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MLB 2014 Season – Week 2 in Review

Week 2 of the Major League Baseball 2014 season is officially over, and once again, it is time for us to look back and see what happened around the game.

Injuries

One thing that has stood out to me – and I’m sure plenty of others – is the rash number of injuries we’re getting in the early going.  Injuries happen all the times.  Baseball is a demanding sport and naturally we’re going to experience players who miss time due to various ailments.  But this season, it appears that injuries are accelerating at an alarming rate.

What’s worse is it’s not just the fact that there appear to be more injuries now than ever; it’s who they’re happening too: pitchers.

Go back to the middle of Spring Training.  It all started with the Atlanta Braves when young pitcher Kris Medlen left a Spring Training game on March 9.  The initial diagnosis was was “forearm strain,” but naturally he got a second opinion.  Then the news came out that Medlen had suffered a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow – the second such injury of his career.  He previously suffered a torn UCL in August 2010, underwent Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery, and returned in September 2011 to pitch in two games.

He would soon be followed by fellow teammate Brandon Beachy, who had a similar experience.  He underwent his first elbow ligament surgery in June 2012 and returned in July of 2013 after a year of rehab.  But he felt constant discomfort and was eventually shut down in September that year.

The discomfort unfortunately did not go away, as he continued suffering from it in Spring Training.  While the team was reluctant to have him undergo an MRI – which for the life of me I could not possibly understand – they eventually did, and it was revealed that – Like Medlen – Beachy had again torn his UCL.  Now he will miss the entire 2014 season along with Medlen.

A team losing two of its better pitchers to injuries like this is both devastating to the team’s playoff hopes but also perplexing.  Despite the many advancements taken in recent years to monitor pitchers and their workloads – case in point the Tampa Bay Rays – we are still experiencing mountains of arm injuries.  And it hardly stops with the Rays.

Several other notable pitchers have experience the same injury and are either going to go under the knife in the near future or are already rehabbing from the injury.  These players include but are not limited too…

Athletics: Eric O’Flaherty

Braves: Jonny Venters and Gavin Floyd

Cardinals: Jason Motte

Cubs: Kyuji Fujikawa

Diamondbacks: Patrick Corbin, David Hernandez, and Daniel Hudson

Dodgers: Chad Billingsley

Mets: Matt Harvey and Bobby Parnell

Padres: Casey Kelly and Cory Luebke

Royals: Luke Hochevar

Tigers: Bruce Rondon

And those are only the ones that are known.  It’s almost daunting to imagine the injuries that are either unknown to the public or have yet to happen. With more emphasis than ever being put on bullpen construction, as evidenced by the declining rate of the average number of innings pitched per starter – it was down to 5.71 innings per start in 2013 – it stands to wonder if there is indeed a correlation between pitching injuries and innings pitched alone.

In the late 19th century, there were one, maybe two starting pitchers on a team and each was expected to pitch every other game and accumulated upwards of 600 innings a year.  Six hundred!  Nowadays, the culture and perception is so dramatically changed that now a workhorse – the term commonly used for pitchers who consistently throw many innings – typically throws upwards of 200 innings, a far cry from the 600+ pitchers threw in the late 1800’s.

The bottom line is it’s 2014 and we are no closer to solving the crisis of pitcher injuries than we were 20 years ago.   How many more pitcher injuries are we going to see until we find a proper solution?

Major League Baseball recently took a step towards preventing injuries to the head via comebackers by dawning a new protective cap.  While the model hasn’t exactly wowed the hopefuls eager to end this epidemic, at least it’s a step in the right direction.  Hopefully we’ll soon see the same for elbow ligaments and shoulder ailments.

Surprises/Disappoinments

Last week I wrote about my surprising/disappointing teams from the past week.  This week I’m going to take a slightly different approach: I’ll be talking about surprising and disappointing players from the past week. These are players that either had high expectations (or in some cases, merely modest) entering the season and are failing to meet them, or players that had little to no expectations and are surprising everyone.

First up, the Surprises.

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

Yes, he plays most of his games in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, but that doesn’t mean we should just automatically overlook the scorching start he’s gotten off to.  In 10 games so far, Blackmon has hit .471/.472/.706 with a 1.178 OPS and five extra base hits so far.  For a seemingly mediocre player coming into this season, not too shabby.  It stands to wonder how long this hot pace can go on, but right now he’s caught a lot of people’s attention.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

Jose Fernandez, one of the great stories from the 2013 season, continues to write incredible chapters to his still young career.  Last year he came out of nowhere – he even skipped Triple-A entirely due to the various pitching injuries the Marlins had – and posted a superb 2.19 ERA, 178 ERA+, 12-6 record, and 187 strikeouts in just 172.2 innings.  One of the lone bright spots from last year’s dismal Marlins team, he was expected to be a big part of this team’s core that had aspirations of returning to relevancy.

So far, so good.

In two starts in this early new season, Fernandez has been better that last year, with a 0.71 ERA and 17 strikeouts in only 12.2 innings. Yes, it’s only two starts, but it was already universally believed it would be near impossible to duplicate his success from last season, and it is highly likely his performance will come back to Earth somewhat in the future, but right now a case could be made that he’s second only to Clayton Kershaw on the pitch pedestals.

Now, the Disappointments.

B.J. Upton, Atlanta Braves

B.J., B.J., B.J., what are we going to do with you?

Last season, his first with the Braves, was by far the worst of his career and one of the worst in recent memory for any full-time player. He hit a miserable .184/..268/.289 with a mere nine home runs 151 strikeouts, a pathetic .557 OPS and a 53 OPS+ in 126 games played.   It was a miserable season all around and the case could be made that he didn’t even deserve a spot on the postseason roster.

It was his first under a 5 year, $75.25 Million contract – the largest free agent contract in franchise history might I add – and the hope was that this second year would be much better.

Eh, not so much.

It’s only two weeks, but his performance is worth noting: he’s been AWFUL.  Just awful.  It’s pretty hard to be worse than he was last year – even Adam Dunn, coming off a stinker of a 2011 campaign that saw him hit .159 with a mere 11 home runs, rebounded somewhat to hit .204 with 41 home runs in 2012 – but somehow, B.J. Upton is doing that.  So far, he has hit a meager .138/.138/.172 with a .310 OPS, a -15 OPS+ (yes, a negative OPS+) 13 strikeouts and ZERO walks in 29 plate appearances.  He has not hit a home run or taken a walk yet, and he looks like a shell of the player he was in Tampa Bay.

Even in Tampa, where he also failed to live up to the (perhaps unfair) expectations, he still flashed brilliance more than occasionally, and he even hit 28 home runs in his last season there, including 21 post All-Star Break.

It’s hard to figure out what has gone wrong with him.  Is it a confidence issue?  Could it be his swing, but then you could argue it was his swing in Tampa yet he still did fairly decently.

The Braves still have three years and $46 Million left after this season.  They have to hope he turns it around soon.

Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

Fans from both the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics questioned the trade that sent Jim Johnson from the O’s to the A’s and allowed the latter to left free agent reliever Grant Balfour to walk and eventually sign with the Rays.

For one, Balfour had an impressive 3 years with Oakland, posting a collective 2.53 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 199.1 combined innings and 64 saves during his tenure.  He became a huge fan favorite among the fan base and was a crucial part to the immense success the team experience in 2012 and 2013, where they won the AL West division in both years, upsetting the favorite Texas Rangers.  But then they allow him to hit the market and, instead of trying to resign him, they decide to trade for Jim Johnson, the Orioles’ closer, and pay him $10 Million for 2014.

Johnson, in his defense, has been quietly good in his own right.  Since becoming the full time closer for the O’s in 2012, he posted a 2.72 ERA with 101 saves and 97 strikeouts in 139 innings.  He led the AL in saves in both 2012 and 2013 and earn the moniker “proven closer.”  A closer look at his numbers show that, unlike Balfour, Johnson isn’t a strikeout pitcher.  Rather, more than 50% of his outs came via ground ball.  While that’s hardly disastrous, it does leave him open to be hit hard.

Which brings us to what’s happened so far.

He has only made a few appearances for the A’s so far, so perhaps “disappointment” is the wrong word to use.  But wow, he has been bad.  So far he owns a 18.90 ERA and a 4.500 WHIP (Walks + hits per innings pitched) in 5 games.  He’s surrendered 9 hits so far.  Nine.  In 3.1 innings.  That’s crazy.

And while it’s all but certain he’ll improve as the season goes on, for the time being he’s been replaced as the closer.  They’re paying him $10 Million this season so it’s critical that they right the ship with him.

C.C Sabathia, New York Yankees

C.C. Sabathia is one of the most frustrating disappointments so far, simply because he still has the upside to be a great pitcher.

From 2009 to 2012 – his first four years with the Yankees – he went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP with 821 strikeouts in 905 innings.  Easily the work of an ace-caliber pitcher.  It looked like he would be one of the loan exceptions to the rule that long-term contracts to free agents usually look bad all around.  Of course he was injured for part of the 2012 season with elbow issues and made only 28 starts.

And then 2013 happened.

It was easily his worst as a full-time starter.  He went 14-13 and posted a 4.78 ERA and 1.37 WHIP.  He did pitch 211 innings, but his season ended prematurely with a hamstring injury.  If the Yankees want to return to the playoffs they need Sabathia to turn it around.  But there are problems.

For one, his fastball velocity has dropped dramatically.  Per fangraphs, his fastball averaged 94.1 miles per hour in 2009, his first year as a Yankee.  In 2012, it averaged 92.4 miles per hour.  And last year it averaged 91.3 mph, and he was hit very hard.

Sabathia is now at the part of his career where he can no longer rely on velocity and overpower hitters.  He must rely on location and command in order to be successful.

Spring Training saw him end on a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings, giving hope that he perhaps figured it out.  He was reportedly adding a cut fastball to his arsenal with the help of recently retired Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte.

And then the regular season began.

In his first start of the season, against the Houston Astros – the same Astros that have lost 324 combined games the last 3 seasons – he gave up 6 runs in the first inning.  Six runs.  He settled down after that, but even settling as a middle-rotation pitcher, six runs – let alone in one inning – to a team with as little talent as the Astros is downright nerve-wracking.  Then in his second start, he gave up four runs in six innings to the Blue Jays.  His third saw him give up another four runs to the Red Sox.

Yikes.

What’s worse is that his fastball is continuing to decline; so far it is averaging just under 90 mph, and per fangraphs, he has also yet to incorporate his cut fastball.

The Yankees are looking to rebound after missing the postseason in 2013, but they won’t be going anywhere if Sabathia cannot figure it out and give his team a chance to win.

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Baseball

MLB 2014 Season: Week 1 in Review

The first week of the 2014 Major League Baseball season is about over.  Since I’m studying to become a sports broadcaster, I’ve decided to start a blog about my thoughts on the baseball season every week.  With that in mind, I’ll get started.

Before I dive into it, I’ll say this: Even though it’s only been a week, I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen from various teams.  Some teams that I’ve expected to be bad this season have gotten off to good starts.  But remember, there’s 162 games in a season.  Anything can happen during that period of time, and it’s conceivable that teams that have started off well can turn cold in a few weeks.  Conversely, teams that start off cold can go on a hot streak fairly quickly.

And now a disclaimer: the following thoughts are mine alone and are not affiliated with anyone. Clear?  OK, let’s roll.

First Impressions – Surprises

I’ll start off with a couple of teams that have caught me by surprise in the early going.  Teams that I didn’t expect anything out of but have made me think twice.

Marlins

First, to the teams that have impressed me: one in particular is the Miami Marlins. I pegged them to be a young team destined for a last place finish in the NL East. As it stands, they’ve started 5-1. It’s only 6 games, but they have a young and effective pitching staff. Young phenom Jose Fernandez was destined for Double A last season before injuries forced the Marlins to put him on the roster. What did he do? Put up one of the greatest pitching rookie seasons in decades: 12-6, 2.19 ERA, 187 strikeouts…he was better than anyone could have predicted. So far in 2014, he hasn’t missed a beat. They also have no-hit wonder Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner, Kevin Slowey among others.

But it’s not just the pitchers they have: it’s the young players. From Adeiny Hechavarria, Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee who is off to an excellent start after spending all of last year in Japan. And then there’s their powerhouse hitter Giancarlo Stanton. These young pieces may not seem like much but so far they’ve held their own. Again, anything can happen in 162 games, but if early impressions mean anything, the rest of the NL better watch their backs.

Astros

Another team that has impressed me is the Houston Astros in the AL. Yes, they’ll likely end up with another 100 loss season. But, they did take 2 out of 3 games against the New York Yankees. That alone deserves a look. Between Jason Castro, Chris Carter, and Jose Altuve in the lineup, and Zack Cozart and Scott Feldman in the rotation, they have a lot of young pieces so that when they are finally competitive, they have the potential to stay competitive for a long period of time. It may not be this year. It may not be a while. But it’s not that far off.

First Impressions – Disappointments

Now onto the disappointments. Teams that had big expectations on them and so far have failed to impress me.

Yankees

First and foremost, the Yankees. After coming off a disappointing (for them) 85-win season in which pretty much everyone but the coaching stuff suffered injuries, they went out and opened their wallets onto the Free Agent market. They spend nearly $500 Million on free agents, acquiring big names like Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Carlos Beltran, and of course their biggest signing of them all: Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka. Those signings, coupled with the expectation of a healthy Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, a return to form for CC Sabathia, the continuing growth of Ivan Nova, and the resurgence of Michael Pineda, were supposed to result in a powerhouse team that would reclaim its spot at the top of the AL East.

So far, not so much.

While Derek Jeter has mostly been healthy, he hasn’t been great. He’s hitting just .182 and has yet to collect an extra-base hit.  Approaching 40 years of age and coming off a season where he was marred by injuries, including the pesky fractured ankle that never fully healed from the 2012 playoffs, expecting him to be anyway productive is asking of a lot.  His approach hasn’t been bad, but he’s not squaring the ball up very hard. In addition to Jeter, Teixeira recently suffered a strained hamstring in Saturday’s game against the Blue Jays.

Like Jeter, he too suffered from an injury-marred 2013, playing in just 15 games due to a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist.  If Teixeira has to miss extended time the team is in trouble, as it’ll mean back-up infielder Kelly Johnson will likely become the everyday first basemen.

Sabathia is coming off a miserable 2013 that saw him get hit hard and often and have to learn how to pitch with a less-than-lethal fastball.  His 2014 Spring Training was excellent, but then he went and got hammered by the Astros.  Universally the worst team in the American League pummeled Sabathia like he was a Triple-A pitcher. If he can’t right the ship the team is in trouble.

And to top it all off: in five games, the team has zero home runs.  Zero.  Even though this is an aging roster, it’s still a talented roster, and one would think at least one player would’ve gone deep by now.  Oh and just as a passing glance, Alfonso Soriano has started the season 0-for-16.  Zero hits in 16 at-bats to start this season.  Ouch.

On the bright side, there are some positives to look at.  It’s not all bad. For one, Tanaka’s debut on Friday had lots of good signs.  Even though he was hit hard the first 3 innings, giving up 3 runs and 6 hits, he settled down.  In fact he retired the final 12 batters he faced in a row.  He also recorded eight strikeouts and did not allow a walk.  Though the results weren’t spectacular, there were plenty of positives to take in and a lot of reason to expect him only to get better.  For example, he threw 17 split-fingered fastballs and got 10 misses.

Another is Michael Pineda.  After suffering a shoulder injury in Spring Training 2012 that forced him to miss the whole season, and spending all of 2013 in the minors, he finally made a triumphant return on Saturday.  He pitched 6 innings and gave up only one run.  Now the offense didn’t back him up, but doing that after not seeing the majors for 2 years is pretty impressive.  And he’s their de facto number 5 starter. If Pineda can regain his old form from 2011 he can do this team a whole lot of good.

Now he just needs the rest of the staff and the lineup to chip in.

Diamondbacks

And then there’s the Arizona Diamondbacks.  They start the season 1-7.  Really, really pathetic especially since they’re coming off consecutive 81-81 seasons, the latter on highlighted by the fact that they traded their homegrown star Justin Upton to the Braves in an apparent effort to establish a “gritty” mentality into the team.  For the life of me I could not comprehend the logic of trading a guy who hadn’t quite realized his potential but still posted excellent numbers for a mindset.  I still don’t understand that, and before 2013 I said that in order for the trade to be justified they HAD to make the playoffs.  Not only did they not, they finished .500.  And now they only have one win out of eight games played so far.

Their offseason was highlighted for the Mark Trumbo trade with the Angels. He’s a guy that won’t hit for high average and won’t get on base much, but he’ll give you 30 home runs easily, and at Chase Field, the potential for 40 is real. In fact, he has four already so it wouldn’t shock me at all if it happened. But, they’re also playing him in the outfield, in which it has already been established that he’s bad at.  Why not at first base?  Because they already have a stud named Paul Goldschmidt there.

Granted they have had injuries, but that’s no excuse.  For whatever reason they’ve traded away talent for grit.  While I don’t necessarily condone that – after all, it isn’t my team – last year’s results combined with their slow start this year makes that look worse.

Manager Kirk Gibson and General Manager Kevin Towers were recently extended, but the lengths were never publicly revealed, and now I believe there’s a reason.  The organization may just want to see if Gibson can get this team back on track and if Towers provided the talent to do it.  If the team doesn’t pick it up soon, the lengths of the extensions may even become irrelevant.

Instant Replay and Catcher Collisions

I also want to bring up two of the newest changes that are out for this season: Expanded Instant Replay and Catcher Collisions. The first is Instant Replay.  Now approved for the 2014 season, the new package basically makes it so most calls are now subject to review, the obvious exception being balls and strikes.  The one thing about this new system is that it’s not exactly a replay system.  More, it’s a challenge system.

Here’s how it works: for the first six innings of a game, each manager gets one “challenge;” meaning that if there’s a call an umpire makes on a play that a manager doesn’t think is right, they can “challenge” it, or make the umpire go to replay.  There, they’ll receive information through a feed coming from a replay studio in New York, where all of the game action is shown on several monitors.  Here, those involved sit and watches every play, and when a play needs to be reviewed, they review it, and then relay what the call should be to the umpires on the field.

Now this is where it gets a little tricky: there are three outcomes that can come from this.  If a call is “confirmed” that means there was conclusive evidence that the first call was correct.  If a call “stands” that means there was inconclusive evidence to overturn the call.  If a call is “overturned” that means there was conclusive evidence to overturn the call.

Now if a manager “wins” his challenge, that manager gets one more challenge to use, but only one.  From the 7th inning until the end of the game, if a manager is out of challenges, the use of replay is left in the discretion of an umpire.  A manager can still ask for replay, but they can’t “challenge” the call anymore.

I’ll be honest; I do like this system.  I like the fact that Major League Baseball has finally come out of the cave and realized that getting the calls right instead of leaning on the “human element” excuse is the important thing.  Umpires, for the most part, do an excellent job and missed calls are few and far between.  But it is the missed calls, especially in high-leverage situations that ultimately have an impact on the standings that get attention and ultimately make MLB look bad.

Remember last year?  The Athletics-Indians game where Adam Rosales hit what should’ve counted as a game-tying home run against Chris Perez?  But when the umpires – specifically Angel Hernandez – looked at replay, the call stood, even though replays indicated that – based on the Indians’ ground rules for their park – the home run should have counted.  MLB even said in a statement the next day that Hernandez got the call wrong, and he refused to admit he was wrong.  He even had the gall to demand that his postgame interview not be recorded.  Unbelievable.

Obviously it’s that kind of behavior that forced MLB’s hand.

The Athletics lost that game 5-4 and ultimately won the AL West by one game after sweeping the Texas Rangers in the final series of the regular season.  But had the home run counted, it could’ve completely changed the course of not just that game, but of their entire season as well.

This new replay system is designed to eliminate the controversies that surround missed calls.  But I am concerned about a part of this system, mostly the umpire discretion part.  Since managers can only ask an umpire to review a play after the 7th inning if they are out of challenges, it is conceivable that an umpire could just say no to them and not be held accountable.  I find this to be a very possible scenario, and to me I’m quite surprised nobody else has brought it up as a possibility.

Since umpire discipline is rarely made public, it worries me that this sort of behavior could begin to develop around the game.  The whole point of the system is to get the calls right and to give the umpires a little help along the way.  Hey, they’re humans.  They make mistakes too.  But admitting them is better than trying to defend them and hide behind an unrecorded interview.

While I find it unlikely this would actually occur, I sincerely hope MLB is prepared to deal with this possibility.

The other new rule that’s bound to stir up some problems is the catcher collision rules.  The new rules state – in layman’s terms – that a catcher is not allowed to block home plate if they do not have possession of the ball, and that the runner is not allowed to go out of his way to run over the catcher.  The runner must go directly to the plate and slide in and the catcher must give the runner a lane to use as a path.

On the surface, it’s obvious that this rule’s implementation stemmed from Giants catcher Buster Posey’s injury in 2011 where Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins bowled over him without realizing he had dropped the ball.  Posey missed the remainder of that season with numerous injuries, but came back in 2012 to win the NL batting title and the NL MVP award, as well as a 2nd World Series title in 3 years.

The intention of the rule is good: it’s designed to stop injuries to catchers via collisions.  But there are some problems.

First of all, it is entirely possible a situation can occur where the catcher receives an oncoming throw, and the throw takes them offline to where they are blocking the plate in a well.  That’s not their fault.  That’s on the outfielder that threw the ball.  What’s the catcher supposed to do?  Let the ball pass and just let the runner score and possibly let another one in?  Ludicrous.  In that situation, the catcher has no choice but to go get the ball and take themselves in front of the plate.

In that case, the runner may not have any choice but to run over the catcher in an attempt to knock the ball loose.  The rules state that a catcher cannot willingly block the plate without the ball and that the runner cannot go out of his way to run over him.  But situations can occur where both players – perhaps not entirely of their own recognizance – are forced into that situation.  What’s MLB to do?  Punish them for trying to play the game?

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s one that’s entirely possible.  The rules don’t eliminate collisions completely.  They just make it so they only happen if there’s absolutely no other recourse.

For example, in Saturday’s Yankees-Blue Jays game, Jacoby Ellsbury hit a single to center fielder.  Colby Rasmus threw it to home, where Francisco Cervelli slid into home and was tagged out by catcher Josh Thole.  Replays didn’t give a conlcusive answer, but it was debated whether A) Thole gave Cervelli a lane to slide into home plate, and B) whether or not he actually tagged him before Cervelli’s foot touched the plate.

Manager Joe Girardi argued the call and umpires reviewed it.  The call stood, saying that Thole did not block the plate.  From all angles, it appeared Thole was set up over the plate, but wasn’t blocking it per say.  As Girardi said in his post game interview, it is a grey area and it is going to continue causing confusion.  Luckily, it appears MLB is open to amending these rules as it goes along if need be.

As I’ve said, so far neither of these changes have caused huge controversies, and they’ve certainly cut down on manager-umpires arguments.  In fact, this far into the season, we haven’t had one single ejection, which for the sake of coach-player-umpire relationships is a good thing indeed.  But this will be something to keep close watch on as the season goes on.  At any time we could have a situation arise that causes controversy due to either misinterpretation or confusion over the rules.

We finally have rules in place that both help the umpires do their jobs and take some of the pressure off of them and limit or even prevent catcher injuries via collision.  But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.

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