So I just tweeted a little bit about this. It’s something I stumbled across in writing a piece about the Pirates and Indians, which will run on MLB.com on Friday. So, y’know, get ready, Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking about the Pirates a lot, for a variety of reasons. They’re interesting, of course, as a team trying to make a surprising run for the second straight year. They’re unusual in how few runs they score and allow. And they play in a city starved for a good baseball team, a city that is absolutely desperate to come out and believe in them and follow them. I really want to see the Pirates succeed, so I am watching them closely.
And I had a notion a couple of days ago, that one of their biggest problems from last year wouldn’t be a problem this year. I wrote this over the winter, but one of the truly critical issues that plagued the ’11 Buccos was reliever fatigue. They had four very good relievers, and they rode them hard. As a result, all four — Joel Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop, and Jose Veras — experienced significant fades in the second half.
That’s part of why I really liked the A.J. Burnett trade for them, as I outlined here when the deal was made. Burnett brought a high likelihood of a high innings total, and that’s something Pittsburgh needed badly.
So when I took a look at the Bucs, and saw Burnett, James McDonald (who I’m also really high on, and have been for a while), and Erik Bedard all putting up very strong years, I just kind of assumed that the relievers would be working less. And then I looked up the numbers, and what do you know, it’s the opposite.
Through 60 games, Pirates starters have pitched 340 innings, fourth-fewest in the Majors. Their relievers have pitched 188, ninth-most in the Majors. That’s a bit disconcerting, since once again a big part of the Bucs’ success is riding that excellent bullpen to success in close games.
However, I’m not at all convinced they’re doomed to a similar fate, for a few reasons.
One is that the innings and the success have been spread across more guys. Pittsburgh has six relievers who have pitched in at least 20 games, and all of them have been somewhere between decent and very good.
The second, and this I think is the real key, is that the heaviest workload on the Bucs’ relievers didn’t happen in the early part of last season. Over the first 60 games, Pirates relievers tossed 179 1/3 innings, or just the slightest smidge less than 3.0 per game. It was over the NEXT several weeks that they were really used up. From game 61 through game 101 (the infamous extra-inning loss in Atlanta), they pitched 134 1/3 innings in 41 games, or nearly 3 1/3 innings per game. One extra out per game may not seem like much, but when it’s every single night, you start paying a price.
From July 27 through the end of the season, Pittsburgh relievers posted a composite 4.96 ERA. You want to know how a team stops outperforming its pythagorean projection? That’s how.
So the question is whether they can avoid putting that kind of stress on those guys between now and the stretch run. I think they can. McDonald has emerged as one of the league’s better pitchers. Burnett is averaging nearly 6 1/3 per start, and it’s 6 2/3 per start over his last seven. Erik Bedard is always a health question, but as long as he is healthy, he should continue to go deep into games.
The Bucs need to find a way to score more runs. They need to stay healthy. They need a lot to go right. I’m not writing them into the playoffs by any means just yet. But I think there’s reason to believe that one key cog in their fall last year won’t necessarily be repeated this year.
I had a thought when I started seeing the details of the new Andre Ethier contract, as reported by my friend and teammate Jesse Sanchez among others last night.
Not so much about whether it’s a good or bad deal especially; I think I like it a little more than some of my analyst friends do, but not as much as it seems that more traditionally-minded ball writers do. Instead, my mind wandered to some thoughts about context and comparables, and one comparable in particular. Essentially, the Dodgers have given Ethier the second through sixth years of Matt Holliday’s contract, plus the option.
Ethier and Holliday are closer in age than I suspect many people think. Holliday is two years older, but his deal started three years earlier, so the deals cover very similar portions of the two men’s careers. His deal covers his age-30 through 36 seasons, with an option on 37, at a clean $17 million per year. Ethier’s deal covers his age-31 through 35 seasons, with an option on 36, at $17 million per year. The Cardinals’ option is a straight club option, whereas Ethier’s deal has a vesting option based on plate appearances. One significant difference: Holliday has blanket no-trade protection. Ethier doesn’t yet, though he’ll reach 10-5 status sometime early in 2016.
And in broad strokes, they’re pretty similar players. They both have well-rounded offensive games, with moderate but not spectacular power, solid strike zone judgment but not extremely high walk rates, and not much speed. Holliday is a better hitter for average, but they’re more or less cut from the same cloth.
Here’s the thing, though: by pretty much any measure, Holliday does those things better. He’s a better player. He has significantly higher career AVG/OBP/SLG, and before you write that off to Coors Field, Holliday has been better over the past two-plus years to boot. Since the start of his deal, the start of the 2010 season, Holliday has hit 300/384/516 in 340 games. In that same span of time, Ethier has hit 292/364/469 in 334 games. He’s also the better defender by pretty much every statistical measurement that I use and trust. They have similar durability records.
There’s not really a huge, block-letter point here, other than this: with every year that goes by, and every new outfielder contract that gets signed, the Holliday deal looks a little better. And I should probably eat a little crow on that. I didn’t hate it when it was signed, but I didn’t love it, either. It seemed like an awfully hefty deal and big risk, but the more context we get as far as other deals, the better it looks.
1. Bigger loss: Matt Kemp or Roy Halladay?
2. The current top-5 in the NL in home runs is: Beltran, Braun, Gonzalez, Stanton, Kemp. Who finishes on top (even if it’s not one of those guys)?
3. Who would you rather have for the next 10 years: Mike Trout or Bryce Harper?
4. Who’s more likely to make the playoffs: fifth-place Red Sox or fifth-place Phillies?
5. Are we going to have a Triple Crown winner (horse variety, not baseball) this year?
6. Kings or Devils?
7. Best beach in America?
OK, one thing I really need to start doing more in my new gig is blogging. This can be a great outlet for all sorts of cool stuff, and it’s been underutilized. And since it’s a Thursday, it seems like a fine day for a new Lucky Seven.
Here’s how it works: seven questions for you to answer. About half baseball, plus some other sports and some not-at-all-sports. The rule here is the rule everywhere at this blog: courtesy. If you don’t like a question, or aren’t interested in the topic, just don’t answer. Don’t tell me “nobody cares about (x topic),” because, well, obviously at least I do.
1. The Orioles have played a tough schedule and have a positive run differential, so their record isn’t ALL smoke and mirrors. Still, are you buying? Is this a playoff team?
2. All five teams are still in it in the NL East. Yes, even the Phillies. Who you got? Which team wins it?
3. Cardinals, Reds, or Field in the NL Central?
4. Albert Pujols has four homers in 44 games. How many will he have at the end of the year?
5. Indy, Charlotte, or Monaco? (Or, as with me, all three?)
6. Of the six teams left in the NBA playoffs, who will win it all?
7. Best album you’ve heard this year?
One of the things I’m most often asked when people ask about my job is what it was like to cover Tony La Russa. In short, it was terrific much more often than it was terrible, but at different times it was both. I wrote about that in some detail for MLB.com tonight as part of our package on the Cardinals retiring La Russa’s number. You can check out that story here.
Slightly less often, I’m asked if I have any particular favorite TLR stories. And I have a few. But I have one favorite, even though it was no fun at all at the time. And since it’s too long to fit into the story I’m writing for the site, it goes here.
The background: It was early April of 2003, a season that likely still gives many Cardinals fans heartburn. Jason Isringhausen was on the disabled list, and TLR and Dave Duncan were scrambling for ways to close out games. After a 3-0 start, the Cardinals had lost four out of five, with three different relievers taking losses already.
Matt Morris was the starter in Houston in the Friday night opener of a big early three-game series. Six days earlier, Morris had pitched one of the best games of his life, eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against those very same Astros, only to see the bullpen blow a 1-0 lead in the ninth.
If you know anything about TLR, you probably have an idea of where this is going already. He loves gritty everyday guys, and he loves reliable closers, but there’s nobody he loves more than his stud starting pitchers, his “stallions” (as he called Morris more than once). One blown win for Morris was more than enough. So on April 11 at Minute Maid Park, Morris wasn’t going to have another win taken from him, no matter what it took.
Well, it took a lot. Morris had a much harder time facing Houston for the second time in a week, but he battled. There were some loud outs, some balls hit right at guys, things like that. Morris entered the ninth with a 2-1 lead, having allowed four hits, but if ever a box score line was deceiving this was it. He was getting hit pretty hard, but he was battling his way through it. Still, he’d been staked to a 2-0 lead in the first and he’d made it stand up.
As a beat writer, the game up to this point was therefore a gift. Bullpen is battered, so big-hearted ace steps up and takes the team on his back, battles through a tough outing even on a night he doesn’t have his best stuff, etc etc. It’s a slam dunk angle, and Morris was usually a good interview to boot. The game was even going to finish in a shade over two hours. Seriously, about as perfect a setup as you can have as a beat writer.
Cut to the ninth, and the heart of the Astros order coming up. Geoff Blum flies out to center. Jeff Bagwell flies out to deep right — it’s a scare, but it’s an out, and Morris is one out from the CG and the win. Then Lance Berkman pokes a groundball single to keep the inning alive.
That brings up Jeff Kent, a man who hit Morris hard over the years and one of those guys who just always scares you. Morris falls behind 1-0, then 2-1, then 3-1. This is getting very scary, very quickly. Then, boom. Two-run, walk-off jack from Kent. Astros win. Morris, left in to finish his own game, takes the loss.
I bang out the new game story as fast as I possibly can, since I have to have one version in before I go downstairs to get quotes. I do the best I can to turn “Morris takes team on his back” into “Morris gives all he has, but it’s not quite enough,” then hurry downstairs. I’m reframing the whole story in my head as I go to the clubhouse, but really, the basic gist of much of the story is still going to be the same. Morris still gave a really game effort, still survived a heck of a gutty showing despite not having his best stuff.
The gamer, in short, is still largely a cap-tip to Morris, just with the acknowledgment that he was asked to give a little bit more than he had. Understandably so, given the circumstances. There really was little reason to quibble with the decision. It was just a bad spot for TLR/Duncan/Morris be in. Sometimes it happens.
So the various media types make our way downstairs as quickly as we can. Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch actually had to do so much re-working of his game story that when the clubhouse opens and we go into TLR’s office, it’s just me and a local Houston radio guy. I let him lead the questioning, and immediately regret it.
His first question: “Dramatic ending, wasn’t it?”
And it was on.
“I don’t think dramatic’s the word. It’s disappointing,” the manager responded.
Then there were a couple of questions about the decision-making progress to stay with Morris and about the rivalry and about Tino Martinez, who had injured his finger.
And then I started asking my questions. I don’t remember EXACTLY how I framed the first one, but it was basically about how even though Morris had allowed a lot of hard contact, he battled, how he was “on the edge” of trouble all night. Tony didn’t let me finish the question. He jumped. (edited for a family blog)
“You think those were little league hitters up there? They’re gonna make some contact. There was one run on the [bleep] board. You think he was on the edge? If that’s what you saw, that’s what you write. I think that’s so full of [bleep] it’s not even worth commenting on, so I ain’t gonna comment. One run into the [bleep] ninth inning and he’s on the edge? I tell you what, you ought to cover the next league up from this one.”
I tried to explain that I meant it as a compliment, but at that point there was no salvaging. He was off and running.
“I don’t agree. So just take your opinion and… I already told you what I think of your opinion. So don’t try to explain it to me because I don’t agree with it.”
And it was done.
And “the next league up from this one” lasted as an inside joke among Cardinals beat writers for a decade.
Congrats, Tony. Seriously.
OK, I’m going to get in on the fun. Prediction time. These are no doubt worth roughly the electrons they’re printed on, but here we go.
AL East: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles
Comment: Bold, I know. And it was actually difficult. I do think the Yankees are the best team in baseball, but I also think the Red Sox are really underrated this year. I would be perfectly fine with any order of those three clubs, and if the Red Sox win the division I won’t be shocked at all.
AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians, Twins
Comment: Like the top three in the East, I’d at least listen to an argument for absolutely any ordering of the middle three teams in this division. I do think the White Sox are being undersold. I could definitely see a case for flipping the Indians and Royals. I just don’t see much to like with this Twins team.
AL West: Rangers, Angels, Mariners, A’s
Comment: The Angels obviously get a lot better with their two big additions, but I just think the Rangers are a deeper, more complete team. I like Texas’ lineup quite a bit more, and I don’t think the gap between the two rotations is that great.
Wild Cards: Rays, Red Sox
Comment: I think both of these clubs are better than the Angels, though not by a lot. The depth and difficulty of the AL East might actually argue for picking the Angels, since they’ll have a less difficult schedule than Tampa Bay or Boston, but I feel more comfortable picking based on my read of the quality of the teams than based on schedule.
NL East: Braves, Phillies, Marlins, Nationals, Mets
Comment: The Braves are, along with the Red Sox, the most consistently underrated team coming into this season, in my opinion. I love their rotation and bullpen, and I think they’ll score more runs this year. I have major concerns about the Phillies’ lineup. I think the Marlins are closer to the top two than to the bottom two, and I won’t be surprised if they make a real run. I don’t see Washington scoring enough runs to contend seriously.
NL Central: Reds, Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Astros
Comment: I had the Cardinals winning the division a month ago, but the Carpenter situation is a major question. I’m obviously pulling for him, but this is not a routine injury where you know the recovery time and can say, ‘He’ll be back in N days.’ I still won’t be the slightest bit surprised if everything works for them, people stay healthy and they win north of 90 games. But I also won’t be surprised if injuries add up, a few of their north-of-30 regulars step back, and things don’t work out.
I just feel that the Reds have a lot more margin for error. They have the fewest weaknesses in the division, even with Madson out, and it’s clear that they’re aiming to win this year. That front office won’t stand pat at the deadline again.
The Brewers, the more I look at them, the more I like them. They still have the same rotation and bullpen that were so effective for them last year, the lineup may not fall off as much as people think, and the defense should be improved. Another really underrated team coming into this season, IMO.
NL West: Giants, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, Padres
Comment: Probably the hardest division for me to figure, but the Giants are another team that I keep looking at and keep realizing that I like more and more. The offense should be improved, and you know all about the rotation. I can definitely see some regression from the D-Backs, though I don’t at all think they were a fluke. The Dodgers are another team I could see surprising. I’m obviously officially off the Rockies bandwagon after driving it for a few years.
Wild Cards: Phillies, Marlins
The NL is so hard to figure. I think you can make a very real case for as many as 10 teams having legitimate shots at the playoffs, so anybody I’m not including here is not to say I’m down on them. There are just only five spots. Nats, Brewers, Cards, Snakes and even Dodgers could all be in there come October.
MVPs: Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp
Cy Youngs: Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay
World Series: Yankees over Giants
Pics from Fort Myers. It’s really an impressive facility.
Spring Training is long enough that any time an automatic angle offers itself to you, you take it. Today in Port Charlotte for the game between the Rays and Orioles, two such angles intertwined. The talk of both managers’ pregame sessions centered on two topics: last year’s Game 162s, and Luke Scott.
It was the O’s of course who beat the Red Sox to knock Boston out of the postseason last fall, and this was obviously the first meeting between the clubs since then. And Scott, well known as a colorful, outspoken, politically opinionated fellow, moved from the O’s to the Rays over the winter.
So, before a few photos, a few notes from a couple of pretty entertaining manager scrums. For more hard-news baseball, of course, check out Rays.MLB.com and Orioles.MLB.com, where our beat writers are all over that stuff. I filed a column on the Rays offense that should be up at the Tampa Bay team site too.
* The Rays were wearing University of South Florida t-shirts in batting practice, and manager Joe Maddon also had on a USF hat. It was in support of the school’s bid for an NCAA basketball tournament bid.
It was pointed out to Maddon that Vanderbilt alum David Price was wearing a hat from his school to go with the USF hat, and Maddon said that was OK with him:
“At least he wore the t-shirt,” he said with a smile. “That’s all I can say on that.”
* Maddon also said that while he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything that Scott espouses, he’s found Scott to be engaging and interesting, and that’s enough for him.
“I want them to be free to express themselves and what they think, always. I find him interesting. Whether I agree with him or not doesn’t matter. I just find him interesting and other people should find him interesting too. He’s a great teammate. Go ask Baltimore what they think of losing Luke Scott in their clubhouse. He’s been that guy. That kind of stuff I don’t think it should matter, although to some people it will, just because some people think in that manner.”
Asked about Scott’s fondness for hunting and firearms, Maddon said he has no weapons but “a really nasty looking broom,” and said that while he’s not a hunter, he has no problem with those who are.
“I’m really respectful of that. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. It’s something that I would never do obviously, but that fact is an indication that you’d like to have him on your team, I think. A wild boar shows up in our clubhouse, we’re in good shape.”
* O’s manager Buck Showalter likewise expressed his fondness for Scott, repeatedly emphasizing what a good teammate Scott is — while also noting with a laugh that you never, ever wonder where you stand with Scott, and that one would be advised not to ask Scott any questions to which you don’t want to hear an answer.
* Monday was Baltimore’s first day of Grapefruit League games, and the O’s had a split-squad day-night doubleheader. It’s not ideal, but Showalter expressed his gratitude to the Pirates for accommodating Baltimore’s request to play at night. That at least allowed him and the coaching staff to attend both games.
* And as for the matter of his team playing hard to the end, and upending the Red Sox, he appreciated the compliment but didn’t see his team as doing anything really out of the ordinary.
“I’m really proud of the way Tampa went about their business [as well]. They had to win too. Is there supposed to be another way? It should be the norm.”
I’m headed for Red Sox camp in the morning, and I’m eager to see the new ballpark there. No playlist today, but I wanted to pass along three albums that I’m really enjoying. Picked them all up for this trip, and I’m 3-for-3, which is a rare rate of success. Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, has an album with his band High-Flying Birds. I enjoy it more than anything from Oasis in a very long time. Cloud Nothings’ “Attack On Memory” is hard to describe but really fantastic, loud and evocative and worth finding. And School Of Seven Bells’ “Ghostory” is I guess sort of ethereal electronic pop. Sometimes I hate trying to describe music. All really solid, and any minute now the new Springsteen will be out.
And now for a few photos:
I wasn’t able to snap as many photos today, but here are a few. Yes, that’s three of Erik Komatsu, but I liked the way those pictures came out so I included them. Hope you enjoy.
It was really, really nice to be back at Cardinals camp today, seeing familiar faces, treading familiar ground and of course having lunch at Pyrogrill. The Cards even worked out inside the stadium, so I got to set foot in there one more time. Definitely a treat. Headed to Viera tomorrow, and then over to the western coast of Florida after that.
A few nuggets from today’s camp. If you want more details, head over to Cardinals.com for David Villavicencio’s notebook. David filled in for Jenifer Langosch, who received a well-earned day off.
* As I was walking back from watching some of the prospects take BP, I saw a curious sight on Field 1. There were three people on the entire field: Minor League pitching coaches Dennis Martinez and Blaise Ilsley, and Adron Chambers. Martinez would mimic a pitching motion, Chambers would take a jump from first to second, and then they would confer.
It turns out Chambers was working on his jumps, and specifically on getting down the exact number of strides to get to and from various places on the basepath. He’s also been working with Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee on base-stealing technique.
“It’s good to know how many strides does it take me to get to the base,” Chambers said. “So when I’m stealing, I can understand, OK, it took me three strides to get right there where I wanted to get. So in my head I can feel good. That’s just what I’m trying to do. Trying to get a jump and then understand how long it takes me to get to that spot. And then once I figure it out, try to get there as fast as I can.”
* Chris Carpenter was, as usual, not all that chatty about his live BP session. Carpenter can be a fascinating, thoughtful guy when you get him sitting down, but in Spring Training he often doesn’t have a lot to say. He made one rather interesting point this afternoon, though.
Though Carpenter doesn’t often throw a four-seam fastball in games, he’s throwing only four-seamers at this point. The idea is that he first trains himself to locate the four-seamer in certain “lanes,” as he put it. You throw it to those points, locate it, and then you start cutting and sinking the ball. For him, throwing a cutter or sinker to a spot at this point is not necessarily valuable because you end up aiming at the wrong place. Throw the straight one, to a spot, and then start worrying about making it move.
* A much shorter version of this quote appears in the story I just filed to MLB.com on Yadier Molina’s contract, but here’s the whole thing. I asked Mike Matheny about whether catching gets more draining/grinding/difficult as you get into your 30s, and he said it doesn’t have to be.
“I think I had my best season at 35, so it depends on how you go about your business. It depends on being blessed with health and staying on top of it. I’ve got to tell you, he’s worked harder this year than I’ve ever seen him work. There’s just something about some people. No matter how much they’re acknowledged, how many things they acquire as far as trophies on the mantel, their motivation is bigger than that. Every once in a while you come across that. I think those guys are special, and Yadi to me has been one of those guys. I think we’re going to continue to see great things from him for a long time. It’s just a matter of his body cooperating.”
* One newsy tidbit: Matheny confirmed that Shelby Miller will start Wednesday, and Adam Wainwright’s first game will be on Friday in Fort Myers.
And, finally, the playlist. Today’s is a day late, but it’s a tribute to one of my all-time favorite bands. Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of Living Colour’s amazing, challenging third album, “Stain.” So the playlist is five favorites from that album:
-M. (photos to come)