Return of the King
June 23, 2006

It was just one outing, but I would say there are good things in store for AJ Burnett... probably.  Had it not been for horrendous defense from Shea Hillenbrand, he would have shut out the Braves last night.  A slow roller that most third baseman make a play on plus a hard grounder that should have been ruled an error resulted in the two runs he gave up.  Troy Glaus at shortstop didn't help either on an easy double play ball that he turned into a force out at second.  But once they go back to playing AL style ball, neither of those guys will be playing those positions.  Everything else looked good.  His velocity was as high as 98 mph, consistently 94-96 until around the 6th inning (roughly 75 pitches) when it dipped to 93-94.  He had good control of his curve as well.  A couple of the balls in play were line drives and there was one fly ball, but everything else was on the ground.  He finished the night throwing six solid innings on 91 pitches.

Still, even with Glaus moving back to third and Hillenbrand taking his rightful place on the bench, the Jays need to do something about their infield defense if they hope to maximize the effectiveness of Roy Halladay and Burnett.  Both these guys should still be effective with what they have but if they do upgrade with a guy like Adam Kennedy, those two starters will really be tough in the second half.  I know his bat is pretty anemic, but John McDonald playing short when they pitch would help tremendously.  It won't have as much impact when the other starters are on the hill, but with as many groundballs as Halladay and Burnett throw and as productive as the Jays line-up usually is, the benefits of using McDonald's glove would be worth it.

One of the things that keeps baseball so fascinating is that quite often seemingly obvious mismatches turn out to be quite the opposite.  For example, the Cubs are one of the worst teams in baseball against left-handed pitchers.  Before Wednesday night's game with the Indians, only the Royals and Marlins were less productive against them.  So what do they do that night against CC Sabathia?  They dinked, dribbled and doubled him to the tune of 9 earned runs.  Of course, a bunch of those runs were due to terrible plays by Ben Broussard and Ronnie Belliard and a rookie reliever allowing all the inherited runners to score.  But the box score says they crushed him.  On the opposite side of the coin, the Toronto Blue Jays have the highest OPS in baseball against left-handers, yet they were almost completely befuddled by Horacio Ramirez for six plus innings.  Bobby Cox even tried to help them out by leaving Ramirez in for 126 pitches but to no avail.  The Jays simply didn't feel like scoring last night.  Go figure.

In addition to Burnett and Ramirez, another pitcher was coming back from a long lay-off last night.  There's been a lot of hooplah about the return of Roger Clemens but I'm afraid Astro fans are going to be disappointed.  Looking back at his performance in the World Baseball Classic, the only team he dominated was the club from South Africa.  Against Mexico, he had trouble putting batters away.  True, he ended up with a few strikeouts against them and no walks, but it also took him 73 pitches to throw 4.1 innings against a line-up that had one legit major leaguer (Jorge Cantu).  It should also be noted that no one in that line-up was known for drawing a lot of walks and none of them were/are timid when it comes to swinging the bat.  The Rocket is 42 and last September he broke down physically - not an uncommon occurence for 42-year old athletes - finishing the month with a 5.40 ERA

I think the general perception is that he wouldn't have come back if he thought he would embarrass himself, and I'm not saying he will.  But there have been lots of truly great players who stuck around a year too long - Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jim Palmer, Edgar Martinez, Willie Mays, Pete Rose (ok, in his case it was five years too long) - and it's hard for a guy who has been on top for so long to absorb the ego hit that he's just not that good anymore.  Thinking back on his press conference, Clemens didn't seem all that enthused to be coming back, perhaps a little unsure about his decision.  But maybe I'm just reading into his body language.  We'll see.  But I'm not optimistic that he's the key to the Astros success in the second half.  Even if he does return to his brilliant self for one more go around the league, he's likely to be limited to five or six innings each start and the Houston bullpen hasn't exactly been stellar so far. 

Yesterday I wrote about rookie starting pitchers who are doing great things so far this year... well, add Anthony Reyes to that increasingly impressive list.  He threw a brilliant one-hit outing against the White Sox in US Cellular, a very tough park for pitchers.  Too bad the one hit was a Jim Thome home run.  The same late season caveats still apply, though.