This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: October 6-12, 2014
Why are the Cardinals and Giants So Good in October? Where Was Yaisel Puig?
I Spy a TV Showing Postseason Baseball Breaking Down Video Replays in 2014


Best and Worst of the 2013 Season

BEST HITTER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.287 115 173 39 9 36 111 77 6 10 16

The third time looks to be the charm for the enormously talented outfielder—he just turned 23—as he finally looks deserving enough to win the AL MVP after two years of having to duke it out in the vote with Miguel Cabrera. His numbers, and our breakdown of them, confirm it. His .287 average isn’t anything to go nuts about it, but he piled so many solid numbers in every offensive category, it thus makes him the complete package. The hype is true: he is the next Mick.


BEST HITTER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.314 89 172 38 6 25 83 76 8 10 18

Giancarlo Stanton put together power numbers unrivaled in the NL but, like Trout above, McCutchen was an all-around force just a few upticks better on an overall basis. The reigning MVP put himself in position for a second straight honor by playing solid clutch baseball in the stretch run and pushing the Pirates into the playoffs for the second straight year. Perhaps McCutchen benefited here from Stanton’s brutal, year-end pitch to the face, but he played only one game more than the Miami slugger on the year.


WORST HITTER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Stephen Drew, Boston-New York

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.162 18 44 14 1 7 26 24 3 0 1

We all thought, last winter, that the veteran shortstop wasn’t worth the many dollars he and super-agent Scott Boras tried to command on the free agent market. But we didn’t know that he was going to be this bad, either. It didn’t matter if it was the Red Sox (.176) or the Yankees (.150), Drew stunk it up at the plate from start to finish. Boras now has his work cut out even more as Drew becomes a free agent yet again and is already lobbying him with claims that he’s still “elite” and “the best defensive shortstop” among the free agents. So once was Leo Durocher, all while he was called the All-American Out.


WORST HITTER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Dan Uggla, Atlanta-San Francisco

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.149 14 21 3 0 2 10 11 0 4 0

It’s apparently the end of the road for a player who not long ago could be counted on year in and year out for 30-plus homers and 70-plus walks. Uggla extended a miserable trend from late last year, unable to get anything going at the plate; the Braves finally gave up and let him go in July. The Giants took a chance on him but wondered why after 11 hitless at-bats and six strikeouts. Chances are, if he’s playing baseball next Apri,l it will be in the minors. He’ll be well compensated, too; the Braves owe him $13 million in 2015.


BEST PITCHER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
15-6 236 170 68 56 46 5 18 0 248 2.14

King Felix is king again after another stellar effort that all but confirms him as the greatest Mariners pitcher ever (with all due respect to Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer). He stole the AL ERA title away from Chris Sale after a last-minute scoring change took four earned runs off his stat sheet. Hernandez has thrown 200-plus innings and struck out 200-plus batters in each of his last six seasons; only Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens have put together longer streaks.


BEST PITCHER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
21-3 198.1 139 42 39 31 2 7 2 239 1.77

It wasn’t the best of starts for the Dodgers ace; he missed all of April with a sore shoulder, and in his fourth start back he arguably suffered his worst outing ever when he was pummeled for six runs in less than two innings at Arizona. After that, he was virtually untouchable—pitching so magnificently with a 1.43 ERA over his final 22 starts that he’s now considered a prime candidate to win the NL MVP. And that’s never easy for a pitcher to earn. Kershaw now owns four straight NL ERA crowns.


WORST PITCHER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Bruce Chen, Kansas City Royals

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
2-4 48.1 69 40 40 16 1 0 0 36 7.45

Time was, Chen was the only pitcher who seemed to know how to throw in Kansas City. But now the 37-year-old Panamanian is living in the Bizarro World, which is good news for the playoff-worthy Royals—and bad news for him. An aching back plagued Chen early in the season, and he never found his groove upon his return; when he got shelled for five runs in an extra-inning relief appearance against the Twins in late August, the Royals unceremoniously bid him farewell.


WORST PITCHER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Edwin Jackson, Chicago Cubs

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
6-15 140.2 168 105 99 63 3 9 0 123 6.33

Usually when anyone in baseball—whether it’s an outfielder, pitcher or manager—is struggling and the fans start barking for someone to replace him, the comeback usually is: “Well, who else better do you have in mind?” Which brings us to the Cubs and Jackson, the veteran right-hander who just continually bombs, start after start; there must be someone, somewhere, that the Cubs can easily snag to replace a guy who’s now 14-33 with a 5.58 ERA over the last two years. Maybe this is why the Cubs won’t sit him; at $13 million, he’s easily the team’s highest-paid player. By the way, that’s also what the Cubs owe him in 2015—and 2016 as well.


BEST TEAM, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (98-64)

They finally came around. After years of high springtime promise backed by big-time free agent spending and the emergence of super-duper-star Mike Trout, the Angels finally performed to the best of their ability and then some, bolting past the A’s after the All-Star Break and securing the majors’ best record. What put the Halos over the top is what they had badly lacked in recent times: Depth in the starting rotation and a quality bullpen


BEST TEAM, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Washington Nationals (96-66)

Under first-year manager Matt Williams, the Nationals finished as, arguably, the most impressively balanced major league team around. All five of their starting pitchers won at least ten games, with Gio Gonzalez putting up the worst ERA of the lot—at 3.57; and the depth of the hitting showed itself after partial-season losses to Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, with MVP candidate Anthony Rendon in particular stepping up. If the Nats don’t make it to the World Series, it’s bound to be labeled a disappointment in D.C.


WORST TEAM, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Texas Rangers (67-95)

It was a disaster from start to finish for a team many thought was headed to the postseason in 2014; 21 different players were sent to the disabled list at some point, leading the Rangers to virtually empty out their farm system to keep the roster full. In the end, a major league-record 64 players represented the Rangers on the field at some point in the season. It would have been worse, but interim manager Tim Bogar rallied the Rangers to a 14-8 finish after the strange departure of long-time manager Ron Washington. The 2015 campaign represents one big reset button for the Rangers.


WORST TEAM, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98)

The Snakes began the year Down Under in Australia, and that’s a fitting description of the season to follow. Arizona actually played .500 ball from May 1 through July 31, but the season-ending injury to star slugger Paul Goldschmidt and the trading away of solid gamers Martin Prado and Gerardo Parra crashed this team to a 16-37 finish. Here’s the biggest proof that the D-Backs couldn’t rise to the occasion: Against playoff-bound teams, they were 16-48. Your move, Tony La Russa.


Steady as She Glows
People may be expressing their surprise over the fact that the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are battling it out at the NLCS, given that they knocked off top-seeded first-round foes in the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. But it doesn’t surprise us, given that it is the Giants and Cardinals, again.

The 2010s have, for the most part, belonged to these two teams. The Giants won world titles in 2010 and 2012. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have now been in the NLCS each of the last four years, twice advancing to the World Series (and winning it all in spectacular fashion over Texas in 2011). Almost every time, both these teams have gotten as far as they have despite not being the favorites; by hook or by crook, they both just know what it takes to win in October while the more star-studded top seeds collapse under the weight of lofty expectations.

So what is it about October that stirs the Giants and Cardinals into their winning mindsets?

Part of it is the experience. They’ve been here before, and they know that the postseason is a different animal. That they were swept by the wobbly likes of San Diego or Cincinnati in the month before is neither here or there; once October hits, it’s a whole new game, the slate is wiped clean, and seeds be damned. No one knows the intensity of it all better than the Giants and Cardinals. The postseason opponents they brush aside, against heavy projected odds, look futile in comparison—as if the training wheels are still on the bike while the Giants/Cards zoom past.

But part of it all is also the steady, winning pulse of these organizations. Look at the turbulence that has recently presided over the Giants and Cardinals. Wait, you don’t see it? Exactly. There isn’t any to be found. Look at these two franchises, study their front office, their coaching, their players. From top to bottom, head to toe, they are all professionals in the highest regard. They know their stuff. They know the game. They know the score. And they know how to win when it counts the most.

Madbum Max, the Road Warrior
With 7.2 scoreless innings at St. Louis in NLCS Game One, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner has now thrown 26.2 straight playoff zeroes on the road, and that’s an all-time postseason record. The old mark belonged to Art Nehf, who silenced World Series opposition over 23 innings and four straight years for the New York Giants from 1921-24.

The 34th is Always the Hardest to Avoid
The Cardinals' 5-4victory in NLCS Game Two—courtesy of a walk-off homer in the ninth from Kolten Wong—was the first loss branded upon the Giants' bullpen in their last 33 postseason games.

Time Hasn’t Passed That Quickly
In its recap of NLCS Game One under the subheading of “Next Up,” the Associated Press wrote this: “Getting reunited with Bruce Bochy helped the 40-year-old (Jake) Peavy turn back the clock.” Um, AP: Peavy is 33.

Restrict Strickland
Memo to Bochy: Use rookie reliever Hunter Strickland (four home runs allowed thus far in the postseason) from now on only when the Giants have a sizeable lead.

An Express Train With No Brakes
The Kansas City Royals continued their ride on the runaway train of postseason momentum by taking the first two games of the ALCS at Baltimore against the Orioles. With that, they improved to 6-0 on the postseason—with the Royals scoring the go-ahead/winning run in the ninth inning of later in five of those six games. And here’s this: Since the LCS moved to a best-of-seven format in 1985, 11 teams have won the first two games on the road—and all of them reached the World Series.

Last and Far, Far From Least
The Royals’ Mike Moustakas has hit four homers this postseason while batting in the nine spot. Only Adam Kennedy, for the 2002 Angels, has hit as many in one postseason while batting last.

The Missouri October Power Surge, West End Edition
The Kansas City Royals hit one home run in extra innings during the regular season. They’ve already hit four in the postseason.

The Missouri October Power Surge, East End Edition
The Cardinals, who finished dead last in the NL in home runs during the regular season, have hit 11 in their first six postseason games—including four alone in NLCS Game Two.

Shields Down
The Royals have won all three games James Shields has started in the postseason—even though the ace pitcher has a 5.63 ERA in those starts.

Whither Yasiel?
The Los Angeles Dodgers suffered a disappointing first-round postseason loss to the Cardinals, but the frustration of Dodgers fans must have been matched by their anger over manager Don Mattingly’s decision to sit Yasiel Puig in the must-stay-alive NLDS Game Four in St. Louis. Puig was displaying an aggressive, all-or-nothing approach throughout the series; he singled twice, walked and scored three times in Game One, then struck out in seven straight at-bats over the next two games before tripling late in Game Three. A mixed bag to be sure, but was it enough to justify benching him in Game Four in favor of left-handed veteran bat Andre Ethier?

When Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or Barry Bonds slumped, managers didn’t sit him because they thought someone can do better; they knew these guys would be due. Granted, Puig has not reached the stratosphere of the aforementioned legends—but he’s so young, gifted and talented, a catalyst who’s repeatedly and single-handedly sparked the Dodgers, his absence from the Game Four lineup was a major strategy faux pas on Mattingly’s part.

With the Dodgers down a run and the bottom third of their order due up in the top of the ninth of Game Four, most everyone assumed Puig would be called upon to try and save the day as a pinch-hitter. So Mattingly brought him in…as a pinch runner.

Mattingly has repeatedly been under fire during his Dodgers tenure, yet much of the criticism hasn’t been warranted. Except this. When your season is on the line, you go with your best players. Puig, arguably baseball’s most exciting player today, is right up there at the top for the Dodgers. His sit-down in Game Four was inexcusable.

Waiting For the Seventh
The Cardinals advanced to the NLCS despite never having a lead after six innings in any of their four games against the Dodgers. Only in NLDS Game Three were they even tied, at 1-1.

Throw Out the Scouting Reports
Eight of the ten hits that resulted in runs for the Cardinals against Los Angeles came from left-handed hitters…against left-handed pitchers.

Thanks, Nats
None of the three runs scored by the Giants in the decisive NLDS Game Four against Washington came courtesy of a hit. One came on a ground ball out, another on a walk, and the third on a wild pitch; a fourth nearly was notched, but
Buster Posey was tagged out at home plate by reliever Aaron Barrett after his attempt to finish an intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval went way above the head of catcher Wilson Ramos and to the backstop.

For those who think that intentional walks shouldn’t involve four actual tosses so the game can be sped up (read note below), we give you the aforementioned crazy scenario that went down in Game Four of the NLDS at San Francisco. That was Barrett, so rattled from giving the Giants the eventual game- and series-winning run on an errant throw that he next completely airmailed his attempt to intentionally put Sandoval on base, sending Posey toward home plate with what appeared to be a sure insurance run—until Ramos, gifted with a generous carom off the AT&T Park backstop, was able to get a throw back home to Barrett, who tagged out Posey for the final out of the inning. We’ve said this earlier and we’ll say it again: Don’t make the intentional walk a freebie. You want to place the batter on first, earn it by throwing four pitches around him.

October is a New Month
The Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—the majors’ two best teams (by the record) and owners of two of the most potent regular season offenses—were a combined 1-6 with a .166 batting average in the LDS.

In Search of Postseason TV Baseball
Has the relevancy of postseason baseball on TV been reduced to the point that fans need to hire Indiana Jones to embark on a quest to find out which TV station the games are being broadcast?

Trying to figure out which channel carries the games usually results in a frustrating exercise akin to those I Spy books where you try to find an object from a montage of many hundreds of other objects. Five different networks are sharing in postseason coverage: Fox, ESPN, TBS, FS1 (Fox’s new sports channel) and the MLB Network. The main Fox network, which will carry the World Series, apparently found higher priorities in college football and Sleepy Hollow in determining that five of the scheduled seven NLCS games should be carried by FS1, a scary thought given its limited availability in a place like Santa Barbara, California—where Eric from TGG was last week, watching the 18-inning marathon between the Giants and Nationals. Somewhere early in extra innings, the channel suddenly switched over to a local show on gardening; apparently, the cable provider only allowed for afternoon viewing on FS1.

The Kids Are Alright—They’re Just Not Watching Baseball
While we’re on the subject of postseason TV, does MLB see the wisdom of starting weeknight games at 9:00 on the East Coast that are bound to push on past the midnight hour? Even games on the weekend can prove a challenge for parents deciding whether to keep Jack and Jill up; ALCS Game One on Friday ended close to 1:00 a.m. Baltimore time.

Whatever happened to those day games when teachers brought in the TVs and let the kids watch baseball rather than another boring science education flick starring Dr. Research and Mr. Fiction Writer? (Anybody who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s would know what we’re talking about.)

If baseball is so worried of losing the younger crowd, shorter games is only just the start. But if you really want to inspire the kids, start the damn games earlier and have them end long before the parents yell out, “bedtime!”

A reminder for MLB: Major League Soccer games always last two hours and not a minute more. And guess whose popularity currently rivals that of MLB for those under 18? MLS.

Getting Up to Speed in the Desert
While the postseason slogs in into the morning hours, the Arizona Fall League recently began play with an experimental set of rules aiming to speed up the games. The hope is that if some or all of these rules prove beneficial, they will be adopted for MLB play in the near future.

Among the ideas (and our thoughts about them in parens): No more than 20 seconds between pitches, a variation of the 12-second rule actually already on the books but ignored by everyone (20 is a bit generous—the current rule should be followed or abolished); batters must always keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches (big deal—hitters will just do their readjustment routine closer to home); intentional walks where the pitcher doesn’t have to throw a pitch (you have to throw the pitch—see Aaron Barrett above); no more than two minutes and five seconds of downtime between innings (local TV networks shelling out bankloads of money will bitch to high heaven over the loss of ad revenue); no more than two minutes and 30 seconds for a pitcher change (no problem there); and a maximum of three time outs by a team per half-inning (quota on strategy, not good).

Meanwhile, the players are unhappy that they’re not being part of the decision process of speeding up the game—especially since they’ll be the ones most affected by any changes. ESPN’s Jayson Stark penned a recent article in which players complained that they’ll have their routines disrupted, while the countdown on a proposed, visible pitch clock will prove unnerving to one’s concentration, especially if the fans begin to count down with it.

But something’s got to be done. MLB games this season averaged three hours and eight minutes—six minutes up from 2013, and a whopping 21 minutes longer than what the average contest took just nine years ago. One would think that the trend of decreased offense—baseball’s .251 average was the lowest since 1972, while the 5.76 walks per game was the lowest since 1968’s Year of the Pitcher—would lead to shorter games. The main problem continues to be this: Too much time between pitches, as hitters and pitchers play extensive mind games with one another to break concentration and momentum. The average space between deliveries this past season was 23 seconds. The rules on the book require a maximum of 12 seconds. It’s been ignored for years. Time for MLB to do something about it, once and for all.

For Starters, Change Your Name
We couldn’t help but laugh when the first player quoted in Stark’s ESPN piece about speeding up the game was pitcher
Kevin Slowey.

Quotas and Challenges and Errors, Oh My…
The Year in MLB Video Replay Gone Wrong
wounded of the weekWhen baseball revealed its process for expanded video review a year ago, it flew in the face of everything we had long thought would work better. Quotas. Challenges. That war room with a zillion monitors in New York. Oh my. Oh no.

So now that the game has gotten in a full season with the new protocol, how has it worked? Not so well. The average review time was roughly over two minutes, well over the 60 seconds we surmised would have been all it took; and that doesn’t even count the time managers took to stall umpires while their own review trolls looked at replays upstairs to see if a disputed play was even worth challenging. All of this is part of the reason the average length of a baseball game jumped six minutes from last year.

Had baseball listened to us, challenges would never have been part of the deal—officials up in the booth would have been responsible for alerting the umpires of a replay—and all that dead time would have been spared.

Will baseball come to its senses and embrace the TGG method of video replay? No, because it doesn’t like taking advice from those on the outside. Will it modify its own method? Perhaps, but only to the degree of fine-tuning the product. So expect to see more time wasting next season.

Controversy aside, there were 1,265 replays throughout the majors this year—one for every two games played. Of those replays, 47.8% resulted in a call being overturned. The majority of the calls were split among force plays (488) and tag plays (425).

No team called more challenges than the Chicago Cubs, who asked 56 times; Oakland logged the fewest with 25. The New York Yankees were, far and away, the most successful at getting a call overturned with a 82% success rate; the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers were at the other end of that spectrum, with just half of their challenges resulting in a reversal.

Just Not Hip Enough Anymore
Dodgers pitcher
Josh Beckett announced his retirement upon the completion of the NLDS bowing to a bothersome hip that will ultimately require surgery whether he continued to play or not.

The 34-year-old exploded on the scene late in 2003 when he starred for the Florida Marlins, who came out of obscurity with a late run, a wild card and an upset world title over the New York Yankees. Beckett won two of five starts that postseason but was sharp enough to win nearly all of them—recording a 1.97 ERA with 47 strikeouts and just 21 hits allowed in 42.2 innings. The crowning touch was a five-hit shutout in the decisive Game Six of the World Series at New York.

Over the next few years, Beckett continued to find winning a frustrating opportunity for the low-rent Marlins; his durability also became a challenge. For the Marlins, this made losing Beckett less difficult to take, trading the Texas-born righty to Boston in a deal that would net Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez in return. After a rough first year with the Red Sox in which he somehow won 16 games despite a 5.01 ERA, Beckett rebounded in 2007 with a career-high 20 wins (against just seven losses), a 3.27 ERA and another stellar postseason effort, this time triumphing in all four of his starts with a 1.20 ERA, 35 strikeouts and just two walks as he copped his second World Series ring in Boston’s sweep over Colorado.

Inconsistency and more injuries followed, and after a miserable start to 2012—compounded by being named one of the beer-chugging dogs in ill-fated Boston manager Bobby Valentine’s doghouse—he was sent packing to Los Angeles, where he pitched his final two years with the Dodgers, mostly in pain as shoulder and hip issues escalated. But not without a final golden moment; on May 25 at Philadelphia, Beckett threw the only no-hitter of his career when he shut down the Phillies.

Beckett wraps his career with a 138-106 record and 3.88 ERA. He will engender some Hall of Fame talk, but his chances of reaching Cooperstown are next to nil.

But You Already Knew This
Ryan Dempster, an early teammate of Beckett, won about as many games (132) but lost just as many (133), so he’ll be happy just to make the HOF ballot. Like Beckett, the 37-year-old right-hander also announced his retirement this past week, but that was hardly a surprise; he had already sat out the 2014 season to recover from his own aches and pains and, he said, to spend more time with his family.

Dempster’s best years came as a Chicago Cub, but only after a rough three-year period trying to make it as the team’s closer; returning to the rotation in 2008, Dempster furnished a 17-6 record and remained a mainstay through early 2013, when he became part of a recent line of solid starters off to great starts in Chicago saddled with poor run support, before being dealt at midseason. Dempster wound up in Boston where he would earn his first and only World Series ring, even if it came with a smattering of relief appearances.

Robbery is 90% Mental; the Other Half is Physical
The
Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey was broken into this past week, with authorities slowly revealing that many of Berra’s World Series rings and two of his three MVP awards were pilfered. The robbers, said to be “professional,” better have a good idea of whom they would sell the stolen items to—or they’ll just to be content to display them in their secret man caves.


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