Friday, June 21, 2013

Heinous Whiffs, Huge Dingers, Throwing Leather. Or How I Learned to Relax and Love Pedro.

(photo:  Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)
He whiffs too much.

He's undisciplined at the plate.

His batting average is too low.

He can't lay off the high heat.

He can't hit a curveball.

He looks bad striking out.

Am I missing any of the routine criticisms of Pirates 3rd baseman, Pedro Alvarez? I'm sure I'm missing some; the Pedro hate seems to be endless. If you're a Pedro hater, I was once like you, more a basher than a hater really, but I was highly skeptical of his ability to ever turn into a proper MLB player. I didn't think he had good pitch recognition and I honestly didn't know if that could be fixed, or even improved, to say nothing of his defensive short-comings. But I've come to a place of peace and tranquility vis-a-vis young Pedro.

You can, too.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the fact that Pedro Alvarez is a streaky hitter.

That is the largest part of the serenity plan, simply accepting that Alvarez is streaky and, here's where it get's tricky, trusting that the dips and valleys are finite and generally followed by hot streaks. You have to believe deep in your soul that no matter how bad he looks whiffing one week, you'll be fist bumping two weeks later watching one majestic homer after another. Putting your faith in this, I will admit, is no small task. It can be done. He may not hit taters and drill doubles into the gap on your timetable, but he most assuredly will do so. Just try to muddle through the lulls and enjoy the highs.

(photo:  Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images North America)
He also, will most assuredly strike out and sometimes look really bad in so doing. Pedro has struck out 84 times in 224 plate appearances this year, which means, if you turn on a Buccos game, you are likely to see Petey whiff. Not to mention that the ratio of SO to ABs is up from last year. [This year, it's one SO per every 2.67 AB; in 2012 it was one SO per every 2.91 AB.]

But Pedro is not alone. Increasing strike out rates are blowing through MLB like swine flu, er, H1N1. Here's ESPN's baseball guru, Tim Kurkjian on the rise in strike outs, league-wide:
The start of this striKeout craze came in 1986-87 when Rob Deer, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder, Bo Jackson and Jim Presley started playing every day. Each strucK out 150 times a year but hit 20 to 30 homers; and as quickly as a Bryce Harper home run leaves the ballpark, it was OK to K. Since then, the striKeout rate has steadily climbed to where it is now: a pace that will make 2013 the biggest striKeout season ever. Through May, the nine biggest striKeout months in history had been the past nine months. In April, there were 15.29 striKeouts per game, five more per game than the average in the 1980s. May (14.98 per game) and the first half of June (15.01) were hardly better. It's an epidemic that, at this pace, has no cure.
Beyond which, the Pirates as a club are strike out machines, ranking behind only the Astros, Braves and Red Sox in sheer numbers.

You can talk to me about the good old days all you want, remind me that the great Ted Williams hit 37 four-baggers in the same season that he hit .403, and that he never struck out more than 64 times in a season. Think about that -- one of the great power hitters of all time struck out on average 50 times  season. Fifty!  Pedro is a good player, but he's no Ted Williams. There has never been another like him and I doubt there ever will be. In this day and age, power hitters strike out. A ton.

Would I like to see Pedro strike out less? Yes. At the very least, I'd like that strike out ratio to climb back to a more respectable 1:3. In the meantime, I'm watching his OPS climb to where it needs to be (by my estimate around .900 and I think it will get there.) There's been a steady increase through the season -- OPS in April? .560. OPS in May? .794. OPS in June (so far)? .979.
(photo:  Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Leaving behind all the sabermetrics for a moment, let's acknowledge that even if you didn't have any numbers in front of you, didn't have access to them, and, in fact, were not even permitted to crunch numbers, you'd have to acknowledge that Pedro is a different hitter in 2013 than he was in 2012 and in 2011. Not hugely different. Not like the difference between, say, 'Breaking Bad,' and 'True Blood'; more like the difference between season one of 'Justifed', which was smart, funny entertainment, and season two, which was smart, funny and entertaining, but which also had more richness and nuance than the first season. [When grappling with tough baseball analogies, always go cable network drama, I say.]

He has become an asset in the field, making some nice picks along the line and using that howitzer of an arm to wing on-target throws to 1st base. This is no small thing. With the starting rotation held together with Clint Hurdle's left over chewing gum, cotton candy and free t-shirts (currently, AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriquez and Jeanmar Gomez are all on the DL), they need all the help they can get manufacturing outs in the field.

Yesterday, the Pirates needed to find a way to split a four-game series with the Reds. If there can be such a thing as a 'must win' game around the solstice, to my mind, this was it. Because of their baggage, 20 years of losing ways, a solid 18 years of being the doormats of the NL, some games are important on a psychic level. The Reds love pushing around the Pirates. They like beating them and they love to intimidate them. Which is why I think it was important for the Bucs to get a split in that little bandbox they call Great American. And nobody came up bigger than Pedro Alvarez.

In a few weeks, he'll hit a mini-slump, Hurdle will have to drop him back down to 6th in the batting order, and everybody will lose their minds. But a few days or weeks after that, he'll snap out of it, start crushing balls, and turning in multiple RBI games. Of that, I have faith.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Reds and Aroldis Chapman Go Headhunting. Again.

My high school principal, the great Sr. Regina Claire, used to say, 'if wishes were horses, we'd all be riders.' I'm not quite sure what that meant, but to that I would add, if baseball were hockey, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman would be a cheap-shotting, head-hunting dirtbag. He is a goon in a ballcap. Plain and simple. It seems that every time I turn on a Reds game, Chapman, who has nasty, wicked stuff and frequently hits 100 mph on the radar gun, is throwing at somebody and usually right at their heads. Here he is throwing at Nick Swisher's head. And here he is drilling Andrew McCutchen in the shoulder. I could do this all day, by the way.

The problem isn't merely Chapman (although he's the most egregious of the bunch), but the entire Reds pitching staff. And it's been going on for some time. A couple of weeks ago, Reds starter Johnny Cueto didn't like the looks of Cub David DeJesus, or some such utter BS or perceived slight, and threw over his head. Last season, the day after Chapman drilled McCutchen up high (the above video), starting pitcher Mike Leake hit second baseman Josh Harrison. The day after that, Homer Bailey hit (then) Pirates catcher Rod Barajas, and later in that same game, Reds reliever Alfredo Simon hit Starling Marte.

Last night, the Reds were at it again. In the 4th inning, Leake threw at and successfully hit McCutchen, who must feel like he's wearing nothing but a giant bull's eye the moment he sets foot in Cincy. In the 9th inning, Chapman rooted around in his typical bag of tricks and threw right at Neil Walker's chin with a 99 mph heater. It was actually kinda scary.

If the fish rots from the head down, no river carp laying dead on the banks of the Ohio River ever stunk as much as the Cincinnati Reds and their skipper, Dusty Baker. Heck, after Chapman went after Swisher, Baker said baseball players should be permitted to fight, a'la hockey. Just as hockey is actually trying to clean up head hunting, Baker is all for it. Cretin much, Dusty?

The problem for the Pirates (and MLB, I would say) is this -- What to do? How do you stop dangerous blitzkreig of the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff?

Well, the Pirates Clint Hurdle has tried the New Testament approach, which is to say, turning the other cheek. Pirates pitchers have not gone after Reds batters.

Needless to say, after last night's display by the Reds, this is not a very effective approach.

Which prompts many to say that the Pirates should go all Old Testament, retaliate eye for an eye baseball style. Basically, one of the Pirates pitchers should just go out and bean every Reds batter he can, as Dock Ellis did in 1974?

This appeals to many baseball purists, the people who talk about the good old days of chin music and coming in to 2nd base, spikes high. Baseball is a strange sport, shrouded in nostalgia almost from the day it was born, filled with unwritten rules, codes of conduct, acceptable modes of trash talk and, probably if we dig deep enough, preferred methods of tobacco spitting. Those of us who love baseball have tacitly agreed to love the nostalgic baggage and codicils (above), or at least tolerate them. Not only in baseball, but most pointedly in baseball, are folks likely to grab onto the sepia toned cloth of yesteryear. All of which brings me back around to this strange nostalgia baseball fans have for pitchers retaliating.

I used to joke that I wanted to develop a children's cartoon wherein Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez roamed the land, vigilante-like, felling various evil-doers and miscreants by drilling them right in the ear with 95+ mph heaters, the equivalent of the old ACME anvil dropping on Wile E. Coyote's head. I still think it's a good idea for a cartoon, but out here in the real world,  it's not Yosemite Sam being blown up by his own dynamite, but the potential for career-ending, life-altering injuries we're talking about.

Seriously, if you threw a baseball at somebody's head anywhere but the baseball diamond, you would be charged with attempted assault. In fact, it might be considered aggravated assault, given that you were using a weapon, not merely your bare hands. Now, that's just you or me, I'm talking about. In terms of velocity, we're nowhere near what a professional can do, to say nothing of the flame throwing Aroldis Chapman vis-a-vis danger to another human's noggin.

Here's what can be done. Enough of this warning both teams BS. Enough treating Baker with kid gloves. Don't warn both teams when one team is throwing at guys and the other isn't. How about umps start using their brains, too? In the 2012 sequence laid out above, after the Josh Harrison beaning, the umpire warned both benches. What the ...?

Hey Blue, this isn't pee wee baseball. Not everybody gets a trophy. And not everybody deserves a warning.
The warning should have been issued to Baker and Baker alone.

And the same goes for the start of the game tonight. The Reds bench should get a warning before the national anthem singer begins warming up. Tell Baker, if your pitchers hit one more batter, I'm tossing you and the pitcher. (In the words of Sheriff Bullock, "I put you on notice.") And if it happens again, MLB has to suspend Baker. Maybe that will get the message through to him. Although, maybe not.

But MLB won't do that. Because MLB loves it's silly unwritten rules and players "policing the game" and blah, blah, blah. You know what that gets you? That gets you the beanball orgy and ensuing ridiculous bench-clearing brawl that took place between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers just about a week ago. Remind me -- exactly what was the point of all that stupidity and machismo parading as hallowed baseball traditions?

And so because baseball doesn't have the guts to punish their bullies, I guess Clint Hurdle is going to have to have his guys throw at Joey Votto. And then the Reds will throw some more at McCutchen. And then the umps will warn both benches. And the next night the Reds will go after somebody else ... lather, rinse, repeat.

You know what I would be down with? One of the Pirates pitchers firing 98 mph heaters. Right at Dusty Baker's head.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Roger Goodell Needs a History Lesson (and a Few Other Things)

Roger Goodell, in response to a letter issued by ten members of congress directed to the Washington Redskins organization urging the franchise to change the offensive name Redskins, issued his own letter wherein he asserted that the nickname Redskins is "a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect," and, moreover, that it was never "meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group." 

In short, the commissioner just showed his ass. 

Whether or not the name was intended to offend or not, it is simply offensive. Some, congress included, have suggested that the term Redskin is akin to dropping the N-bomb. At the very least, I think most of us can agree that, at best, it is the equivalent of calling an Italian a dago or calling a Jew a kike or Chinese person a Chink. And I don't think that anybody can imagine, in the year 2013, that America would tolerate a team nicknamed, The Washington Dagos. Or the Washington Kikes. Or the Washington Chinks. It's the team in the nation's friggin' capitol, for crying out loud. In the present day and age. If Redskins owner Dan Snyder wants to call people all manner of noxious, racially charged names in the privacy of his home, or while raging in traffic, or while shrouded in secrecy as he posts hateful comments on message boards, he is free to do just that. But if he wants to continue to use a repugnant name for his professional football team, well, it may be legal, but he does show himself to be a scumbag of the highest order.

But back to my good buddy, Commissioner Goodell. In his letter to Congress, he himself sees fit to take a look through history at the origins of the name, Redskins:  "In our view, a fair and thorough discussion of the issue must begin with an understanding of the roots of the Washington franchise and the Redskins name in particular." (Entire letter here.)

Let's, do that Roger. Let's take a look at the history of the Washington franchise and, in particular, the man who named them 'The Redskins.' Just for giggles. 

(photo:  Washington Post)
In 1932, George Preston Marshall (left, in the fur coat) and his Boston Braves franchise entered the NFL. At that time, Marshall had partners, but by the following year, 1933, the team was Marshall's solely. He then re-named the team 'the Boston Redskins' to 'honor' his then coach, Lone Star Dietz, a native american. 

Is it just me, or was this honor something that a particularly arrogant, entitled insensitive a-hole would do? 

But Marshall wasn't done then. Nosirree. 1933 was a banner year for Marshall because he successfully browbeat other NFL owners into segregating the league during the owner's meetings. Prior to that season, there were a handful of black players sprinkled on rosters throughout the NFL (notably Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard), but after those owners meetings, the sign on the NFL door said:  No Blacks Allowed. Teams didn't hire black talent and basically pink-slipped the black players who pre-existed this most ungentlemanly of gentlemen's agreements.

I should note that there's no transcript we can point to of what went down at those meetings, but in a time in American history when a certain level of racism was common among even fairly decent, fair minded white folks, George Preston Marshall stands out as an especially vile bigot and bully. It was just a known fact and I'm thinking that if it walks like a racist and brays like a racist, well, you know, it is a racist.

Shamefully, from 1933 to 1946, the NFL was an entirely white endeavor. After World War II, America was a changed place and owners started signing black talent in 1946. By 1949, teams started to draft black players, too. 

Oh, not Marshall's Redskins. Silly. 

(1961 Washington Redskins)

George Preston Marshall's Redskins (pictured above) remained lilly-white until 1962. Here is the great Shirley Povich who covered the Redskins for decades for the Washington Post, on the team finally re-integrating:
"He caved in, finally, when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall issued an ultimatum: Sign a black player or be denied use of the new 54,000-seat D.C. Stadium (later renamed RFK) that the government had paid for, and to hell with the 30-year lease Marshall had signed. Marshall's chief response was to make Ernie Davis, Syracuse's all-American running back, his No.1 draft choice for 1962. Ernie Davis's response was: "I won't play for that S.O.B." He demanded to be traded and was, to Cleveland, for all-pro Bobby Mitchell."
Marshall's racism ran so deep, in fact, that in his will, there is a provision which forbids funds that he had provided for child welfare programs from going to anyone with 'integrationist notions.' Knowing all of that history, knowing Marshall's entrenched, consuming racism, colors everything I think about the name "Redskins" and the man who thought it was a good idea. Marshall never meant to honor anybody. At best, it didn't occur to him that it was belittling or noxious. But even if he thought it was the cruelest thing he could have said, he probably would have done it anyway.

It's time for the league to grow up. And it's time for Goodell to grow up, too and take a step outside his normal role as the mouth-piece for a bunch of rich guys who are used to getting their way.

Gerrit Cole's Debut, New Security and Lively Bats at PNC Park

(photo:  Pittsburgh Pirates)

Renee Zellwegger once said, in her most annoying, treacly voice, "You had me at Hello." (Excuse me while I retch for a moment. Okay, I'm back.) 

By the time Gerrit Cole tossed his first pitch in the major leagues -- a 96 mph heater to San Fran left fielder Gregor Blanco --  he already had Pirates fans in the palm of his hand. (Or at least those who were in the ballpark for the momentous occasion of the debut of the club's most prized prospect. Super timing on busting out the new security  measures, guys. Really, top notch. I know that I live in fear of terror loving terrorists from Cincinnati blowing up Pops Plaza.)

Cole wasn't dominant through his first two innings, but he was good. Really good. PNC Park was buzzing and it was all due to this kid. 

By the time he came to bat in the bottom of the 2nd, nearly all of the 30,614 who came to see him were finally in the park, just in time for him to rip a one-out line drive single to right center, driving home two-runs. By that point, the Gerrit Cole fever reached a level that can only be described as full on delirium of a religious nature. With Cole on first base, and Russell Martin and Pedro Alvarez across home plate, Pirates fans would have followed the 2011 overall No. 1 draft pick blindly to the ends of the earth like thousands of Unsullied following Daenerys Targaryen. 

To be sure, Cole pitched well. He hit a dragon-fire like 99 on the radar gun a handful of times and I didn't see his fastball dip below 95 mph. Though batters were making contact -- Cole only had two strike outs on the night -- the contact wasn't usually of a very convincing nature. A dying quail here, a gork there, a ground ball with eyes elsewhere. Frankly, I thought it was a good sign. Rookie pitchers, particularly those with the pedigree and baggage of being the overall top pick, usually want to 'announce their presence with authority' in the words of the great Nuke Laloosh. But Cole didn't appear to be afraid of the contact, which to me is a sign of remarkable maturity. It is a mindset that could serve him well in his MLB career. The other great sign was that he didn't walk a single batter. 

Through his 6 1/3 innings, Cole was awfully promising. Tantalizing, even. I'm excited to see his next start, but I'm not ready to start scheduling parades around here just yet -- Gerrit Cole is young and incomplete. And we've all seen guys like this flame out for any number of reasons. The job in front of the Pirates now is to keep him on track, on a trajectory for growth, without putting too much pressure on him. Amazingly enough, with Ray Searage coaching the hurlers, I actually trust him to shepherd this young guy safely through. Now, what are we going to do with 30,000 Unsullied?