching, that will continue against Brandon McCarthy and the Athletics. How did so many Brandons get in the major leagues? Weird.
  • The Giants over the Padres: The Padres had their chance last night and blew it. Tim Lincecum will beat Dustin Moseley.

And the Game of the Day!

  • The Rangers over the Mariners: Doug Fister is much better than his 3-10 record, but he never, ever, ever gets any runs support. Colby Lewis isn't exactly Tom Seaver, but against the Mariners, he doesn't have to be.

Yesterday: 5-2
Week: 13-9
Month: 82-70
Season: 736-631
Games of the Day: 66-37

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Please, Cardinals, Trade Colby Rasmus

Colby Rasmus has had a rough go of it since the first of June. After the first two months of the season, he was batting in the high .270s with an OBP in the .370s as well. Rasmus had a bad June with an OPS of .684 and July has been horrible so far. For his nine games in July, Rasmus has a .384 OPS with no walks and only five hits. Somehow word leaked over the All Star Break that the Cardinals were actively shopping him--a fact confirmed by Buster Olney in his post today over at Olney wondered why the word had leaked. This writer can tell you why. The Cardinals can't stand him.

Oh, they may say something different. But Tony LaRussa has a long history of having a long memory with players he doesn't get along with. There was Scott Rolen and others that fell in that category. Ever since Rasmus and LaRussa had that public tiff and then Pujols chimed in and said perhaps that Rasmus should just play for a different team, it's sure to have been festering. And now, with Rasmus in a slump, there isn't any support for him. There isn't any positive reinforcement believing he'll work himself out of it. Instead there is a leak that the Cardinals want to trade him. For his sake and perhaps the team's sake, let's hope they do.

There are two obvious problems with Rasmus and his statistics since the beginning of June. One is that he stopped getting on base. He was walking regularly in the early part of the season. He had 33 walks by the end of May but only has seven since. The other obvious problem is that his pop ups to the infield are more than double his career average. Just about every other major statistic is nearly identical to his career norms. He swings at nearly the same amount of pitches in and out of the strike zone. His ground ball and fly ball ratios are right in line with his career. His line drive percentage is just slightly off his norm and his strikeout rate is down from his career numbers.

Other than the infield pop ups, could he just be having some bad luck? It certainly appears possible. His BABIP for June was .221. For July, his BABIP to this point is .160! This author imagines that it would get pretty frustrating when nothing is dropping for you.

It also doesn't help that Colby Rasmus is playing out of position like just about every other Cardinal not named Albert Pujols. Schumaker isn't a second baseman. Lance Berkman isn't a right fielder. Ryan Theriot isn't a shortstop. And Colby Rasmus isn't a center fielder. His fielding numbers bear that out. So we have a guy who is slumping and is playing a position he's not very good at. That sounds like a perfectly acceptable reason to want to trade him.

Except that he is still only 24 years old and he was the Cardinals' first round draft choice in 2005. Plus, he only makes $443,000. Add the fact that he was worth a solid $17 million as a player last year and a was a solid offensive player. Even with his struggles this season, he has still been worth $7 million with his play thus far and for all the Cardinals know, his last month and a half of struggle could simply be a case of bad luck with every reason to think he can turn things around and at least produce to his career norms.

There has been a dark cloud over Colby Rasmus in St. Louis for quite some time now. And from everything this Fan has seen, the fan base there has sided with Tony LaRussa and Rasmus is vilified. He's the black sheep of the family. With all those dynamics, the Cardinals should just go ahead and trade him.

This writer believes very highly in Colby Rasmus. Put him in a positive environment where he is supported and he will blossom into the star that his talent projects him to be. Again, he is only 24 years old. He had a fine growing season last year and is going through a slump now. But that doesn't mean that Rasmus is a no-talent loser. For whatever reason and for whoever is at fault, he's not in a positive environment and a change would be best. This writer hopes it happens soon.

Game Picks - Thursday: July 14, 2011

The All Star Game is a cool idea at face value. The break is a natural pause that splits the first and second half of the season and gives MLB a chance to showcase all of the league's best players in one game. The negative part of all that is that for three days we lose what is the best part about baseball and that is the daily routine of games to follow and pour over. The bone to pick this writer has with the whole thing (and no, Brien, this isn't a rant about the All Star Game) is that after the break is over, MLB only schedules seven games on the day the break is supposed to end. So fans in sixteen other cities have to wait a fourth day without their teams playing. Not good, Bud.

Rant over. Here are the picks for those scant games we've been waiting for:

  • The Yankees over the Blue Jays: The Blue Jays always play the Yankees tough. And the Blue Jays are at home. But there are two things about this game. First, the Yankees can pound the ball just as well as the Blue Jays and the Blue Jays' bullpen is really struggling. Secondly, Bartolo Colon usually bounces back nicely after a less than stellar performance. Jo-Jo Reyes is uneven at best.
  • The Marlins over the Cubs: The Marlins started to come on a bit just before the break. Their most consistent pitcher, Anibal Sanchez gets the start and the Cubs don't win very often that Matt Garza pitches.
  • The Royals over the Twins: Bruce Chen always seems a pitcher. But he's a lefty against the Twins, which is good and he seems to win somehow. Francisco Liriano is having a very uneven season with equal flashes of brilliance and abomination.
  • The Rockies over the Brewers: Why on earth would the Rockies want to trace Ubaldo Jiminez? The guy is young with a great arm and has shown the ability to win. Why lose that? Ubaldo wins at home over the Brewers and Yovani Gallardo.
  • The Giants over the Padres: The Padres have played the Giants tough--probably because both have trouble scoring runs. Madison Bumgarner pitches much better on the road and he is in San Diego this time. Aaron Harang pitched well his last time out, but what run support will he get?
  • The Rangers over the Mariners: Tough pick here. Derek Holland was absolutely terrific his last time out and he is pitching against a poor offense. But Jason Vargas has been very good at times and could hold the Rangers' offense down too. Tough call.

And the Game of the Day!

  • The Indians over the Orioles: Jerermy Guthrie is 3-12! He is a battler, but he is 3-12! Going with Justin Masterson, a pitcher this Fan really admires.

All Star Game: 0-1  oh well
This week: 8-8
This month: 77-68
This season: 731-630
Games of the Day: 65-37

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Willie, Jimmy and the Mike

Two brothers who are close in age can be a bit troublesome. There is usually a lot of arguing and out and out fighting. But sometimes, the two can really be two ends of the same stick. Such was the case when this writer was growing up. Michael was only 22 months younger and as the youngest of the family, often got the short end of things. He was the one who got acne and eczema. He had to wear special shoes because of a foot problem. Plus, he had no middle name. In one of those flukes of things that happen in families, the guy just wasn't given one. And it has always bugged him. Of course, his two older siblings (this writer and an older sister) told him it was because he was a mistake. Michael's parents were only going to have two children and Michael was an oops. His mother cherished him, but we kept him grounded (let's paint this in the best light) with our barbs. Perhaps our meanest barb was to ask him to point to his head and say his initials (M. T.). We laughed like crazy, but it took him years to figure out what we were laughing at.

Jimmy Conrad was Michael's age and lived right around the corner. His father was a pen manufacturer and you've probably used one of those pens at some point in your life. Jimmy was one of those kids that could do everything with ease. He was a flawless shooter in basketball, a good pitcher and a good all around athlete. His only problem was that he was kind of short. Jimmy became our third brother. Either he slept over the Tasker house or the two Tasker boys slept at his house. The Tasker boys went on all of Jimmy's family vacations and vice versa.

The thing about the triumvirate was that all three boys loved the same things. It was the Yankees, the Knicks and playing sports from the moment we woke up to the minute the sun went down. The trio all loved to watch the games and to keep score. Truthfully, watching the games over at Jimmy's house was better because he had a color television and the Tasker boys only had a black and white. Plus, Jimmy's father installed a refrigerator in the family room downstairs just for Coca-Cola. That thing was always packed with those perfect green bottles.

That basement also had a ping pong table and a pool table. So if it was raining or if the trio got too hot, there was something else to do. And truthfully, there was always something to do. For this writer, there is a real sadness that the most common refrain from kids today is that they are bored. The trio was never bored. In fact, this writer can't remember a single boring moment of childhood.

In winter, there was football and basketball. If we couldn't find enough kids to play a game of tackle, there was a game where turns were taken as the quarterback with the two receivers alternately using the curb like an out-of-bounds marker to see who could make the best catches and stay in bounds. Basketball was played at the park about a mile away or over at Mickey's house, a boy about six blocks away who had a half court in his back yard.

There were blocks-wide games of tag and other such games. Bikes were ridden for miles just to go wherever the trio wanted to go. But of course, the best was the summer. Not only was there no school, but there was an entire day to play some kind of ball. Most days included a morning game of stick ball with other kids of the neighborhood. The games were five on five and two manhole covers were a home run. You had to hit the ball in the middle and between the curbs, or it was an out. Broomsticks were the bats and Spalding red rubber balls were the only balls to use.

After stick ball was wiffle ball. This was always a three-person game with just the three friends and always played at Jimmy's house because he had a garage with those squares as a design. The squares guaranteed a strike zone. Willie, Jimmy and the Mike each were their own teams. One would pitch, the other would bat and the third would play outfield. After three outs it was time to rotate. Willie would switch hit, but the other two batted right-handed. Jimmy was the fastest pitcher, but Willie could really make that wiffle ball dance.

When Jimmy wasn't around--which wasn't often--the Tasker boys would play a game called, "Ground Ball to Short." Paced diagonally across the street and about sixty or seventy feet, each player took turns being the shortstop and the first baseman. This game was played with a baseball, which would get beat to heck as it got torn up by the pavement. Each game was nine innings and an out was recorded with a clean field of the ball and an accurate throw to first. Errors meant base runners and four base runners meant a run. This writer was the better first baseman but Michael was the better shortstop.

Then there was stoop ball. This again involved the red rubber ball. This game was always played at the Tasker household because those front steps (or stoop) were perfect. This game simply involved one player throwing the ball hard against the steps and the other player as the fielder trying to catch it. Again, this game was a nine inning game with the two players taking turns as the fielder until the three outs of an inning were recorded.

Frisbee was another great pastime and all three boys became very good at long-tossing that disc. There was also a lot of golf, played mostly at a nearby par three course. One time, the Conrad vacation was to Mickey Rooney's resort in Pennsylvania which included a golf course. That was a really memorable time. One time, this author hit a beautiful shot on a par three hole where you couldn't see the green. We all had our own golf carts and this author couldn't wait to see where that shot landed. So off he went on his cart tearing down the hill. The cart path crossed the fairway and half way across it, there was a loud ping sound off the side of the cart. This author looked back to see a very angry Michael jumping up and down because his brother had just ruined his shot.

On the weekends, Mom took the three boys to Laurel Lake, a man-made lake in Montvale, New Jersey. Mom always scraped up enough money to fund a family membership there and not only did it have sand beaches, but this big fountain in the middle. It's where we all learned to swim and dive off the diving board. We also used our trusty red rubber balls to dive into the water. We all loved making diving catches. In one of the true tragedies of life, the lake was filled in and is an office park now.

Willie, Jimmy and the Mike had plenty of ways to amuse themselves. This writer created a baseball game made of dice and each roll was a value for a single, homer, strikeout, walk, etc. If memory serves, a double-one roll was a homer and a seven was a strikeout. The trio played a full league's worth of games before graduating to Strat-O-Matic baseball, which was much more sophisticated. The three boys played thousands of those games every summer.

Two or three weeks of the summer were spent in Wildwood, New Jersey. The Tasker family rented from this lovely Italian family named Tropia and the Taskers (and Jimmy, of course) had the entire upstairs. The house was only a half block from the beach and the boardwalk. Those two or three weeks were easily the highlight of childhood, but did contain one last bit of sadness. When this author was seventeen and the other two were fifteen, a call was received at the Tropia's. Jimmy's parents had split up and Mr. Conrad took off. Jimmy was devastated and Mom drove the three hours that night to take him home.

For some reason, that event marked the end of Willie, Jimmy and the Mike. Jimmy just left us after that. He still lived in the same house but didn't want anything to do with the Tasker boys anymore. It was hard to understand and in fact, it still is today more than thirty-seven years after the events. Soon after, this author went by himself to New Hampshire College and Mike found new friends. The inseparable were separated and all that is left are the grand memories of all those fun times for kids just being kids.

Michael lives in South Carolina with his family, which is a long way from Maine. Who knows where Jimmy is. This author tried to find him on social media one time but his name is way too common to succeed. His father died in Florida. Perhaps his mother is gone now too. Wherever you are, Jimmy, you were like a brother and you are missed. Thanks, Mike, and thanks, Jimmy, for the memories.

Way Off His Rocker

Eight years have passed since John Rocker last threw a pitch in the major leagues. Rocker had a meteoric rise to  fame as the closer for the Atlanta Braves in his first full season in 1999. He saved 38 games that season with over twelve strikeouts per nine innings and a sparkling ERA of 2.49. His season helped the Braves make it all the way to the World Series where the Braves lost to the Yankees. His next season (2000) was a season for the record books because John Rocker did something that had never been done before in the majors and hasn't been done since.

John Rocker, with his season in the year 2000, became the only pitcher ever to pitch more than fifty innings with a walk rate over 7 walks per nine innings and yet still finish with an ERA under 3.00. It's amazing when you think about it. Rocker pitched 53 innings that season and ended up facing 251 batters in those 53 innings. That's an astounding 4.73 batters per innings pitched. His hit rate was 7.1 hits per nine innings giving him a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.698. And yet his final ERA was 2.89. How is that possible?

Let's look at it another way. If John Rocker faced 4.73 batters per inning and 1.698 of them got on base, he allowed 35.9 percent of them to get on base. And yet, he only gave up 0.32 runs per inning. Part of the reason he escaped so many times was that he struck out a lot of batters. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings that season. That leaves us with another fun way of looking at his season.

He faced 251 batters and 77 of them struck out. That leaves 174 batters that didn't strike out. Of those 174 batters that didn't strike out, 92 of them reached base. So, of all the batters that he didn't strike out, 52.8 percent of them got on base. If you didn't strike out that season against John Rocker, you had a better than one in two chances to get on base.

There have been a few seasons that are in Rocker's ballpark. Way back in 1916, a pitcher named Grover Loudermilk pitched 51.2 innings and walked 8.38 batters per nine innings. That's even higher than Rockers incredible 8.19 walks per nine innings. Loudermilk faced 4.68 batters per inning, just under Rocker's 4.73. Loudermilk finished with a 3.14 ERA. The thing that really stands out about Loudermilk's season was that he gave up 33 runs, but only 18 were earned runs. That's pretty sloppy defense behind him.

After expanding the search to less than or equal to an ERA of 3.50 instead of 3.00, five pitchers fit the category. So far, Loudermilk and Rocker are two of them. Who were the others?

One just happened two years ago. Carlos Marmol of the Cubs walked 7.91 batters per nine innings pitched and yet had an ERA of 3.41. Marmol gave up a lot less hits per nine innings pitched than Rocker though and he faced 4.24 batters per inning. Marmol had the highest ERA of these five pitchers, but had the lowest percentage of unearned runs for his season.

Another of our contenders performed the feat the same year as Rocker (2000). Robert Ramsay only pitched two seasons in the majors, both with the Seattle Mariners. His last season was memorable. He walked 7.15 batters per nine innings, but only struck out 5.2 batters per nine innings. He averaged facing 4.56 batters per inning and yet finished with an ERA of 3.40.

They didn't call Mitch Williams the "Wild Thing" for nothing. Williams walked 544 batters in his 691.1 career innings. That's a 7.1 walks per nine innings rate for his entire career! Williams joins as the last member of our group for his 1987 season. He has the highest innings pitched for our survey with 108.2 innings pitched that season. Not too many batters got hits off of Mitch Williams. And as such, his batters per innings came to 4.33 that season and still managed to finish with a 3.23 ERA.

But none of these guys finished with an ERA under 3.00 like Rocker did in 2000. As pretty much everyone remembers, Rocker quickly devolved after his brilliant start to his career. Injuries and disgrace due to his conduct limited his career and he faded from history. Which is kind of too bad. He could have been a great one. He made 20 post-series appearances covering 20.2 innings pitched and never gave up a single run. But he will be remembered more for what he said and how he acted than any of the good things he did early in his career.

And now, thanks to player searches, we will now remember him for his one-of-a-kind seasons when he walked 8.19 batters per nine innings pitched, had a WHIP of 1.698 and still finished the season with a 2.89 ERA (and 24 saves). No one else in baseball history has that kind of accomplishment on his resume.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is Chris Berman the Derek Jeter of Broadcasting?

Chris Berman has been at ESPN since the very beginning. Now running on 34 seasons, Berman has been a fixture on our television sets for a long, long time. For a network that did everything it could to not create stars of its broadcasters, Berman became a star anyway. How that happened and how ESPN fought the star system was discussed often in the great book this writer read while down in Florida. The book, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, features interviews with current and former employees of ESPN and nary a word of negativity came across from any of those interviews about Chris Berman. And yet it has become cool to bash Berman just as much as it seems cool to bash Derek Jeter. Hence the heading of this post.

Some things this writer just doesn't get. When ESPN first came on the air, this viewer thought it was the coolest thing since Matchbox cars. Seriously, there were now highlights of games on television that everyone (with cable) could watch!? Yes! And Chris Berman was the ultimate host of shows like SportCenter, Baseball Tonight and the NFL preview and post game shows. His nicknames constantly caused belly laughs as did his funny sound effects when things went awry. It was obvious that he had never been an athlete and was a regular guy just like us who loved sports. It was terrific television.

Berman, along with other stars at the network like Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott and others brought us in to the sports world in a fun and hip way. Or possibly it was the other way around. Perhaps they echoed our world and our love for sports. A lot of that network's success is due to their content, but most of it was because of their people. And yet, it is currently fashionable to hate them. Is ESPN the Yankees? And if so, is Chris Berman their Derek Jeter? To give you an idea of the vitriol that Berman inspires, here is a sample of some "tweets" on the topic:
Get the picture? Perhaps it all started because of this video. In the video (caution: contains swearing), Berman obviously loses his cool at his coworkers who interrupted his concentration while doing his show. The stress of doing any show on ESPN is another component of the book mentioned earlier in this post. The book explains that the veterans were hard on newer studio workers and that was part of the culture to bring everyone up to a level of professionalism. Surely, Berman wasn't the only one that ever got frustrated by the in-studio crew in the 34 years of doing ESPN broadcasts.

Perhaps the real reason for the hatred hurled Chris Berman's way has to do with the network he works for. Like the Yankees, ESPN made incredible business deals that made them the richest and most powerful cable station ever. As much as we like success stories in this country, once a success has become a mega-success, this country loves to tear them down. ESPN made NASCAR what it is today. ESPN increased the popularity of the NFL and MLB. They became the leaders in showing us what the new world would look like.

But we don't like too much success. It's why the Yankees are hated and it's why it's become cool to bash ESPN and by default, Chris Berman. He is as much the symbol of ESPN as just about anything else. Frankly, this writer is a big Fan of both the network and of Chris Berman. Are they perfect? No. The on-air personalities on ESPN have become bland and don't hold a candle to those on the air fifteen or twenty years ago. Often times, this writer would love Berman to clear his throat as his voice is often strained. But it's clear the number one focus for Berman is to have fun celebrating the thing he loves most: Sports.

So yes, Chris Berman is the Derek Jeter of sports' on-air personalities. The vitriol is unfair. And the ironic thing about the whole thing is that the same people that bash the network and Berman still watch! If it's that painful, stop watching! As for last night's Home Run Derby, the event always lasts too long. Three rounds is one round too many. Berman becomes the focus of the overbearing length of the event. But compared to previous years' installments, Berman was much more restrained and contained than in other years. This writer enjoyed his work on that program.

So yeah, this Fan is a fan of Chris Berman and of ESPN. Are their best years behind them? Perhaps. Are Derek Jeter's best years behind him? Yes. But at 55, this Fan's best years are behind him too. This writer wishes Berman was on ESPN a lot more often than he is now. This Fan wishes he would do a SportCenter a week. This writer makes no apologies for what he likes. And Chris Berman and ESPN are among the "likes."

Game Picks - Tuesday: July 12, 2011

Yes, there is a game today. You know...the All Star Game? This Fan was so messed up yesterday by there being no games that he didn't write anything at all. There was a flickering thought of picking the winner of the Home Run Derby. But that would have been sort of dumb. But it's too bad that this picker didn't do it because Robinson Cano would have been the pick.

So which league is going to win the All Star Game? The National League is on a bit of a roll with it with their win last year and the win in the World Series. But if Tuesday's Home Run Derby showed anything, it showed that the AL has the better sluggers. The AL line up is serious wham up. The NL has better pitching starting with Roy Halladay and moving on down the line. The two best starters in the AL won't be pitching (C. C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander). The question is, do you go with the pitching since they say that good pitching always beats good hitting? Or do you go with the packed line up that the AL throws up there?

Okay, here's the pick:

  • The American League over the National League: Jared Weaver will need to get the AL off to a good start and pitch well. If he does, the AL will eventually score enough runs to win it.

Sunday: 8-7
Week: 8-7
Month: 77-67
Season: 731-629
Games of the Day: 65-37

Interesting Jose Bautista Statistic

Another post on Jose Bautista may reveal just how fascinated this writer is with this slugger. On top of everything else already said here about the player from the Toronto Blue Jays, there is this: Jose Bautista's current WAR is more than the combined team batting WAR of seven teams. To state that a different way, Bautista's current WAR is higher than 23.3 percent of the combined efforts of Major League Baseball's teams.

The Atlanta Braves' batters have a combined WAR of 5.2. The Baltimore Orioles' batters have a combined WAR of 5.5. The Colorado Rockies' batters have a combined WAR of 3.5 (which absolutely blows this writer away--The Rockies?). The Minnesota Twins' batters have a combined WAR of 3.8. The Oakland Athletics' batters have a combined WAR of 0.2 (the lowest in baseball). The San Diego Padres have a combined WAR for all its batters of 3.4. The Seattle Mariners' batters have a combined WAR of 2.7. Jose Bautista's current WAR sits at 6.5 (or 6.6 depending on which site you look at).

The White Sox, Cubs and Marlins are just barely ahead of Bautista by himself. The White Sox batters are at 7.1 as are the Marlins. The Cubs are at 7.6. So one guy has produced more value in the field, with his bat and with base running than seven other complete teams' batting, fielding and base running. That's incredible. And what about Bautista's own team?

Take away Bautista's WAR and the Toronto batters have a combined WAR of 5.0. So Bautista has more WAR than the rest of his team's batters combined. His WAR makes up 56 percent of his team's total.

One point of consideration: Those National League teams mentioned includes the batting, fielding and base running of the pitchers who bat regularly in their team's games. And their general futility at the plate would be somewhat a drag of their team's WAR. But the seven teams mentioned included four American League teams.

If Jose Bautista has a good second half, then his season will end up among the elite of all time. Consider that the highest Albert Pujols ever reached was 10.9 and that season ranks 37th all time. A very good second half will stamp Bautista's season as one of the top twenty ever.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Derek Jeter's Moment Was Ours

Being a fan can be very difficult, especially when it comes to baseball. Say you are a fan of Peyton Manning. He may have some bad moments, but he's going to succeed about 65 percent of the time. Or you might be a fan of Kobe Bryant. He's going to succeed about 50 percent of the time. But in baseball, failure for the best players will occur some 60 percent of the time. And that's just at the plate. There is also fielding and there is base running. Being a fan of Derek Jeter has been tough for quite some time now.

As this Fan has written before, the problem with Derek Jeter is that he plays for the biggest team in sports. As such, he makes much more money than he can earn and he gets much more press than anyone in the game. If you are a thinking fan of the game, the press is impossible in either case. Either it is hyperbolic on the positive, which is cringe-worthy or it's hyperbolic on the negative, which is depressing. He's either the greatest winner sports has ever known, or he's a complete fraud who wins Gold Gloves he shouldn't win. It's a no win situation. Read any post about Jeter and you get both sides in spades. Don't believe that? Read these two wonderful (and fair) posts about the guy. One is by the great Joe Posnanski and the other by the nearly as great, Steve Slowinski. The comments will prove out the hyperbole.

But if you are a fan, then you have an emotional attachment. It becomes personal. If you are a thoughtful fan, you understand the player's weaknesses and love him anyway. There are some players that simply catch your imagination and don't let go. Derek Jeter fits that category for this writer. And when you watch the entire career from beginning to end, it's almost parental. You get to see the player cutting teeth and making rookie mistakes. You get the best years when the player truly blossoms into someone whose play thrills and tickles the insides. And then you get the old age and the decline and there is a sadness with some appreciation and ruefulness. It's like having one of those lifetime dogs you get as a puppy and then watch it grow old and decrepit.

For fans of Derek Jeter, we know he doesn't go to his left well at shortstop. You don't get many highlight reel plays at short. But if a grounder was hit to him, you never once worried he wouldn't make the play. He was steady like that. When you a fan of Derek Jeter, you know that some of those incredible post season plays were simply part of the odds with the number of post season games he played. But that knowledge didn't thrill the fan any less when he made them. As a batter, we knew he didn't produce as many runs as say an Alex Rodriguez or even a Nomar Garciaparra during his great years. But he was always there with that inside-outside swing getting his hits, stealing some bases, getting dirty. He was there with the fist pump at the end of wins.

He was the Captain, a mantle he seemed to wear well. He survived longer as a Yankee than Ruth or Mantle. He was a part of five championships. And as Mr. Posnanski noted so well, his day in and day out grind that helped him reach yesterday's milestone was never ending and there's something to be said about that. Even in his last two years, when he hasn't been the great Derek Jeter, he's a good deal better than a lot of other players in baseball. And we'll take that. The way that Biggio limped into his 3,000 hits garnered negative comments too and that had to bother his fans. But it wasn't close to the negativity that has surrounded Jeter's road to 3,000.

For this thinking fan of Derek Jeter, yesterday's explosion couldn't have been better. He didn't reach the milestone with yet another weak grounder to third. He got there with a 420-foot homer. There were style points for that. Yes, it will add to the hyperbole, but this fan doesn't care. All this fan cares about is that he got there and his fans got to savor the moment and revel in it. The climb is over. Derek Jeter has been this Fan's favorite player for fifteen years. This Fan still dismisses the over-praise and the critics still hurt when they are unkind. But that doesn't take away the joy of this moment. It is by far the sweetest moment of the year.

Can We Just Enjoy Jose Bautista?

Let's face it: We have become a people of skepticism. And that's understandable. The steroid era filled us with cynicism and embarrassed us. We went all gaga with our admiration of McGwire and Sosa only to find out that they had a little help. The best pitcher and best hitter of our age both had perjury trials this year. We watched Rafael Palmeiro tell congress he didn't use and then he was suspended by baseball for using. We were bitten and now we don't want to believe anymore. But the backlash is ugly and it's ruining our pure joy for the game. Albert Pujols broke his arm and was back playing after sixteen days. A story on Yahoo Sports toyed with the idea that Pujols' early return was worthy of doubt. And for two years now, people have been saying that Jose Bautista couldn't be doing what he is doing now without some help.

Well, at least half the time that's what you heard. The other half of the time was that Bautista's season last year was a fluke. That he couldn't do it again. But since that argument has been shattered by Bautista's 31 homers by the All Star break, we go back to the other whispers and innuendos. Can't we stop it already? Can't we just appreciate the beauty of what Bautista is doing? Can't we have any heroes anymore?

We've gotten to the point where we can't have players doing too well. They can do good things as long as they only hit around 30 homers. Hit any more for the season and we have to suspect it. Oh, it's okay if a pitcher does great things. Though pitchers probably used steroids and other PEDs as much as hitters did. It's okay if Roy Halladay is unbeatable or if Aroldis Chapman can throw a pitch 105 miles per hour or that Justin Verlander can throw 98 from the beginning of the game until the end. We don't question those. But hit too many homers, especially after a career of indifference and you get the scorn.

Stop it already. Just stop it. Let it go. Until there is proof otherwise of course. But look at Bautista. He isn't some kind of musclebound freak. He looks like a normally athletic guy just hitting the snot out of the ball on a regular basis. This Fan just wants to enjoy this ride. The child inside wants to have wonder again. The boy who grew up loving baseball doesn't want to be a cynical old man reading cynical writers around the country. This is a fabulous story that is too often clouded by doubt.

What we are seeing is incredible. And it's not just the homers. Bautista's slash line is .332/.468/.702. His OPS is 1.169 at the All Star break! He has already compiled 6.5 wins above replacement when his monster season last year only netted him 6.9. And he has half the season to go! His walk rate is 19.9 percent while his strikeout rate is only 18.3. For every ten times he comes to the plate, he's going to get on base (or more) five times! His homer to fly ball ratio is higher than last year. 46 of his 98 hits have been for extra bases. His wOBA is .486. His win probability added is already at 5.50. It's all amazing. Everywhere you look at his stats, it's amazing. He doesn't have a negative score against any pitch type. In other words, there isn't anything you can throw him that he doesn't have a chance to hit.

Can't we just enjoy that? Can't we sit back in awe and wonder and celebrate such a worthy season? This Fan is going to and you can't stop him from doing so. Earn your street cred by knocking it if you will. But not in this space. This is a Fan's space and perhaps it is naive, perhaps there are rose-colored glasses. This ride is so much fun right now that there is no way it's going to be derailed by naysayers. Jose Bautista is the bomb and his explosion is a magical carpet ride with seat belts.

Game Picks - Sunday: July 10, 2011

Yesterday was some kind of day wasn't it? Derek Jeter is of course the biggest news. Unfortunately for the Fan and his wonderful wife, we didn't get to see it because we were traveling all day. And yes, the accent should be on "all." Up at 4:30 in the morning, the car didn't pull into the yard until 9:00 P.M. last night. Ugh. Thankfully, in this day an age of digital media, we were able to relive Jeter's milestone via and the highlights.

This picker had two days worth of picks to tally this morning and after that 2-13 start last Sunday to the week, the final tally for the week just squeaked over .500. This pick will take that. Friday was a pretty good day here with a 9-5 record, but yesterday was just mundane at 8-7. One team that was picked nearly threw a no-hitter and still lost. How's that for luck? But luck wasn't all of it. For some reason, this picker thought Charlie Furbush had a chance to win. Ha! That was stupid. And what of that White Sox/Twins series? The Fan picked the White Sox on Friday and they lost. The Fan then picked the Twins on Saturday and they lost. Nice going, eh?

And so Sunday is the start of new things. There is a new week beginning for the picks. But it's All Star week and that will take some fun out of the picking. But it also brings the picks back home, in the familiar saddle without the distractions of the warm Florida air. And thank goodness the Fan doesn't have to listen to Tommy Hutton until next year. Geez, he's awful.

Sunday's picks:

  • The Yankees over the Bay Rays: James Shields will be pitching which will make his All Star appointment moot since he won't be able to pitch. C. C. Sabathia, meanwhile, won't be going to Arizona and will win his 13th.
  • The Indians over the Blue Jays: As good at Jose Bautista is going doesn't compensate for the fact that the Blue Jays can't finish off their games with their bullpen. Plus Carlos Carrasco can be very good. Brett Cecil pitched a complete game last time out to avoid the bullpen, but still lost.
  • The Marlins over the Astros: It seems the Marlins long drought is over. With timely hitting at last, the Marlins look different these past few days. Chris Volsdad will have to have a good game with Wandy Rodriguez on the hill for the Astros.
  • The Braves over the Phillies: Derek Lowe has the uncanny ability to lift his game against big time opponents and great starting pitchers. Cole Hamels starts, which again makes his All Star selection moot.
  • The Orioles over the Red Sox: You heard that right. The Orioles haven't won in forever. But their pitcher, Mitch Atkins at least has a chance facing Kyle Weiland, making his major league debut.
  • The Pirates over the Cubs: This series has this picker sucking air. Seriously, how do you pick between Ramon Ortiz and Paul Maholm?
  • The Nationals over the Rockies: As of the time of this writing, the Rockies hadn't announced their starter. That's not encouraging. The Nationals, meanwhile, get their last start from Jordan Zimmermann, whose innings will be cut down after the All Star break because of a team imposed innings limit.
  • The Reds over the Brewers: This pick is all emotion and this picker admits it. The smart pick would be Randy Wolf of the Brewers. But the Reds are starting Dontrelle Willis and this Fan has to root for Willis as he attempts yet one more comeback.
  • The White Sox over the Twins: This stinking series comes to a conclusion and maybe the Fan can get one of them right. Jake Peavy needs to stop walking people, but if he does, he should beat Anthony Swarzak.
  • The Cardinals over the Diamondbacks: The Cardinals should smack Zach Duke silly and Jaime Garcia is usually really good at home.
  • The Rangers over the Athletics: This picker is always fearful of picking against Trevor Cahill because he is that good at times. But with the Rangers home, the Fan is going with Matt Harrison instead.
  • The Angels over the Mariners: The Angels already beat Michael Pineda. Why should they lose to Felix Hernandez? Dan Haren will be as good and then the bullpens take over.
  • The Padres over the Dodgers: Tim Stauffer has been terrific while Ted Lilly is pitching like he is hurt. The Padres have to score though, not an easy thing for them.
  • The Mets over the Giants: Just a feeling that Mike Pelfrey will do well against the Giants while Matt Cain will give up four runs to the Mets.

And the Game of the Day!

  • The Tigers over the Royals: Again, an All Star selection will make that pick pointless as Justin Verlander starts for the Tigers. He faces Jeff Francis. Mismatch.

Friday: 9-5
Saturday: 8-7
Last Week: 52-50
Month: 69-60
Season: 723-622
Games of the Day: 64-37