Tagged: Chicago

Cubs Come Through When it Counts in Home Opener

Yesterday the Cubs beat the Brewers 9-5 in the Wrigley Field opener mostly on the strength of three home runs which plated seven of the nine scores for Chicago.  Much like last year and several recent seasons in Chicago, there is concern that the Cubs rely too heavily on the round trippers for their offensive output.  So far this year the Cubs have scored 19 of 27 runs via the longball and there’s concern that they won’t be able to produce when the fickle winds of Wrigley turn around.

It is a little disconcerting that the team seems to scuffle for several innings (or games) at a time, failing to make the little plays to score runs and then suddenly open the floodgates with outbursts like they did yesterday.  However, this season it appears the Cubs are coming up with more timely hits, even if they still tend to be big flies.

Last season, the team struggled mightily with runners on base and in scoring position, even failing to plate a single run in many bases loaded, no out situations.  That occurred again in the 1st inning of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, when Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome, and Derrek Lee each reached to open the game against Mike Leake, a pitcher making his first pro appearance on any level.

With the bases loaded, no one out, and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez coming up against a kid who last threw a competitive pitch for Arizona State, the Cubs proceeded to pop up, strikeout, and fly out for a scoreless frame.   Of course I thought this was a harbinger of another long season of missed opportunities on the North Side, but yesterday’s output showed a different possibility.

I’m not just talking about the deluge of runs, which is a once a week commonplace in recent Cubs history.  It’s the situations in which the runs scored that are more important.  All nine of the runs came with two outs.  The team which I last summer dubbed the  “Rally Assassins” was suddenly more clutch than a stick shift, at least for a day.  Perhaps new hitting coach/proclaimed miracle worker Rudy Jaramillo is starting to have an impact on this lineup.

In the five run third, the Cubs had runners on second and third with two outs after a double steal on a strikeout.  This was a classic Cubs opportunity to blow a good chance.  However, Xavier Nady homered, Alfonso Soriano singled, and then Jeff Baker capped it with another homer.  The next inning the Cubs would hit safely four consecutive times with two outs to plate three more and they added another two-out tally in the fifth.  In all, 9 of their 13 hits came with two outs.

More than the home runs and the gala event of Opening Day, these situational successes should give Cubs fans hope that the slow start is fading and this Cubs team may have what it takes to get back to the top of the division.

Even after the 13 hits yesterday, the club is still hitting a dismal .223, good enough for a tie for 14th in the National League.  However, subsequent situational splits offer a glimmer of hope.  With runners on the Cubs improve, sort of, to .233 (11th in NL) and with runners in scoring position they clobber the ball (not really) at a .250 clip (9th in the NL).  Alright, none of those numbers are what you would call “good” or even “encouraging,” but this last one is.  With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Cubs are hitting .333 (2nd in NL) and that’s where games are won and lost. 

When pitchers are hanging by a thread, like Doug Davis was all day, a team must be able to provide the clutch hits that send him to the showers and open the bullpen gates.  Too often in the recent past, Cubs teams have let pitchers hang around and stay in the game by letting them off the hook with double plays, baserunning mistakes, and by giving away at bats. 

Perhaps yesterday is the early turning point for this team that can provide some momentum and confidence in those all-important situations.  As the saying goes, “two out knocks get you to heaven,” and with enough of them maybe this team will find the promised land of October baseball.

Hendry’s Solutions Create Problems

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During the offseason coming into 2009 the Chicago Cubs and
GM Jim Hendry made a concerted effort to improve their lineup and shake up the
team which was coming off a second consecutive three-game sweep in the Division
Series.  In 2007 the Arizona Diamondbacks
unceremoniously knocked the Cubs out, while the Dodgers were the culprits in
2008.  That 2008 series, and the utter
disaster that was the team’s offense, cemented in many people’s minds the idea
that the Cubs needed to revamp their roster in order to go deep into the
postseason.

 

Keep in mind, that the Cubs had the best record in the
National League, featuring a potent lineup that was the only NL club to score
more than 800 runs.  Also, the
Northsiders’ pitching staff was one of the most consistent and dominant in the
league, leading all NL clubs in strikeouts and tied for second in ERA.  This collection of obviously talented hitters
and pitchers proved, over 162 games, that they were the class of the National
League.  They battled off the Milwaukee
Brewers, who charged hard by riding the coattails of rental star CC Sabathia
and headed into the playoffs as prohibitive favorites. 

 

Everyone liked their dangerous lineup featuring Derrek Lee,
Aramis Ramirez, and led off by the potent Alfonso Soriano, and the only problem
on their staff was who to start in game 1 between Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano,
and the surprising Ryan Dempster.  Within
a week, however, opinions had completely changed.  Suddenly Big Z wasn’t a true ace, Soriano was
too old, and the entire team was too right-handed.  The fact that the Dodgers never once used (or
warmed up) a southpaw was constantly harped on and served as the catalyst for
many of the decisions made during the winter.

 

No one seemed to notice that the Cubs sudden lack of
production coincidentally aligned exactly with their facing the top ERA team in
the NL and 2nd in MLB.  They
also faced an extremely hot team which was flying high and loving life in “Mannywood”
ever since they claimed the superstar from Boston
near the trade deadline.  The Cubs simply
ran into a buzz saw at the wrong time which, coupled with an all too familiar
tightening of the team’s collective sphincter, quickly and painfully erased the
“Cubbie Magic” of the previous six months.

 

Heading into the winter meetings and an offseason of
discontent there was one mission.  Many believed the
team could only truly succeed if it found left-handed hitting consistency.  Kosuke Fukudome had been a disappointment in
his first season in America and despite the myriad of All-Stars throughout the
lineup, including the Rookie of the Year, management decided that six games (2007
and 2008 NLDS) of futility should outweigh 323 games (2007 and 2008 regular
season, only 161 in 2008) of overwhelming evidence that the team was just fine,
and in fact much better than its NL competition.  Hendry and manager Lou Piniella wanted to
freshen things up with some new blood, not a bad decision by any means, but the
way in which they did it has proven to be a total failure.

 

It seems every major move they made has backfired.  The team elected to let go of veteran utility
man Mark DeRosa, a fan and clubhouse favorite who played several infield and
outfield positions at average to above average and provided an additional spark
in the lineup.  DeRosa could always be
counted on to show up and play well, regardless of his spot on the field or in
the lineup and was a calming presence whenever injuries or situations required
some maneuvering.  He was particularly
key in replacing Soriano when he was injured and Fukudome when he was simply ineffective.  Imagine what he could have done in place of
the injured Ramirez this year when instead the team relied  on Mike Fontenot and even Jake Fox, a Triple-A
star with no real position and no discernable defensive aptitude.

 

To take DeRosa’s place came Aaron Miles from the Cardinals.  In addition to coming off a career year in
which he hit .317, Miles fit the necessary left-handed requirement as a switch
hitter and could play both position in the middle infield or even third base if
need be.  So far this year Miles is
hitting a robust .177 and rarely sees the field as a starter due to his lack of
production.  DeRosa, meanwhile, has hit a
combined .260 with 21 HR, 17 2B, and 67 RBIs with the Indians and now the NL
Central-leading Cardinals.  He’s battled
injuries, but will almost certainly come up with at least one key defensive
play and one key hit for St. Louis
in the postseason.

 

Elsewhere on the field, the productive duo of Reed Johnson and
Jim Edmonds was split up when the Cubs let Edmonds
go.  The two had combined to be a
formidable platoon in center field, and Edmonds
provided far more pop than expected at his age. 
Kosuke Fukudome moved to center field (and has had a much more consistent
year in his second campaign, not surprising for a foreign player adapting to a
new culture) while high-priced Milton Bradley took over in right field.  Bradley was to bring not only the necessary
left-handed swing as a switch hitter, but also more power and perhaps more
important a spark and fire that would help carry the team in the postseason and
keep them from the jitters that plagued them the previous two Octobers. 

 

Bradley enjoyed an impressive 2008 with the Texas Rangers,
batting .321, but many of those hits came as a DH and as soon as he signed
questions about his durability as a regular player arose.  Those issues have not arisen as of yet, but
Bradley has had a terrible season from the get-go.  He’s struggled mightily (a second half surge
has him hitting almost .260) and has
battled boos and a perceived lack of support and respect from the home crowd.  Milton’s
personality and the baggage it carries will be gladly accepted when ‘s hitting
.300 with power, but in a season of malaise at Wrigley he’s been the focal
point of much of the frustration.

 

On the other side of the ball, Hendry also made several
questionable moves.  He chose to let go
of steady starter Jason Marquis, who has enjoyed a stellar 2009 with the
Colorado Rockies.  While the breakout of
Marquis is quite surprising, it’s just another example of how Hendry chose to
let all the wrong pieces go, increasing rather than eliminating the team’s
weaknesses.  Additionally, the team let
veteran closer and lifelong Cub Kerry Wood go. 
His trials and tribulations over the past decade are well documented,
but Wood had proven to be a reliable closer in his first full year out of the
pen.  With the spot vacated, the team
picked up Kevin Gregg of Florida
and allowed him to compete with star reliever Carlos Marmol for the big spot.

Falling in line with the rest of the offseason acquisitions,
Gregg has been inconsistent at best, a disaster at worst.  He leads major league relievers in HR allowed
and blew several games before finally losing his job to Marmol.  Since then the club has had little need for a
closer as they’ve spiraled out of both the division and wild card races during
an August tailspin that has them reeling. 
While Kerry Wood has blown five saves to Gregg’s six and actually has a
higher ERA, the fact is Hendry made the decision on who should replace him,
Piniella selected Gregg over Marmol (who’s been bad himself despite keeping the
same role he previously dominated in) and the results on the field have been lackluster.

 

Now, anyone who’s paid attention to the team this year knows
that there’s much more to the poor performance than the utter failure of the
new guys to contribute.  Geovany Soto has
redefined the term sophomore slump with his horrendous play, he was also
injured and missed significant time. 
Additional injuries include Carlos Zambrano, Reed Johnson, Ted Lilly,
Ryan Dempster, and the huge loss of Aramis Ramirez for two months.  Soriano has performed well below expectations
and leaves some wondering if his given birth date is as inaccurate as those of
his countrymen.  Fontenot has performed
as poorly at second base as Miles has, and many of the most significant
contributions have come from players who started the year at Triple-A Iowa,
including Randy Wells, Jake Fox, Bobby Scales, and Jeff Baker.

 

The pitching staff held together for long periods without
run support, but injuries to nearly all the starters and a bullpen with one
reliable pitcher, Angel Guzman, has faltered too many times to remain close in
playoff contention.  There is still
plenty of time for the team to rebound and make a late season run at either the
division or wild card spots.  However,
the Cardinals show no signs of slowing down and there are just too many teams
to jump over in the wild card chase. 
This team shows all the signs of an epic letdown season following one
filled with excitement.  The 2008 team
featured surprising or overachieving seasons by many players.  Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot both played
over their heads, and Geovany Soto figured out Major League pitching much
quicker than anyone expected.  Ryan
Dempster blossomed into a stopper and the injury bug stayed mostly at bay. 

 

This team couldn’t expect such great seasons from so many
players again, but the total collapse of the team all at once has been a
shock.  One has to wonder if the loss of
Wood and DeRosa’s clubhouse presence has been missed as much or more than even
their on field contributions.  Zambrano is
too fiery, Derrek Lee simply a quiet leader, and Aramis Ramirez lets his bat do
the talking.  Perhaps those steady,
reliable vets could have calmed the waters and stopped the bleeding in time to
save the season.  As it is, the team that
was built to win in October can’t get it done from April to September and won’t
get a shot at the postseason.  The taster
of a three-game sweep was bitter, but a six-month train wreck has proven to be
worse.  This winter Jim Hendry doesn’t
have to worry about fixing nonexistent problems.  Now he’s got real issues and must find better
answers than he did a year ago.  If he
can’t, perhaps the real problem isn’t the people in the lineup, but rather the
ones putting that lineup together. 

 

Hendry was able to put together the best team in the
National League, but his shortsightedness and reactionism to a one-week failure
showed a lack of patience and perspective. 
The silver lining has been the play of all the youngsters who’ve had to
fill in this year.  September will
provide a more extended look, and perhaps that is the new blood necessary for a
return to the top of the Central.

Chicago Cubs: Rally Assassins

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            The Chicago
Cubs have thus far been one of the bigger disappointments of this Major League
season.  They were expected to dominate
the NL Central this year on their way to a third consecutive division crown.  However, little has gone the Cubs way this
year and they’ve stumbled to a 31-31 record as of June 18 that has them in 4th
place in the Central, 4 games back. 

 

            Part of the
problem has been the team’s inability to field a complete and healthy squad
almost the entire year.  Aramis Ramirez
is still out with a dislocated shoulder, suffered way back on May 8.  He isn’t expected back until early July at
the soonest.  He’s been the team’s best
and most clutch hitter for the past several years and is a major catalyst that
they’ve sorely missed.  Derrek Lee has
missed time with various sicknesses and ailments, and Milton Bradley has been
either injured or incredibly unproductive. 
Even Carlos Zambrano missed a week when he was suspended for losing his
mind during a start a couple weeks ago. 
This team has barely seen its projected regular lineup all together this
season.

 

            Despite the
lengthy injury report, though, the Cubs real problem has been a complete lack
of timely hitting and the ability to create productive at bats in key
situations.  Anecdotally I can tell you
that this team seems to produce fewer runs from situations with less than two
outs and the bases loaded or runners in scoring position than any other in the
league.  Time and again they either
completely fail to put the ball in play or rap into tailor-made double plays to
end innings.  The Cubs aren’t rally
killers, they’re rally assassins.  They
can eliminate scoring opportunities with deadly precision and uncanny
consistency. 

 

            They are
hitting .227 with runners in scoring position, good enough for dead last in
MLB.  With the bases loaded they’re
hitting .250, but they’ve struck out 21 times in only 76 bases loaded at
bats.  They’ve hit into double plays with
the bases loaded more times (6) than they’ve hit sacrifice flies (5).  They’ve either struck out or grounded into
double plays in 35% of their bases loaded at bats.  That shows a complete team-wide inability or
refusal to take a good approach and simply produce productive at bats which
stems from their lack of discipline and inability to adjust.

 

Soriano refuses to take outside
pitches the other way and instead insists on striking out on breaking pitches
several inches outside on a regular basis. 
Soto has shown no ability to make adjustments as the league has caught
up to him in his second full year.  Lee has
not regained his ability to drive pitches that suddenly disappeared two years
ago.  Bradley has been his usual surly
self, but hasn’t produced anything to offset that attitude.  Only Fukudome has improved from last year,
when he performed well below expectations.

 

As a team, the Cubs are hitting a
putrid .244, 14th in the NL and 27th overall.  They have 64 HR, 9th in the NL and
19th in MLB.  Their SLG
(.394), OBP (.321), XBH (175), and Runs (254) rank 11th, 12th,
14th, and 15th in the NL respectively and 22nd,
23rd, 25th, and 28th in MLB.  This is a team that scored 855 runs in 2008,
2nd in MLB and the only NL team to score more than 800.  They’re featuring essentially the exact same
lineup.  Lee, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano,
Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot were all regulars
last year, only Bradley, expected to be an upgrade in right field, is new to
the lineup on an everyday basis. 

 

            The lineup
has provided equal opportunity futility from top (Soriano: .225 AVG, .291 OBP
in the leadoff spot) to bottom (last year’s Rookie of the Year Soto: .217 AVG,
3 HR, 16 RBI).  Even occasional bright
spots, like Lee’s recent hitting streak that has his average all the way up to
(yes, up to) .277 has been offset by the continued ineptitude of the other
hitters in the lineup. 

 

The Cubs are 6-7 in June and have
averaged just over three runs per game this month.  They should consider themselves lucky that
the pitching staff has performed well enough to allow them to win 6 of those
games.  They’ve allowed just over three
runs per game in June, too.  Three of
those wins were veritable onslaughts in which they scored 6 twice and 7 once.  In the other three wins they managed three
runs twice and two runs once with their pitchers providing outstanding
performances to carry the offense. 

 

Look even closer and you’ll see
that the staff did more than just pitch. 
In the 2-1 victory on June 5, Carlos Zambrano hit the eventual
game-winning homer for himself.  On June
7 and June 9, both wins, each Cubs starter (Randy Wells and Ted Lilly) had a
hit and a run scored.  Perhaps the big
changes that Lou Piniella has hinted at include implementing a lineup with his
starting pitchers batting in the 5-9 spots.

 

Throughout any year a pitching
staff must carry its lineup for a period and vice versa, but this year has been
a season-long failure for the Cubs offense and it’s forced the pitchers to work
with a razor-thin margin of error.  Randy
Wells, for example, has started seven times, averaged six innings per start and
has an excellent 2.55 ERA as a fill in for Rich Harden, yet he’s 0-3 and has
yet to record his first Major League win, though in nearly every start he’s
made a quality start and put his team in position to win.

 

Without an offense to support their
solid pitching, this Cubs team is going nowhere and with the talent and big names
throughout their lineup they can only be viewed thus far as a tremendous
failure.  A second-half turnaround could
put them back in contention in the mediocre NL Central, but nothing about this
team’s play suggests it will improve on the well-documented failures of the
previous two seasons.  It looks like next
year is still over the horizon for the faithful in Wrigleyville.

 

Matt Wieters Gets the Call

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So Friday is officially the day the Next Big Thing arrives
in Baltimore.  Matt Wieters, Baseball America’s
top prospect officially arrives in the Show against Detroit
on Friday.  We’ll see whether that’s the
day he actually makes his debut, but I wouldn’t bet against it with Andy
MacPhail saying the team is not bringing Wieters up to sit and watch.  He’ll likely quickly be inserted as the
regular starting catcher and the team is going to let him see what he can do at
the top level.  He’s been great at each
stop along the Minor League ladder and now the Orioles are ready to introduce him
to the world.  Through May 27 he’s
hitting .305 with 5 HR and 30 RBI at Triple-A Norfolk.  Clearly this kid looks like everything he’s
cracked up to be. 

 

He dominated two levels of Minor League baseball last year
and with a 4-for-4, 4 RBI Tuesday night he showed that the imminent call up
hasn’t fazed him yet.  He’ll spend the
next few days staying healthy while the clubbies with the Big Club get
everything ready for what everyone hopes will be a permanent stop at Camden.

 

As someone who personally picked Wieters as the AL Rookie of
the Year, I’m expecting big things from him. 
However, I think Wieters is similar to Stephen Strasburg in that even a successful
rookie campaign may not live up to the gargantuan expectations.  A scout was quoted earlier this spring saying
that Wieters is “Joe Mauer with power.” 
(This was before Joe Mauer returned to lay claim to the title of “Joe
Mauer With Power”) 

 

Never mind that Joe Mauer has already won two batting
titles, two Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and is a two-time All-Star.  Mauer is currently hitting .429 with 11 HR, 31
RBI, .881 SLG, and 1.400 OPS.  He could
be on his way to a first MVP and his best season ever.  Wieters is being compared to, perhaps, the
best catcher in the last 25 years, a guy who is both an offensive and defensive
prodigy.  Even if Wieters plays
reasonably well and is a contributor some will think he’s a bust if he doesn’t
start earning hardware immediately.

 

Think of the enormous task in front of this kid who,
remember, just turned 23 six days ago. 
Not only is he going to be dealing with the pressure and nerves of his
first Major League action, but he’s expected to step in as a regular starter at
the most demanding position in baseball. 
He’ll be trying to learn the pitches, tendencies, and demeanor of an
entire staff, many of whom he’s never caught, while simultaneously learning the
scouting reports of every hitter on every team he faces and figuring out how to
get them out.  While that’s happening he’s
expected to continue hitting at the torrid pace he’s set in the Minor Leagues,
even though he’ll be facing better pitchers who he’s never seen before and
trying to learn the scouting reports on them as well.  Oh, and also he’s expected to be the savior
of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since he was playing Little
League.

 

Wieters has enjoyed almost immediate success his entire
life, but even if he gets off to a quick start, he’ll still have to prove
himself everyday.  A young catcher in the
National League is struggling mightily this year and he’s already been in the
league for a full season.  Last year’s NL
Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto of the Cubs, is currently hitting just .214
with 1 HR thus far after last year’s incredible season in which he hit .285
with 86 RBI and 23 HR.  Soto has failed
to make adjustments early on and has been put into a semi-platoon with Koyie
Hill after starting the season with a terrible April.  Soto’s success came as a big surprise last
year, but now the league is on to him and he’ll have to show that he can stay
one step ahead and find the stroke that made him so valuable last year.  Wieters notoriety as a top prospect and the
media buzz that will surround him won’t give him the chance to surprise anyone.
 Opposing pitchers will know about him
and will have detailed scouting reports immediately available.

 

Being a Major League catcher is a demanding enough position
physically, what with crouching a couple hundred times each day, taking foul
tips off the mask, shins, and chest, blocking pitches, throwing out runners, and
toss in an occasional collision at home plate. 
When you add the mental strain that Wieters will be under as he tries to
acclimate himself to his teammates, coaching staff, the media, fans, and
opposition, it’s almost impossible to imagine him being able to maintain
anything close to what he’s done so far. 
The fact that the Orioles are bringing him up shows their tremendous
belief in his abilities both on the field and between his ears.  Wieters will have several things in his favor
that may ease the transition.

 

First, he’s clearly a unique talent.  Not just anyone can be compared favorably to
Joe Mauer and obviously Wieters has shown that he can dominate at any level he’s
seen.  Also, the Orioles are still bad enough
that his performance won’t affect their season either way, so there’s no
additional pressure of playoff contention. 
It will be at least next year before Baltimore
can look at moving into the top three in their own division, let alone contend
for bigger things.  Another big help will
be all the young stars surrounding Wieters in the Baltimore
clubhouse that I wrote about last week. 
He should find it easy to fit in with guys who’ve come up not much more
recently than himself and their ability to immediately contribute may rub off
on him.  Comfort can play a big role in a
young player’s ability to adapt.  Wieters
should find a welcoming atmosphere as his teammates are as eager to see him
(with the possible exceptions of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller) as the fans
are. 

 

Once Wieters gets settled and finds some normalcy in his new
routine people around baseball will expect big things from him.  I hope we’ve got another bright young talent
to watch, but I expect it will be some time before we see just what this kid
can do on the big stage.  If the reports
are true, the other teams in the AL East might want to savor whatever length of
time it takes him to get comfortable.

 

Wait, it’s illegal to NOT hit a batter?

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If Major League Baseball takes action against White Sox
pitcher Bobby Jenks for throwing behind the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler it will be
just another step in a long line of removing power from pitchers and giving
hitters one more reason to dig and crowd the plate.  Jenks admitted that he had intentionally
thrown behind Kinsler in Saturday night’s game to send a message that he didn’t
like Texas pitchers hitting his
teammates.  Kinsler was not hit and Jenks
proceeded to induce a pop out and finish the game.  Jenks was simply trying to convey that he’ll
defend his teammates and retaliate in kind when they’re disrespected.  This has been part of the game of baseball
since Abner Doubleday started drawing up the rules.  However, in recent years numerous crackdowns
have always sided with hitters and continue to weaken pitchers’ ability to
defend themselves and stick up for their teammates.

 

I am not in favor of headhunting or deliberately trying to
take a guy’s head off, but pitching inside is part of the game of baseball and
if pitchers are unable to do so hitters will become more and more comfortable
and pitchers will become more vulnerable. 
Ever since the lowering of the mound 40 years ago, pitchers have
consistently been forced to adapt to rules changes and an evolution of the game
that has been exclusively pro-offense. 
Among the evolutions are better bats, harder balls, steroids, protective
armor and smaller parks.  These changes,
though not legislated by MLB, have led to a constant increase in offensive
firepower with no offsets to aid the pitchers. 

 

Additionally, MLB has instituted rules that have hurt
pitchers even more.  Umpires, under the
orders of MLB, now routinely warn both dugouts after a single batter is hit that
any retaliation will result in automatic ejection for both the pitcher and
manager.  However, umpires do not enforce
these rules with any consistency, and often the only result is that pitchers
are hung out to dry, unable to pitch inside with authority, lest they be
ejected by an umpire with an itchy trigger finger.

 

The ejection is no deterrent to a pitcher or manager who
wants to protect his team.  Hitters are
regularly plunked following bench warnings as pitchers consider the respect of
their teammates more important than avoiding an ejection.  The real result is that pitchers must
avoid the inner half of the plate and hitters, secure in the knowledge that the
warning is in effect, crowd the plate and dive toward the outer half.  What’s worse, the bench warning rule puts
umpires in a terrible position to determine “intent” on any pitch that comes
close to a hitter.  I’ve seen pitchers
ejected automatically for hitting a batter with an 82 mph curveball.  Anyone who’s played the game at a level
beyond T-ball understands you don’t hit a guy with a curveball if you want to
send a message, but either umpires don’t understand the rule or they don’t
understand the game, either scenario is a bad thing for MLB.  Why not let the players sort things out like they always have?

 

In this instance, though, Jenks didn’t even hit
anybody.  He merely was trying to show
that he’s sick of his teammates being drilled. 
He wanted the Rangers to know that if they want to continue they can
anticipate an upper 90s fastball in the ribs.  This is the way the game should be
played.  There is no better deterrent to
reckless and dangerous actions than the fear of “getting yours.”  This is one reason I’m a staunch opponent of
the designated hitter.  If pitchers have
to face the music themselves every three innings, they’ll think twice about
dotting a guy’s head.  Since the DH isn’t
going anywhere, the next best target is a team’s best hitter.  If a pitcher doesn’t have to worry about his
own ribs getting smashed, he’ll definitely want to ensure that he doesn’t have
a clubhouse full of guys taking his medicine for him.  If MLB would allow the players to police
themselves, much the way NHL enforcers keep
star players from being cheapshotted, they’ll be able to keep the order.  Violators of the “code” are dealt with
accordingly.  These vain attempts to
control the game and ensure civility are clearly implemented by those who have
no understanding of how things work within the game and among teams.

 

If a hitter shows up a pitcher he should expect to have
things handled on the field.  If a
pitcher, however, decides to go rogue and headhunt, he’ll either have to answer
for it himself (NL) or hang his teammates out to dry (AL).  In either case, he’ll shape up quickly or his
teammates will ensure that he does.  This is how things were handled for decades
and it should be allowed to continue.  The idea that MLB needs to play the role of hall
monitor is silly.  An ejection or fine
means nothing to these guys.  Their
personal health and safety and their teammates’ respect will change their
behavior quickly. 

 

If MLB fines or suspends Jenks for NOT hitting a batter, it will be just the latest in a decades long
attempt to reign in a natural part of the game and will only serve to make
hitters that much more eager to get to the plate.  It’s another case of trying to “protect”
hitters, you know, the guys with helmets, elbow guards, and big clubs in their
hands.  The irony is that all this
legislation actually puts pitchers in more danger than anybody.  Line drives come off a bat at well over 100
mph toward a pitcher standing about 55 feet away after his follow through and
he’s not wearing a helmet or any of the ridiculous armor that Barry Bonds made
popular.  We’ve already seen numerous
guys nearly killed in such scenarios and the more MLB caters to hitters and removes
the possibility that they’ll be in any way inconvenienced in their attempt to
tear the cover off the ball; the more likely we are to see pitchers get
drilled, figuratively and literally.

 

If a pitcher throws at someone’s head simply because he doesn’t like a
guy or he is mad that he just gave up a 450-foot home run, he should be
disciplined, and the league should make an effort to protect players from
deliberate injury.  Fines and suspensions
are merited for brawls and deliberate attempts to injure.  However, to punish a pitcher for sticking up
for his team, and to remove the players’ ability to handle things themselves on
the field hurts the integrity of the game. 
Jenks’ intent wasn’t to injure.  He
meant to miss and he did so very effectively. 
He intended to let the Rangers know he didn’t like their behavior and
that there were consequences for disrespecting his guys.  Bud Selig needs to allow the game to take
care of itself.  It has worked for
decades and the unclear, artificial, inconsistent rules that MLB has tried to
enforce clearly do not.  We need to let things be taken care of between the lines, Biblical style; an eye for an eye, or a rib for a rib.

Greinke Dazzles on Monday Night

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You’ll probably be able to find almost a dozen different
articles Tuesday about Zack Greinke’s latest exceptional performance.  He absolutely owned the White Sox in a
complete game, ten strikeout, zero walk, masterpiece.  At no time during the night did he appear
troubled or particularly challenged.  He
scattered a few broken bat singles, but little else.  The three run lead may as well have been
eight.  However, I don’t want to discuss
all that or his season in total today. 

 

I want to provide a different perspective in two ways:  First, I was there in person and got to
experience the magic with my own eyes. 
Secondly, I want to focus only on two specific sequences that I feel sum
up everything that defines a dominant pitcher in three at-bats.

 

The first sequence that I cannot stop thinking about is
Greinke’s strikeout of Alexei Ramirez to begin the third inning.  Greinke fell behind 1-0.  The next pitch was a 93 mph fastball inches
below Ramirez’s chin that sent him sprawling to the ground and his bat rolling
in the dirt.  After picking himself up
and dusting himself off Ramirez decided he’d rather be anywhere in the world
than at Kaufmann Stadium in the batter’s box. 
Greinke had pinpoint control all night (0 BB) and several times brushed
hitters back with high heat, but none were as effective as that pitch to
Ramirez.  The next pitch was a 72 mph
curveball on the outside corner for a strike, followed by a 75 mph curveball on
the inside corner that had Ramirez buckling like a little leaguer.  The final pitch was a slider away at about 86
mph that Ramirez waved at weakly.  It was
the most overmatched I’ve ever seen a Major League hitter.  Greinke dominated the inner half of the plate
all night, clearly sending a message that he was not to be challenged and prodigious
hitters Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and A.J. Pierzynski offered no more of a challenge
than young Alexei, striking out four times between them.

 

The second occasion of sheer brilliance came in the eighth
inning, the only time the White Sox appeared to challenge Greinke at all.  The inning began with back-to-back singles,
bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs.  I’d been watching Greinke’s velocity all
night, noting that he hit 96 mph on the first hitter of the game and then
pitched at 92-94 all night, seemingly on cruise control through the
ballgame.  Now, however, he reached back
and found that extra gear that only the elite pitchers seem to have available
for special occasions.  The next four
pitches were 95, 96, 96, and 95.  These
yielded a double play and put Greinke at 1-1 on pinch hitter Wilson
Betemit.  He followed with two straight curveballs
that broke onto the shoetops of the left-handed hitter.  Betemit swung and missed on both, missing the
ball by a combined total of about five feet.

 

These two isolated instances are all that’s necessary to
understand just what kind of confidence and command Greinke has through his
first six starts.  By looking at these
three at-bats alone one would know exactly how the White Sox fared on this
night.  All the best pitchers throughout
the history of the game have had three traits that allowed them to pitch out of
any jam, against any hitter, at any time. 

 

The first is the ability to control the inner part of the
plate.  Greinke shows a willingness to do
this more than any other young pitcher today. 
He has pinpoint control allowing him to come inches from a hitter’s chin
without hitting him and then he can use his ridiculously varied breaking
pitches to turn great hitters into floundering buffoons. 

 

Secondly, Greinke can throw any pitch in any count in order
to get an out.  His curveball, ranging
from 62-82 mph is almost a repertoire in itself.  Add to that a hard slider and mid-90s
fastball and his mix of pitches is equal to anyone throwing in the bigs right
now.  Hitters, even when ahead in the
count, cannot sit on anything.  Greinke
loves to throw first pitch breaking balls, putting the hitter on the defensive
and allowing him to do whatever he wants the rest of the at-bat.

 

Finally, Greinke has the ability to reach back and find a
vital 2-3 extra mph for game-changing at-bats. 
He looked completely at ease, like a man in a rocking chair throwing 92-94
through seven innings Monday.  Then, just
when it seemed he might be tiring and the Sox may be catching up the third time
through the lineup, he pumps four straight four-seam fastballs and earns a
tailor-made double play and sets up another hitter for his wicked slider to
punctuate the eighth inning and essentially put the game on ice.  The ninth was the cherry on top.  More for the crowd to stand, applaud, and take
in the atmosphere of a truly phenomenal pitching performance.

 

The results are obvious to any casual fan.  He went all nine, gave up nothing, struck out
ten and walked none.  However, it’s his
sequencing, his mental acuity, and his feel for the game that separate his
performances from others; the subtleties of this performance that can be truly
appreciated by students of the game.  The
ability to know when to knock a man down, when to find that extra gear, and
when to drop in a sub-70 mph floater are the signs of a developing artist who’s
refining his craft and just beginning to realize the potential of his wealth of
talent.  Greinke’s outings are not be
missed by anyone with a love of baseball and an appreciation for the
indescribable skill of the game’s greatest players.