12 2015 Oct

Was Chase Utley’s Slide Legal?

In game 2 of the National League Division Series the Dodgers came from behind with a 4-run 7th inning to tie their series with the Mets at 1 game each. The pivotal moment that everyone in talking about was when the first run of the inning scored to tie the game. The Dodgers were trailing 2 to 1 at the time. They had two runners on base, Enrique Hernandez was on third and Chase Utley was on first and there was one out. Howie Kendrick faced Bartolo Colon and hit a ground ball up the middle. The Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy flipped the ball to shortstop Ruben Tejada to try to start a double play, but Utley slid in with his head striking Tejada’s legs and knocking him on his back and breaking his leg. To literally add insult to injury, the replay review determined that Tejada never touched the base and because the throw pulled him out of position the “neighborhood play” where infielders just need to be close to second base on a double play didn’t apply.

Now the Mets and their fans are all incensed saying Utley’s slide was dirty. Upon further review, Joe Torre and Major League Baseball has agreed and decided it was an illegal slide and suspended Utley two games, pending an appeal. But honestly, MLB’s suspension seems more like a reaction to the severity of the injury and fan response, than a consistent enforcement of the rules. Attempting to break up a double play by sliding toward a middle infielder happens all the time. The only time I see the illegal slide rule enforced is when the runner is so far out of the baseline, that they can’t possibly touch second base. That was not the case here. Utley was close enough to the bag to touch it if he chose to. He probably assumed he was going to be out and was only interested in preventing the double play so that the critical tying run would score. He did slide high and late, but that has not been considered illegal before. I’ve seen Yasiel Puig slide high and late, not because he was taking out a fielder, but because he had bad judgement on when to slide. Sadly, a big reason why Tejada was injured, had nothing to do with Utley. Tejada was out of position with his back to the runner at the moment of impact. Whether that was because of Murphy’s throw or because he was unadvisedly trying to pirouette to throw to first, he shares some responsibility for not being set for a collision that he should have known was coming. There have been lots of slides to break up double plays that have looked far worse than what Utley did and they were not ruled illegal before. Players have also been hurt before; ask Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates. The umpires ruling during the game was correct, based on how the rule had been interpreted in the past. If MLB wants to outlaw sliding toward fielders to break up double plays, they need to set that precedent ahead of time and pass the memo out to all the umpires and players.

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9 2015 Oct

New York Mets versus the Los Angeles Dodgers

New York versus Los Angeles is a classic, except in baseball it usually involved the Yankees, not the Mets. But the Mets are another team buoyed by youth. Particularly, their starting pitching with Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Matt Harvey set up to anchor the Mets staff for many years. However, the question is, “Is it too soon?” The whole controversy over Harvey’s innings and his recent tardiness to a workout puts a negative cloud over the team. For the Dodgers, success also begins with their starting pitching. It’s a two-headed monster called Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. We’ve already seen what a difference an ace starting pitcher can make in the Wild Card games and going back to last year’s performance by Bumgarner. The Dodgers are doubly dangerous with the best combo since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Kershaw has proved human is previous postseasons, especially in the 7th inning against the Cardinals. But he appears to be peaking as he enters these playoffs and I expect him to have learned from past experience, after all, he’s just entering his prime at 27 years old. The question is what happens after those guys pitch? Brett Anderson and Alex Wood have been good at times, but a bad outing could be costly in a short series. Similarly, the bullpen outside of the closer Kenley Jansen has been inconsistent. There are a lot of young arms with the potential to do well, but they are unproven.

In the first half of the year the Mets had no offense, but the mid-season acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and the return of David Wright has transformed the Mets into one of the best offenses in baseball. The Dodgers don’t have anyone with 30 or more home runs, but they led the National League in home runs. That tells you there are a lot of guys hitting 10 or more spread throughout the lineup. The Dodgers may have unloaded big names like Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, but they maintain a huge payroll by having a lot of depth. Most of the country may not know about Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez, but don’t be surprised if they make a contribution in this series. One name the country will know soon is Corey Seager, the rookie shortstop/third baseman for the Dodgers, who only played the last month in the big leagues. The younger brother of Seattle third baseman Kyle Seager, Corey is touted as the more talented of the two, and he’s done nothing to disprove that in his short time in the majors by hitting over .330. The Dodgers are getting healthy at the right time with the recent return of Howie Kendrick, Hernandez and Yasiel Puig. If they score just 3 or 4 runs for Kershaw and Greinke, it usually means a win. Don’t be surprised if the Dodgers sweep.

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9 2015 Oct

Chicago Cubs versus the St. Louis Cardinals

For the first time, long-time rivals, the Chicago Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. Primarily, because the Cubs have rarely been in the postseason. However, with a young team guided by manager Joe Maddon, this could be the first of many October appearances for the Cubs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are perennial playoff participants. I’m not sure what “the Cardinal Way” means, but their secret to success is depth from a strong farm system. Albert Pujols can leave as a free agent, Adam Wainwright can get injured, but the team keeps winning because someone from the minor leagues rises up to take their place. However, this year the injury bug may be too much for the Cardinals to overcome. Carlos Martinez was the ace of the staff and his loss due to shoulder stiffness is a big blow. Another big blow could be the torn ligament in Yadier Molina’s thumb. He’ll try to play with it, but how effective will the team MVP be? Also, hurting the Cardinals is the late season collapse of Michael Wacha who sported a 7.88 ERA in September. Wainwright has returned, but he’s relegated to the bullpen. The bad news for the Cubs is that they had to play a Wild Card game, so Arrieta can only pitch once in this series. Also, Jason Hammel hasn’t been that sharp lately. This should be quite a battle and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bench-clearing incident before it’s over. My guess is that the wounded Cardinals succumb to the youthful Cubs, but it won’t be easy.

 

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8 2015 Oct

Divisional Series begin in the American League

In a one game Wild-Card format, there’s nothing like a dominant starting pitcher. Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were hit by the Madison Bumgarner steamroller. This year, they had the misfortune of facing Jake Arrieta. Rookie Kyle Schwarber provided all the offensive support needed with an RBI single and a two-run home run, while Arrieta tossed a shutout. Similarly, Dallas Keuchel ended the Yankees season with a shutout of his own.

So now the Divisional Series matchups are set. First, the American League, where the Houston Astros go on to face the Kansas City Royals. The Astros are a young team and as Keuchel demonstrated, they have good pitching. The offense is led by Carlos Correa and it is all or nothing; they hit a lot of home runs, but they strikeout a lot. It’s a formula that can work well in the playoffs, where it’s difficult to mount rallies against good pitching. Good pitchers don’t make many mistakes, but if they make one bad pitch and you can convert it into runs with one swing…The Royals are also a young team that had an amazing run in last year’s playoffs and this year they look like an even stronger team. They picked up Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline and he’s not even starting the first game. Despite the loss of closer Greg Holland, they have a solid bullpen. The lineup is solid from 1 through 9. They might not be superstars, but no one is an easy out and that can wear out opposing pitchers. I like the Royals to advance again.

Proving that a trade deadline acquisition can make a difference, the Toronto Blue Jays went all-in to pick up David Price and Troy Tulowitsky, while the Texas Rangers traded their farm system for Cole Hamels. It’ll be interesting to see who made a better investment. Both teams have powerhouse offenses that no one would want to face. The Blue Jays have Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista while the Rangers have Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo. So if you like offense, this could be the series to watch. However, the difference will be the pitching, and I think the Blue Jays have more depth there.

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6 2015 Oct

Major League Baseball 2015 Wild Card Games

The Major League Baseball regular season is over and the playoffs are ready to begin with the American League Wild Card game tonight. The New York Yankees, the most successful team in the history of baseball take on the young, upstart Houston Astros, who only recently moved into the league.

The Astros struggled in the final weeks of the season and barely hung on by a single game, over the Los Angeles Angels. They can thank an improbable 5-run rally with two outs in the ninth inning against the Angels on September 13 for making the difference between playing tonight and watching.

The Yankees also limped to the finish, after losing their MVP Mark Texeira to injury. They are also jarred by the news that CC Sabathia has checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. This will only be relevant if the Yankees survive beyond today. One game is definitely a crap shoot, but in a battle of young versus old, youth is usually the better bet. I’ll expect the Astros to advance.

Personally, I think these are the two weakest teams in the playoffs. Normally, as the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals demonstrated last year, any team that reaches the post season has the potential to win it all. But I would be stunned, if the Astros or Yankees reach the 2015 World Series.

In contrast, the National League Wild Card game might be a matchup of the two best teams in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are two young teams on the rise. As fate would have it, they shared a division with the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals. So Gerritt Cole will face-off against Jake Arrieta in a winner-take-all game that will be no fun for hitters. If the Pirates have a weakness, it’s their porous defense. In a tight ballgame it might cost them. Arrieta has been virtually unhittable in the second half of the season. Just ask the Dodgers. So the Cubs have a good chance to advance. Aside from Pirate fans, who wouldn’t want to see a Cubs versus Cardinals brawl.

 

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10 2015 Sep

The National League Playoff Races are Over!

In the National League the New York Mets sweep of the Washington Nationals essentially ended the hunt for playoff positions. Although mathematically still alive, the Nationals and the Giants would require miraculous finishes to earn a spot in the post season. Seemingly, all that’s left is to see if the Pirates can make a run at the Cardinals, and who earns home field advantage.

The margin between contention and elimination is remarkably slim. The Nationals held leads in all three games of their series with the Mets, but managed to lose each one. The most egregious loss being the second game, where they had a 7-1 lead until the seventh inning. How different the race would look if the Nationals had won even two out of three games.

Similarly, a week and a half ago the Giants were very much in contention, entering their series with the Dodgers trailing by 3-1/2 games. But they lost all three of their games to the Dodgers, with each game decided by one run, including extra innings in the first game. In a 162 game season, it’s amazing how the fates of four teams can turn on three games.

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15 2015 Jul

Mike Trout wins All Star MVP again!

The last 5 games pitcher Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers has appeared in, he has not allowed a run. Of course, he hasn’t faced Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Mike Trout in any of those games. Leading off the Major League All Star Game Trout hit an opposite field home run to start the scoring. But his key contribution may have been his speed in avoiding hitting into a double play in the 5th inning. Extending that inning allowed him and team mate Albert Pujols to score the go ahead runs as Texas first baseman Prince Fielder and Kansas outfielder Lorenzo Cain got 2 out base hits off of Clayton Kershaw. That gave the American League a lead they would not relinquish as they went on to win 6 to 3. Fielder and Cain deserved MVP consideration, but the award went to Trout who became the first player to win back-to-back MVP awards. It probably won’t be his last. He has gotten a base hit in his first at bat of all four of his All Star appearances. In fact he has completed a cycle with a single, a double, a triple last year and the home run this year. Other highlights from the game were home runs by the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen and the Twins’ Brian Dozier. On the pitching side the performances of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and the 100+ mile per hour fastballs of hometown Reds closer Aroldis Chapman grabbed your attention.

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5 2015 Apr

Preview of the National League Central Division

The 2015 Major League Baseball season begins with a match-up of traditional rivals, the St Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals are a perennial contender. They have reached the League Championship Series for 4 straight years including a World Series Championship in 2011. With the addition of Jason Heyward and no notable off-season losses, the Cardinals should remain a playoff contender this season. The Chicago Cubs are the lovable losers, who are hoping this is the year that they finally break the 106 year drought. They have reason for optimism with new manager Joe Maddon, who is considered one of the best managers in baseball, the addition of free agent pitcher Jon Lester to lead the starting rotation and top prospect Kris Bryant waiting in the wings to join the youthful talents of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. The question is how long will it take for the Cubs young talent to mature? Many players take about 3 seasons to gain the experience to perform consistently in the big leagues. If that’s the case, you might want to consider the Cubs in 2017.

 

As for the rest of the National League Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost the wild card playoff last season to the Giants, should again be a factor. Led by one of the most dynamic players in the National League, Andrew McCutchen and the pitching of Francisco Liriano plus the rising talent of righthander Gerrit Cole and outfielder Starling Marte, the Pirates are positioned to have another winning season. The question mark for the Milwaukee Brewers is the health of post- Biogenesis Ryan Braun. His presence with Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy could create an effective offense. The starting pitching with Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse is solid, but the bullpen without Francisco Rodriguez is a concern. The Cincinnati Reds have a solid number one starter in Johnny Cueto, but aside from that there are a lot of question marks. Have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce recovered from their knee problems? Is the real Billy Hamilton the .285 hitter of the first half or the .200 hitter of the second half? Can Marlon Byrd continue to produce at age 37? Can anyone in the bullpen outside of Aroldis Chapman pitch effectively?

 

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1 2015 Apr

Why did the Cubs demote Kris Bryant?

It’s the final week of spring training and teams around Major League Baseball are making their final decisions about which players will be on their opening day rosters. It’s not unusual for young prospects to be sent down to the minor leagues despite good spring training performances. A good batting average or a low ERA might have been accumulated against other minor leaguers. There could be signs that a hitter struggles with off-speed pitches or a pitcher struggles to throw an off-speed pitch. Defensive skills or decision-making that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet might be below par.

The point is that there are lot of intangibles outside of statistics that determine whether a team thinks a young player is ready for the big leagues. So it’s unusual when the demotion of a minor leaguer gets the media attention that Kris Bryant received when the Cubs reassigned him to minor league camp. A .425 batting average and an eye-popping 9 home runs for the young third baseman considered the top prospect in baseball certainly didn’t hurt his chances of making the team. Also, the current third baseman Luis Valbuena isn’t blocking the advancement of Bryant. What raises eyebrows is the circumstance surrounding Bryant’s free agency eligibility. By keeping him in the minors for just 12 days, the Cubs can delay Bryant from becoming eligible for free agency by one year. I’m curious what Cubs general manager Theo Epstein gave as an explanation for the reason Bryant needs more time in the minor leagues. Is there a legitimate reason or are the Cubs simply trying to save money? While the latter might make business sense, there does seem to be something unsavory about taking advantage of the rules to deprive Bryant of a deserved place in the Major Leagues. I wonder if he and his agent, Scott Boras, will remember that in 2021.

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6 2015 Jan

2015 MLB Hall of Fame Inductees

The-National-Baseball-Hall-of-FameTM-2015-Wall-Calendar-Cooperstown-Collection-0Congratulations to Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz for their selection by the baseball writers to be inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The three pitchers were on the ballot for the first time. As multiple Cy Young Award winners, Johnson and Martinez were obvious choices. Smoltz was a key member of the Atlanta Braves dominant pitching staff of the 90’s with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavin. He accumulated over 200 wins and transformed himself into a dominant closer in the latter part of his career. Biggio started his career as a catcher, but good running speed led to his conversion into a second baseman. He spent a lot of time as a key member of the “Killer B’s” in Houston. A pesky hitter, he accumulated over 3,000 hits.

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