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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