Tagged: National League

Clippard Posting Astounding Season

Typically middle relievers only get noticed when they do something terrible like blow a lead, walk in a run, or otherwise screw up a perfectly good start for the starter or a potential save opportunity for the closer.  Like umpires, if we know the names of middle relievers it’s usually a bad sign, just ask the Royals relief squad. 

Tyler Clippard, however, has transitioned from a starter on the most recognizable American sports franchise, to a middle reliever on perhaps its most dubious and somehow has gained more recognition, and even more astounding it’s positive recognition.  After another late-inning rally by the suddenly feisty Nationals, Tyler Clippard, not Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, or even Big Time Timmy Jim Lincecum leads all of Major League Baseball with seven wins.  This is the same Tyler Clippard who announced his presence with authority as an up-and-comer for the Yankees in 2007 and pitched his way to the bullpen in Washington in less than two years.

Last year he had a fine season, pitching 60.1 innings in 41 games and compiling a 2.69 ERA.  This year, though, he’s out of his mind.  In addition to the absurd record he’s allowing opposing hitters a tiny .188/.294/.291 (AVG/SLG/OBP).  His WHIP is 1.12 and he’s struck out 30 to only 12 walks.  Of course, his incredible win total is due in part to his losing a few leads (he has 0 saves in 5 opportunities) and being in the right place at the right time to get credit for victories when the team has come back late.  It also doesn’t hurt that once he leaves the game with the lead he’s followed by the best closer in baseball so far this season, Matt Capps.

However he’s getting it done, both he and the Nationals will take it.  The starters may be giving him a hard time about being the win vulture, swooping in and stealing their Ws, but this franchise will take them any way they can get them.  With their potential front end starter finishing his apprenticeship in Syracuse, the dominance of Clippard and Capps in the back of the bullpen adds another ray of hope to the Nationals increasingly bright future.

Livan’s Surprise Start Defies Logic

When I look at the league leaders online or in the newspaper (yeah, they still exist) I see what fans see every year during April, a surprising collection of names that usually disappear by the time school lets out.  Scott Podsednik and Pudge Rodriguez hitting .449?  And even though I know it’s early and things will begin to level out and make sense within a few weeks, I still can’t help but be shocked by this line, ERA: 1. Hernandez, WSH, 0.75.  What!? 

That’s Livan Hernandez, pitching for his fifth team since 2006, back with Washington for a second go-round.  He’s 2-1 and is incredibly getting hitters out consistently.  He’s averaging eight innings per start and has thrown a complete game shutout already.  Allow me to channel my inner John McEnroe; You cannot be serious!  Isn’t this the same guy who allowed approximately six hits per inning over the last several years?  Isn’t he the guy who throws a mid-80s fastball and an assortment of junk similar to the guys I see in city leagues across the metro Kansas City area?

It’s true, 35 year old Livan Hernandez has apparently found the fountain of youth and is enjoying a start that no one could have predicted.  Over his last four seasons, Hernandez has essentially been a glorified batting practice pitcher, but has somehow guiled and gutted his way into double digit wins three times, though he’s posted double digit losses all four years and compiled a 46-47 overall record.  His batting average against over that time is stunning, .288, .308, .342, and .308 from 2006-2009.  His ERA is a robust 5.28 over that time, but considering the way hitters have been teeing off on him it’s surprising it’s not worse.

So what’s the key to his turnaround this year?  Has he suddenly regained his fastball or retooled his repertoire?  Has he begun a top secret HGH regimen?  Is it really Stephen Strasburg in disguise?  I believe, in fact, the answer is much more mundane than any of those possibilities.  It’s just plain dumb luck. 

Hernandez is dominating opposing hitters with an unreal .159 batting average against, third best in all of baseball.  His WHIP is a stellar 0.83, a shade over half of his career average.  However, a closer look shows that he also has the third best BABIP in Major League Baseball with a ridiculous .180, which means that eventually those atom balls that have been finding gloves will turn into bleeders and gorks that find holes.  Before long, opposing hitters will start “hitting ’em where they ain’t,” and feasting upon Livan’s fat fastballs as they have for much of the past decade.

Now usually I’d say that three straight starts like Livan has had is a trend and not a fluke, and he has faced three legitimate teams, including a shutout against the potent Brewers lineup that just napalmed the Pirates staff this week.  However, with the combination of his history and the good fortune that he’s had so far, I can’t imagine this charade lasting much longer.  Only thrice in fourteen full seasons has he had fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and I expect things to return to normalcy soon.

He usually doesn’t hurt himself with walks, but with a team behind him that’s still building and a pedestrian offense, Livan should enjoy this month while he can.  I expect the rest of the summer will be much like the last several have been and Livan will find himself running to back up bases as opposing hitters fight at the bat rack for a chance to face him.

Heyward Makes the Cut

It’s now official that Spring Training sensation Jason Heyward, an Atlanta Braves outfielder, will make the Opening Day roster for the big club.  Manager Bobby Cox further said that Heyward will be playing regularly as the team’s everyday right fielder against lefties or righties.  It’s no surprise that the phenom is getting his shot, but the way he’s taken the Grapefruit League by storm this spring is impressive.

After a 2009 during which he rocketed from Class A all the way to AAA and was subsequently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, Heyward was expected to continue his growth.  The shows he’s put on in Florida, however, have exceeded expectations.  His 450+ foot shot earlier this spring is already legendary and the Braves organization hasn’t shied away from questions about his ability and potential the way most clubs do to protect their young stars.

His organization, his manager, and his teammates are impressed and they’re expecting him to give them some pop in his first look at the big leagues.  Heyward, by all accounts, is handling the attention, the incredible comparisons, and the mounting expectations quite well.  He’s a well-grounded kid with a great demeanor, excellent work ethic, and a quiet confidence that he’ll adapt and find his comfort zone quickly at the next level.

Heyward has all the tools for success and coming up through the Braves organization should only help him.  Booby Cox is one of the most successful skippers in Major League history and veterans like Chipper Jones should be able to help Heyward make the adjustments to life in the show. 

One must remember, though, that Heyward won’t turn 21 until August and he still will face the challenges of any young player seeing Major League arms day after day.  He’s ripped the cover off the ball at every level, but this is an entirely different animal.  The NL East doesn’t have the greatest collection of arms, but he will see Roy Halladay several times as well as nasty lefties Cole Hamels and Johan Santana (if he’s healthy).

It’ll be interesting to see how he fares early on and how quickly pitchers can find ways to get him out.  He’ll be a hot pick for Rookie of the Year coming out of the gate, but I expect the typical development curve with his share of droughts and tough stretches.  However, with his physical (6’4″ , 245 lbs) and athletic tools he will punish any mistakes he sees and will get plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.

If he does have a regular season similar to what he’s done this spring, he will give the Braves a much-needed boost in their attempt to regain the NL East crown and he’ll provide plenty of fireworks and excitement for the always apathetic fans of Atlanta.

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.

Petco Graveyard Can’t Hold Adrian Gonzalez

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            It’s no
secret that Adrian Gonzalez is blossoming into one of the brightest stars in
the game, though his 4th place position in the NL All-Star first
base balloting suggests that a few more should turn a watchful eye to San
Diego.  I’m not
going into the issue of whether he deserves to start in the All-Star Game,
though clearly he’s one of the National League’s most dominant players at any
position right now.  With Albert Pujols
on the host team and Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and even Joey Votto playing at
first base, there’s essentially no bad vote at the position, and that’s without
mentioning the struggling Derrek Lee, a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold
Glove winner. 

 

I don’t see a more stacked position anywhere in baseball
than first base in the National League, and most of them still have their best
seasons ahead of them.  I want to talk
more about the games that do matter, and even though many may argue Padres
games don’t mean all that much due to the team’s dismal prospects, that simply highlights
how incredible it is that Gonzalez has been able to achieve such success this
year.  Not that it’s a total surprise to
those who’ve been paying attention.  For
three years running Gonzalez has improved both his RBI (82, 100, 119) and HR
(24, 30, 36) totals and this year he’s on pace to top his career bests again.  He’s become a dynamic talent and he just
turned 27 last month, so he may have another decade in the league ahead of him.

           

            The most
remarkable thing about his numbers is not that he can smash so many home runs
while playing half his games at the graveyard that is Petco
Park, though I do submit that that
is impressive.  The more noteworthy thing
to me is that he’s able to maintain such a torrid offensive pace with
essentially zero supporting characters around him.  San Diego is currently hitting a Major League
worst .236 as a team and the hitters that typically surround Gonzalez in the
lineup include Scott Hairston, David Eckstein, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Brian
Giles.  While they’re all serviceable and
effective Major League players, they’re not exactly a latter day Murderer’s
Row.  The team has a total of 59 HR, with
22 of them by Gonzalez himself.  That’s
38% of the team’s home runs by one guy, far and away the best in the league.

 

Hairston is currently hitting .327
(though with too few at bats to qualify among league leaders), but Eckstein is
at .258, Kouzmanoff .224, and Giles is languishing behind Mr. Mendoza at
.194.  Clearly opposing pitchers have
more than enough reason to avoid Gonzalez and his .279/.422/.632 (AVG/OBP/SLG)
and they’ve employed a Bondsian strategy, walking Gonzalez a Major League
leading 49 times, five more than the oft-intentionally passed Albert Pujols
with whom Gonzalez’s numbers are beginning to be compared.

 

It would be premature to say that
Gonzalez has equaled Albert as the best hitter in the National League, and
given Pujols’ tremendous talent Gonzalez may never reach those heights, but
their numbers make for good comparisons this season.  Both are clearly the focal points of their
respective lineups.  Pujols is often
given credit for succeeding without tremendous support, but even with a rash of
injuries to his teammates Pujols has been able to rely on the likes of Ryan
Ludwick and Rick Ankiel who offer more protection than Gonzalez’s motley crew.  The Cardinals are hitting .253 as a team, 21st
best in the Majors.  Pujols also plays in
a slightly more hitter-friendly park and on a more competitive team overall.  This season, though, Gonzalez has more than
held his own in a number of categories.

 

 

AB

AVG

SLG

OPS

BB

HR

XBH

RBI

RUNS

Gonzalez

201

.279

.632

1.054

49

22

27

43

42

Pujols

200

.320

.655

1.095

44

18

31

51

44

 

While Albert still holds an edge in
nearly every category, just the fact that we can respectably compare Gonzalez’s
numbers to Pujols shows how great he’s been. 
We’ll see if he continues to capitalize on the small number of good
pitches he sees each week or if pitchers take an even more submissive approach
and decide to try their luck with his subpar supporting cast.

 

Adrian Gonzalez has been among the
very few things to cheer about in San Diego
this season and it would be good for him and the league if he gets a shot to
showcase his skills at the All-Star Game and perhaps even go toe-to-toe with
Pujols in the Home Run Derby.  He’s a
lock as the best player on a bad team that must send a representative, but he’s
no undeserving roster filler.  Adrian
Gonzalez has quietly excelled for three seasons in San
Diego, but with a phenomenal year like he’s putting together,
he won’t be able to avoid the spotlight any longer.  As San Diego
looks to rebuild their team and get back to the playoffs they’ve certainly got
a solid cornerstone for their foundation and one that should be around for many
years to come.