Friday, April 18, 2014

Walks and runs

Beleaguered Blue Jays catcher Dioner
Navarro to J.A. Happ, the third
reliever of the eighth inning: Do you
suppose you could, you know, throw
some strikes?
Even for a team whose offense seems based on the base on balls, the Twins' eighth-inning rally in Thursday's nightcap was excessive: Eight walks in the inning, plus three wild pitches and two stolen bases. Five runs on one hit.

The Twins as of this morning (15 games) have scored 86 runs, second most in the American League and just one behind the first place White Sox (another unlikely offensive juggernaut, who have the advantage of having played an extra game).  The Twins have drawn 82 walks, which is by far the most in baseball (Oakland is second with 68, 14 fewer than the Twins — the Twins are drawing almost a walk a game more than anybody else in baseball.)

The Twins' team batting average (.245) is just a bit above average (the AL is hitting .243); their team slugging percentage (.380) is just a bit below average (.382). But the on-base percentage is .353, and that leads the AL by 15 percentage points.

All those walks are adding up this month.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Revisiting the Montreal Expos

It's a long subtitle, to be sure.
Jonah Keri borrowed the home run call of a long time Montreal Expos announcer for his history/reminisce of the Expos, "Up, Up, and Away."

It's also the title of chirpy pop song from the 1960s, and that fits Keri's recounting of the on-field action of the team he grew up rooting for. But the final section could have taken the name of a much darker rocker from the same era, "Sympathy for the Devil"; it is probably the kindest examination of Jeffery Loria as a baseball owner I can imagine.

I've always had a soft spot for the Expos, probably in part because they came into being the same year that I discovered baseball (1969). Of course, three other teams were created at the same time, and I never regarded the Padres, Royals or Pilots/Brewers in quite the same way. I suspect the blatant garishness of the Expos' original tri-color caps appealed to the pre-adolescent me, or maybe it was the idea of a baseball team that wasn't based in the United States -- or maybe it was the rash of Expos in my first batches of baseball cards in 1970: Mack Jones. Ty Cline. Coco Laboy. (What a wonderful name: Coco Laboy.)

Keri loved his Expos, win or lose, mostly lose. The Expos, partly through bad luck, partly through some questionable decisions, never won even a full division title, even though they at least twice in their history accumulated an impressive amount of talent. The team of the early 1980s of Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Andre Dawson had marvelous front-line talent but failed to patch its holes. Indeed, management often failed to recognize that they had holes. And the brilliance of the 1994 team was lost to the players strike, which was provoked by a faction of team owners that included that of the Expos.

There are two running themes to Keri's book: the games on the field, and the struggle of the business. Keri is vivid and enjoyable with the athletes (if sometimes unapologetically high-brow in citing modern analytical stats unimagined by the players of the time). And -- this is rare in sports writing -- he is largely believable and realistic in his examination of the finances.

Keri has a journalistic background in business reporting, and his description of the franchise's chronic lack of capital (particularly after the original owner, Seagram's heir Charles Bronfman, decided he'd had enough of baseball) puts the onus for the franchise's ultimate failure not on the men who followed Bronfman as the lead owner of the team but on the minority partners, who as a group essentially regarded their stakes in the Expos as a one-time charitable contribution.

It was, as Keri describes it, their tight-fistedness that forced the dismantling of the 1994 powerhouse and enabled Loria to gain control of the franchise a half-decade later. In truth, the Expos were born largely on the whim of the city's over-ambitious mayor of the 1960s; a major league team in that city never really had the backing of the economic powers or, as the city and province's politics became dominated by a separatist part, the political powers either.

Keri would like to see MLB return to Montreal, but he realistically doubts the practicality of its rebirth there. His ultimate conclusion: Montreal failed baseball, and baseball failed Montreal.

His book does not fail the memory of his Expos.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Feelin' a draft (April edition)

Carlos Rodon's draft stock
has apparently slipped in the
past few months, but he's still
expected to be a high pick in June.
Baseball's amateur draft is a bit less than two months away. The Twins have the fifth overall pick. What's the outlook?

The issue of Baseball America that showed up in my mailbox Tuesday has BA's "midseason update" on draft prospects. As was the case when the college season began in February, this year's crop appears heavier on pitchers than on position players.

But the guy who was expected to top everybody's draft list has apparently sagged.

The word last summer was that if Carlos Rodon, a left-handed pitcher for North Carolina State, had been eligible, he would have been the first overall selection. He was the preseason consensus as the top prospect for this year.

But his fastball velocity has dropped off — 89-92 now, compared to 92-96 as a freshman and sophomore for the Wolfpack, according to BA. His command has diminished as well. He's throwing his slider more, and scouts probably weren't pleased when he threw more than 130 pitches on shorter-than-usual rest last weekend.

BA's current ranking of the top 50 prospects has Rodon third, behind a pair of high school pitchers, Brady Aiken (lefty from San Diego) and Tyler Kolek (righty from Shepherd, Texas).

No high school right-hander has ever gone 1-1, but Kolek is said to have hit 100 mph on the radar guns repeatedly. (This is not necessarily a good thing; an 18-year-old's arm is probably not capable of handling that kind of exertion, Bob Feller being the exception.)

There is only one position player in BA's top eight. Odds are that the Twins will be taking a pitcher with that fifth pick. Which one? Well, there are four teams that have something to say about that before the Twins get to speak their piece, and a lot of baseball to be played (and pitches to be thrown) before that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Which is more difficult, left field or right field?

The Twins have taken, in the absence of expected regular outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Josh Willingham, to playing Jason Kubel in left field and Chris Colabello in right.

Neither is a Gold Glove candidate, but Kubel at least has the advantage of being an experienced outfielder. Colabello is a transplanted first baseman who's only purpose to being in the outfield is to fit another bat in the lineup.

The rule of thumb — which has plenty of exceptions — goes like this:

  • If you can run and throw, you're a center fielder.
  • If you can run but not throw, you're a left fielder.
  • If you can throw but not run, you're a right fielder.
  • If you can't do either, you're a first baseman.

Colabello is the latter. Kubel is number three. He throws well, but he lost whatever speed was in his tool kit about a decade ago when he wrecked his knee.

Left and right fields, at least at Target Field, pose unique challenges.

The right field wall is not only tall, it has three or four different surfaces that play differently. The right fielder's challenge is to accurately judge the carom and avoid yielding unnecessary bases.

Left field is the sun field. The April home schedule has been packed with afternoon games, and on the sunny days the ball is easily lost.

Ron Gardenhire is playing Kubel in left, Colabello in right. Since Kubel is the better defensive outfielder of the two, that implies that Gardenhire sees left as the greater challenge, at least in Target Field.

But on Sunday, when he subbed in Chris Herrmann and Darin Mastroianni to tighten the outfield defense, he put Mastroianni (the better defensive outfielder) in right and Herrmann in left.

Contradictory? Not necessarily. Perhaps the thinking was that the sun wasn't a factor on an overcast day.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Radio, radio, Vol. 1

Here's a link to my debut appearance on KMSU earlier this afternoon. I'm scheduled for the second and fourth Mondays of each month this season.

Come for the baseball, stay for the babble.

Why pitchers can't field

Brian Dozier beats Wade Davis to the plate in the eighth
inning Sunday with the winning run.
The Twins plated the tying and winning runs Sunday when Kansas City reliever Wade Davis picked up a bases-loaded comebacker and threw it to the backstop, then stood around pouting rather than hustling to cover the plate while the catcher retrieved the ball. Two runs scored, and that was enough for the Twins to win.

There have always been lousy fielding pitchers, and always will be, but I have a pet theory that (a) many, perhaps most, major league pitchers today are essentially unable to handle anything beyond their basic task of throwing from the mound and (b) that the designated hitter rule has a significant role to play in that.

The DH prevails almost on almost every level of baseball, except the National League. With hitting chores essentially taken from them, pitchers are — you can chose your verbal slant — either liberated to focus on the act of pitching or constrained to focus on the act of pitching.

They aren't baseball players. And when they are asked to do other, basic, things relevant to baseball games — be it run the bases, or field a ground ball and throw to a base — those things are out of their skill set, or at least out of their comfort level.

That's my theory, and I know quite well there are pitchers who can make plays in the field and go first-to-third on a single to right. But I do think there has been a general decline in overall athletic ability among pitchers since the DH rule came into play, and I don't think it's coincidental.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pic of the Week

San Francisco's "Batkid," who captivated the city
last November with a day-long fantasy romp in which
he "foiled" various crimes, threw out the first pitch
April 8, the Giants home opener.

I suppose I should have seen this one coming, since the Giants' costumed mascot, "Lou Seal," was part of the original Miles Scott as Batkid adventure in November.