Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The 'respect' police

Carlos Gomez tries to get around umpire Fieldin Culbreth
and Pittsburgh third baseman Josh Harrison to get at
Pittsburgh pitcher Gerrit Cole.
On Tuesday, MLB issued a series of suspensions for Sunday's Brewers-Pirates brawl

Carlos Gomez got three games, which wasn't the stiffest penalty, and while he had said Monday he would appeal any suspension, I don't quarrel with it. Gomez did escalate matters by stepping off third base to respond to Pittsburgh pitcher Gerrit Cole, and he did swing his helmet at least once during the fracas.

But I will say this: Cole, who got off scot free, should be suspended too. He instigated the brawl just as much as Gomez did.

In case you don't know what happened: Gomez hit a deep fly to center off Cole, flipped his bat, admired the blast, started trotting to first — and only got going when the ball didn't leave the park. Then Gomez started running, and still got a triple out of it.

Cole took umbrage at Gomez' lack of hustle and said something to the former Twin, who said something back and started toward Cole, and then all heck broke out.

Here's my point: How did Gomez' lollygagging hurt the Pirates? It didn't. If anything, he helped the Pirates. Maybe, had he gone all out early, it would have been an inside-the-park home run.

If Cole's embarrassed that Gomez tripled off him without really trying, he ought to be mad at either himself for making a pitch Gomez can hit that well or his outfielders for not limiting the damage.

Too many incidents -- fights, brushback wars, whatever -- begin with one team deciding, for whatever reason, that it is their responsibility to police the other team's "respect for the game." It's none of their business. 

If Brewers manager Ron Roenicke or one of Gomez' teammates calls him out for the mistake, well and good. But its up to the Brewers to police their own dugout. The Pirates (and everybody else) should just let Go-Go go; if he doesn't run a ball out, it's bad for the Brewers and good for the opponent.

Cole shouldn't have baited Gomez. Gomez shouldn't have taken the bait. They were both wrong.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ex-Twins Watch: Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau hits a double on Monday in Coors Field.
Justin Morneau's post-Twins career didn't start so well last year, when he struggled to produce any power for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last month of the season. This year, it's another story.

Entering Monday's games, the Colorado Rockies first baseman had put up a slash line of .344/.371/.609 — and he popped a double in his first at-bat Monday night, his sixth two-bagger of the young season.

It's early, of course. And Coors Field, even with the humidor, remains a boost to hitting numbers.

But Morneau's been productive so far in the Rockies' road games, with a slash line of .324/.314/. 559 outside of Coors. (His home numbers entering Monday: .367/.429.667.) It's interesting, but not necessarily significant, that he has yet to draw a walk on the road, which leads to the rarity of an on-base percentage that is lower than the batting average.

I'm happy to see things going well for Morneau. Once it became obvious that Joe Mauer's catching days were over, there was no reasonable path to Morneau's return to Minnesota, but that's no knock on him or the Twins.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Adding Sam Fuld

Sam Fuld: Former Cub, former Ray,
former A and now current Twin.
The Twins on Sunday picked up outfielder Sam Fuld on waivers and designated outfielder Darin Mastroianni for assignment.

This is swapping out marginal outfielders. Mastroianni had gone 0-for-11 (with one walk and five strikeouts) since his recall and has a major league career average of .220 in 241 at-bats; Fuld was hitting an even .200 when Oakland designated him for assignment and has a major league career average of .233.

The move raised immediate speculation about the implications for Aaron Hicks, the Twins regular center fielder. Hicks, a switch hitter, is much better from the right side. Fuld, a lefty, makes a natural platoon partner should the Twins be so inclined. (Mastroianni, a righty, didn't fit that role.)

But as I've noted repeatedly, Ron Gardenhire is not a platoon-oriented manager. And even beyond managerial aversion to platooning, I doubt that Hicks' development will be enhanced if he's dropped into a platoon role at age 24.

The next good Twins team will have Byron Buxton in center, not Hicks. If Hicks is a regular on that team, it will be as a corner outfielder, and he'll need to hit a lot more than he has to hold that kind of role. Sitting him against righties isn't going to help that cause.

For what it's worth -- and it's not much -- Fuld in his major league career has actually hit better against lefties than against righties.

Meanwhile, we are treated to more evidence that Gardenhire's managerial skills don't necessarily include talent evaluation. Fuld, he said after Sunday's game, is "a leadoff type." No, he isn't. He can steal a base, yes, but he has a well-below average career on-base percentage (.312). He's a bottom-of-the-order type. He may wind up hitting leadoff for lack of a real leadoff hitter, but he is NOT a leadoff type. Neither is Brian Dozier, for that matter.

Another interesting aspect (at least to me) in this move is the sequence that began late in spring training, when the Twins lost Alex Presley on waivers in order to keep Jason Bartlett. Now Bartlett is unofficially retired (he remained on the 40-man roster as of Sunday) and the Twins have scooped up another left-handed reserve outfielder, which is what Presley is.

I'm confident that Presley is a better hitter than Fuld, but Fuld is a superior defensive player and baserunner. Which is the better player? I'd say it depends on what the team needs from the bench. Considering the defensive deficiencies of the Minnesota outfield (particularly in the corners), Fuld may indeed be a more useful piece for this team.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pic of the Week

Milwaukee infielder Scooter Gennett appears to
levitate as he turns a double play against Pittsburgh.
Josh Harrison is the Pirate forced out at second base.

I picked this photo for two reasons: One, the way Scooter Gennett seems to float in the air, independent of gravity.

Second, the name "Scooter Gennett." This may be the most utility infielder name in the history of utility infielders. Were you to be introduced to a fellow named "Scooter Gennett," you would immediately assume he plays middle infield. And doesn't hit.

In reality, Gennett hit .324 in more than 230 plate appearances with the Brewers last year and is above .300 again this season. He appears to be what the Brewers expected Rickie Weeks to become but never did: A second baseman who deserves a key spot in the lineup. Utility man? No, Gennett is a regular, and a good one.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bartlett pulls the plug

Jason Bartlett's 2014 line:
three official at-bats, three
strikeouts, three runs scored.

Jason Bartlett abandoned his comeback attempt this week.

It doesn't often happen that a player has a more realistic view of his abilities than management does, but he apparently could tell what Ron Gardenhire couldn't: He's just not good enough to play major league ball at age 34.

I have been critical, perhaps bitterly so, of the Twins decision to keep Bartlett on the roster. Now that Bartlett had decided to hang 'em up, allow me to note that my displeasure was not aimed at Bartlett himself. I will never criticize a player for trying to squeeze one more year (or two, or three) out of his body. I have a certain admiration for the guys like Jacque Jones, who spent the 2010 season in Triple A trying to get back to the majors.

No, my displeasure was over the Twins' flawed evaluation of Bartlett's current skills. That he emerged from spring training with a major league job was a triumph of wishful thinking and managerial favoritism.

Bartlett this week saved Gardenhire from himself.

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.