Notes on the New Season

April 10, 2016

 

 

Bad Signs in Washington

Early in the season one looks for hints of what the season might hold. Itís too early for results to have too much meaning Ė like a 0-5 record or a .500 batting average Ė but there are occasionally some indicators in the process of how things are unfolding that could portend the future. And right now, those signs arenít looking good in Washington. Sure, they lead the division and yes, the mind-set of the team is almost infinitely better than where it was at the end of last season. But there are signs that by the end of this year, it will look a lot like it did in 2015. So far, it appears that Dusty Baker is Matt Williams 2.0.

 

For example, when lead-off hitter Ben Revere was lost for a good part of April with an oblique strain, Bakerís replacement at the top of the order was Michael Taylor, presumably because he played the same position. This was Williamsí rationale for making the exact same move last season when Denard Span was out. Unfortunately, in 40 games as a lead-off hitter in the major leagues coming into Wednesdayís contest, Taylor had an on base percentage of .224. Not batting average; on base percentage. He has some pretty significant contact issues (career contact rate of 68.4%) and has never drawn more than 60 walks in any season even in the minors. To put it mildly, his skills and abilities are less than ideal for leading off; they are much better suited for the #6 or #7 slot in the line-up.

 

And you might note that in Double-A he was primarily a lead-off hitter and finished that season with a .313/.396/.539 line. This is true, but he also had a .421 average on balls in play. No one in the divisional era (since 1969) has posted a career BABIP at the major league level higher than .365. So are we trying to suggest that Michael Taylor has some supernatural ability to guide balls to the outfield grass that Mike Trout, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Dee Gordon, Jose Altuve, Andrew McCutchen, Roberto Clemente, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Derek Jeter, etc never had? Or can we safely assume that Michael Taylorís 2014 Double-A season was on the fluky side?

 

Baker himself doesnít think Taylor will make a good lead-off hitter but added that he has the power to put a run on the board with one swing and that he has speed on the bases. Correct me if Iím wrong but one has to make contact in order to hit a home run and one has to get on base in order to steal. Taylor doesnít do either when burdened with the pressure of being the man to start the game.

 

This is another case of not knowing how baseball works, which was a hallmark of Matt Williamsí tenure in Washington. In order for the Nationals to be successful this season, they will need someone, anyone, whom Dusty trusts to tell him on those occasions when his gut is telling him to do one thing but the universe is telling him that he shouldnít, ďHey Dusty, donít do that. That has a very low probability of working out.ĒMaybe then Dusty will be the manager that Washington needs. Until then, heís just a cheerier version of Matt Wiliams. By the way, Taylor has gone 0-for-9 with three strikeouts since.

 

 

The No-Hitter That Wasnít

 

On Friday night, Ross Stripling made his major league debut. If you didnít have that marked on your calendar itís understandable; it was probably not on anyoneís calendar except for perhaps Stripling and his family. You see, he only got this opportunity because the Dodgers had so many injuries to their rotation and he pitched well enough in spring to be considered. It was a big deal for him because he had missed much of 2014 and a good portion of 2105 recovering from Tommy John surgery. But that all changed when Stripling no-hit the archrival Giants for 7.1 innings Friday night. And it was then it became a red-letter day for almost everyone who loves baseball. Not only because it was a no-hitter but also because no pitcher had thrown a no-hitter in his major league debut since Bumpus Jones did it. If you havenít heard of Bumpus Jones itís because he made his debut in 1892. Thatís so long ago that the pitching mound was still only 55 feet away from the plate. So Striplingís no-hit bid became kind of a big deal. But what got him knocked out of the game was not a hit, but his pitch count. The Dodgers had decided before the game that he would throw about 100 pitches and when he walked his second batter in the eighth inning, that was his 100th pitch. So they pulled him.

 

Hereís the thing: Ross Stripling is probably not the future of the Dodgers. Heís 26-years old and was ranked the 8th best pitching prospect in the Dodgers system. Not the 8th best prospect; the 8th best pitching prospect. He tops out around 90 mph and none of his pitches grade out as anything more than average. So if your franchise with a $200+ million payroll is depending on the health of Ross Stripling for its future, your season is already over. Not meaning to be callous but his skillset is not one you build your playoff hopes on, and one that plenty of pitchers possess. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Stripling and for every baseball fan alive. There really was no reason why the Dodgers could not have let him stay on the mound and let it unfold. If he ended up throwing 120+ pitches but didnít get the no-hitter, well, thatís how it is sometimes. This was Ross Striplingís chance at baseball immortality. He gave them a great outing and what could have been a historic one. If he does throw the no-hitter, everyone will certainly remember it. I saw Wilson Alvarezí no-hitter in Baltimore in his 5th major league start and itís still something I talk about with friends. It was one of the greatest moments Iíve ever enjoyed in baseball and Iíve seen a ton of them in the 500+ games Iíve attended. But the Dodgers robbed fans of that potential memory adhering to a concept that still has little or no evidence that it works (as an example, Stephen Strasburg had never thrown more than 100 pitches in any game in his career Ė college, minors or majors - yet still required Tommy John surgery) for a player who probably doesnít have much a big future in the majors.

 

The baseball gods were not amused either. The next batter after Stripling was removed hit a home run to tie the game (ironically, it was his first career home run), ending the no-hitter and the shut-out and charging Stripling with a run.The Dodgers eventually lost the game in extra innings.

 

Of course, commentary was rampant about Robertsí decision to pull Stripling. Some have suggested that pitchers now are not trained to go more than five or six innings or to throw more than 100 pitches in the minor leagues and therefore shouldnít be tasked with going the route once they reach the majors. Yet, every year new records are set for the number of arm surgeries. Perhaps that should be an alarm that the way that pitching is being taught Ė throw as hard as you can for as long as you can Ė isnít the correct way to teach it. Perhaps if organizations would teach their pitchers to pitch Ė add and subtract velocity off their pitches so that they donít exhaust their arms after five innings Ė then perhaps the arms would be subject to fewer higher stress pitches and remain healthier longer so that we wouldnít have to worry about taking a pitcher out when heís five outs from history.

 

 

The DH

 

Baseball is a simple game Ė you throw the ball, you hit the ball, and you catch the ball. It is one of the few team sports where every player is asked to do perform all of the skills. Football is the king of specialization. In soccer and hockey the goalies have special privileges that other players donít get. In basketball and baseball, each player is tasked with being able to do all of the basic elements. Itís true that pitchers donít tend to hit very well and that even the best hitting pitchers are basically mediocre hitters. So the DH solution is to remove that responsibility from them. But then arenít you replacing a guy who canít hit with a guy who canít throw or catch? It seems to me that youíre trading in one bad facet for two. That sounds like a bad trade. Itís not making the game better; itís merely making the game different. Itís certainly making it harder on the pitchers.

 

When the position was created it was ostensibly to extend the careers of great hitters who no longer had the ability to play the field every day. But thatís not how it is used anymore. Sure, there are a couple teams that have a David Ortiz or a Victor Martinez, but pretty much all the rest use the position to give an everyday player a day of rest from playing the field. And itís not always a very good hitter whoís being used as the DH. Last year, there were fifteen hitters who got more than 80 at bats (roughly what a starting pitcher would get over the course of a full season) as the teamís DH that produced an OPS under .750. Eight of those were under .700 OPS. Thatís not exactly must-see TV.

 

Look, some people like to see players hit. However there are those of us who also very much enjoy watching players throw and catch. If you want to have only people playing who are good at a particular aspect, then go ahead and make baseball specialized like it is in football and have offensive and defensive teams. Personally, I like it just the way it is.

 

 

The New Smead Jolley

 

Speaking of designated hitters, the Cubs young star Kyle Schwarber injured himself on a play in the outfield in Arizona this week and will miss the rest of the season with a torn up knee. No one questions his ability to hit. He proved that on the biggest stage in last yearís playoffs and preceded that with 16 homers in 69 games (232 at bats) during the regular season. If given a chance to hit everyday he will develop into one of the premier run-producers in the game.

 

Unfortunately for the Cubs what also is abundantly clear is that he is a menace to both himself, other outfielders and the team as long as heís wearing a glove, at least in the outfield. They used to joke about outfielders who ran full-speed after balls in flight without any awareness of where they were or their fellow outfielders. They would say that he needs to wear a cowbell so you could hear him coming and get out of the way. I donít think that will pass regulation uniform but itís something they might want to consider. Back in the 1930s the White Sox brought up a player similar to Schwarber named Smead Jolley. He was a very good hitter but terrible in the field. The Red Sox took a chance on him after the White Sox gave up but to no avail. And without a DH in the league back then, he was out of baseball after only four years despite a career average of .305 and an OPS of .818.

 

The Cubs surely canít play Schwarber at first base where they already have an All-star in Anthony Rizzo. Perhaps they could move him back to catcher but all indications are that he would be well below average in just about every aspect of catching except for the hitting part. And with Willson Contreras only a year or so away from taking that position, that doesnít leave a lot of time for Schwarber to master it on the job. That leaves the Cubs in a bit of a quandary over a player who might well be their best hitter.

 

The Cubs system is pretty well stocked but the one thing they lack is a young pitching star. It seems that it might be in everyoneís best interest to trade Schwarber to an American League team where he can safely DH in exchange for a young controllable ace. Schwarber is still young enough to merit that kind of exchange, and weak hitting teams like the Rays, Indians and Mariners certainly have the upside young arms that could make the deal worthwhile. Letís hope the Cubs figure out a way to make this happen so that we can enjoy Schwarberís immense hitting talent on a regular basis for a long time, but without the heart palpitations that will continue to accompany every flyball hit to left field.

 

 

The Greatest

 

If you watch MLB Network regularly, you have no doubt seen Pedro Martinez breaking down mechanics on a number of pitchers. I can honestly say I have never heard anyone break down mechanics so quickly and so succinctly as he does. And everything he says about drive mechanics and the entire body as a throwing apparatus makes complete sense.

 

Why people should pay attention is because he was an undersized pitcher who dominated the game for seven years in a way that no one ever has. Some will suggest that Sandy Koufax from 1962-1966 was the most dominant performance ever. I beg to differ. Koufax posted a 1.95 ERA (0.926 WHIP) over a five year span striking out an average of 289 batters per season in an era when pitchers absolutely dominated the game (league average ERA was 3.25, 1.282 WHIP) and the pitching mound was a very friendly 16-18 inches high. Conversely, Pedro posted a 2.20 ERA (0.940 WHIP) over a seven year span (1997-2003) and averaged 252 strikeouts in an era that was completely dominated by hitters (league average ERA was 4.68, 1.421 WHIP) and the pitching mound was a less than friendly 12-inches highÖ and he was facing the DH for six of those seasons. Had he not had great mechanics and the awareness to know when his were off and what he needed to do to fix them, he would never have had the career he did.

 

So my question is this: why hasnít some franchise backed up a huge truckload of money to him and begged him to be their pitching coach or at least a roving pitching instructor. Teams routinely spend tens of millions to sign amateur pitchers and even more to sign major league pitchers. Why wouldnít you want an expert in pitching mechanics who also happens to have the credibility (what pitcher would not listen to advice from a first ballot Hall of Famer?) to convince any/every pitcher what he needs to do to achieve his potential? Paying him $10 million a year would be a bargain that would pay for itself in the first year, if only by keeping pitchers healthy and on the mound. He might even be a bargain at $20 million a year. As much as I enjoy his insight, I really hope that some team is smart enough to see the potential of bringing him into their braintrust.