Yankees gaining a defensive edge.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Most baseball fans are aware of the escalating MLB trend of teams using more and more defensive shifts over the past few years, but this year things have gone to another level.
In 2010, Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) began tracking detailed data on the use of defensive shifts. That season, we recorded 2,464 shifts on balls in play. After holding steady in 2011, the number of shifts employed across the league increased pretty significantly: to 4,577 in 2012, then to 8,134 in 2013. This season, the league is taking another massive leap forward.
Two and a half weeks into the season, we are on pace for an astonishing 12,500 shifts on balls in play in 2014. We have reached the point where a fundamental shift (no pun intended) has occurred in the way the game is played.
However, just because teams are employing more shifts, that does not mean that every team is experiencing the same success with their shifts. Below are a few examples of some of the biggest winners and losers of the defensive shifting that teams have been doing during the first few weeks of the season.
New York Yankees
As Buster Olney noted earlier this week, the Yankees have really increased their shifting this year. In 2013, the Yankees ranked eighth in baseball, with 475 shifts on balls in play. This year, they have deployed the second-most shifts in baseball, on pace for about 1,025 shifts on balls in play.
As a consequence, the Yankees have improved their defensive results. In 2013, given how often they shifted, the Yankees managed a somewhat disappointing three shift runs saved (for reference, the Rays led all of baseball last year with 16 SRS). However, this season they have already saved themselves two runs via the shift. These are the kinds of measures that could help re-establish the Yankees atop a very competitive AL East.
Since Jeff Luhnow has taken over as Astros GM, he has encouraged his organization to carve out its own niche. The concept of defensive shifting certainly is not a revolutionary one, nor is it a new one for the Astros. In 2013, the Astros shifted 496 times on balls in play, which ranked them fifth behind the high-water mark of 595 set by the Baltimore Orioles. However, this season the Astros have taken things to another level, blowing well past anything that we have seen before. They are currently on pace for approximately 1,800 shifts on balls in play, which would triple last year's Orioles total. No other team is even close to matching them. The Astros have shifted as many times as the second- and third-most-shifting teams combined.
This new approach has paid immediate dividends for the Astros. Last year, despite deploying the fifth-most shifts in baseball, the Astros' efforts actually ended up costing them, with minus-1 SRS. This year, with their considerable increase in shift usage, and a more aggressive approach in the types of shifts they employ, they have already accumulated four SRS in the first few weeks of the season, the most in baseball.
Likewise, the Astros have reduced their opponents' batting average on ground balls and short line drives (the ball-in-play types that are most affected by the use of the shift) from .272 in 2013 to .219 so far in 2014. This increased commitment to shift alignments has certainly been a boost to the Astros' ongoing rebuilding efforts.
There's never been a better time to be a ground-ball pitcher, especially on a team that has fully bought into the idea of positioning defenders where the ball is most likely to be hit. On grounders and short liners (again, balls in which the shift is likely to come into play), batters have hit .257 against a regular infield alignment since 2010, while they have batted just .226 on such balls into a shift.
For a starting pitcher who makes his living inducing worm-burners, this can mean taking a dozen or more hits off the board over the course of a season. Better-positioned infielders can also result in increased chances for the pitcher's best friend, a double-play ball, when they do allow a runner to reach base.
The Reds have never been among the teams that shift a lot. In 2012 and 2013 they ranked 18th and 13th, respectively, in the number of shifts they deployed, and this year they rank 14th. However, they have typically been among the most effective teams in their shift usage, leading the NL in SRS in both 2012 and 2013. Things are not going nearly as well for them this year, though.
As with most teams, the Reds have been shifting more often this year, on pace for a modest increase to 356 shifts on balls in play, an increase from last year's 297. However, the breakdown in their shift usage last year included 18 percent full shifts and 82 percent partial shifts; this season, that has become a 50/50 split. Perhaps they are still getting used to a new approach, or maybe it is simply an early-season small-sample blip, but the Reds have been getting beaten on their shifts more than any other team in baseball this season, with minus-3 SRS.
The Marlins are a team that has never committed very seriously to shifting. In 2013, they ranked 18th in baseball in shifts on balls in play, with 180. This year, they have nominally followed the trend of increased shift usage, though the 203 shifts for which they are on pace would actually drop them to 24th in baseball. Furthermore, they are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of dedicating three fielders to one side of the infield, as 85 percent of their shifts have been partial shifts, both last year and this year.
That said, the Marlins managed to use their shifts to efficient effect in 2013, saving themselves nine runs, which was second most in the NL. However, their approach has not been nearly as effective so far this season. Opponents are beating the Marlins' shifts much more often than last year, with their batting average on ground balls and short line drives increasing from .264 in 2013 to .317 thus far this season. As a result, the Marlins' shifts have cost them, to the tune of minus-2 SRS so far.
Hitters unwilling to adjust
In the era of the ubiquitous shift, some of baseball's most-shifted-on hitters have decided that they will not let their opponents dictate their approach. While their confidence is a key trait that likely contributes to their success at the highest level of the game, it fails them in this regard.
Here's a look at some key players who are getting neutralized by the shift, as evidenced by their batting average on short liners and ground balls.
Raul Ibanez: .053
Pedro Alvarez: .077
Brian McCann: .083
Jay Bruce: .000
Mike Moustakas: .000
The more they get shifted, and the more teams have evidence of those shifts' effectiveness, the fewer hits they will collect on grounders and short liners through the infield. While their prodigious power numbers will not decline as a result of the shift, their batting averages will certainly drop, making them less effective as a hitter and less of an asset to their teams.
Examining how shifts help team defense.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
One of the major questions around the increasing use of defensive shifts is whether they can help teams reduce the incidence of hits on balls in play, especially line drives and other "well-hit" balls in play that are more likely to become hits. (Line drives fall in for hits at roughly three times the rates of ground balls and fly balls, although the exact rates fluctuate each year.) Improving your defense by acquiring or developing better fielders can affect a team's batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP). But we have anecdotal evidence from the last few years that heavy use of defensive shifts and/or improved defensive positioning can do so as well.
These charts generated by Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information graph two variables for each team: how much hard contact they're giving up, and how much of a price they're paying for it in hits allowed. The X axis (horizontal) charts "well-hit average allowed," which is the rate at which the team's pitching staff has allowed hard contact. The Y axis shows batting average on balls in play, which is anything put into play in fair territory, meaning strikeouts and home runs are excluded from the calculation.
First, 2014 data through Thursday's games:
You can look at the chart this way:
• Teams in the top-left quadrant aren't giving up much hard contact, but they're still allowing a lot of hits on balls in play. This is the bad-luck portion of the program.
• Teams in the top-right quadrant are giving up a lot of hard contact, and they're paying the price with high BABIPs allowed.
• Teams in the lower-right quadrant are giving up hard contact, but so far, they're getting away with murder, converting a relatively higher percentage of balls in play into outs. This could be skill, shifting, luck or all three.
• Teams in the lower-left quadrant aren't giving up much hard contact, and their team BABIPs are low.
Bearing in mind that the sample size for 2014 remains quite small, here are some points that jump out: If you rank all MLB teams by the number of shifts they've employed this year, four of the top six teams are in that lower-left quadrant (allowing relatively little hard contact and generating a low BABIP rate): Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland and Pittsburgh.
The Yankees and Mets are extreme outliers as well, both allowing a lot of hard contact (the Mets seemingly even allowing opposing bat boys and mascots to hit line drives at this point), but neither allowing high hit rates on balls put into play. The Yankees rank second in the majors in shifts so far, and employ two excellent defenders in the outfield. The Mets, on the other hand, rank just 20th in MLB in shifts employed, and looking at their fielders -- a few great defenders trying to undo the damage done by their middle-infield terror squad -- the most likely explanation for their results so far is good fortune.
The four teams located in the top-left quadrant -- Washington, Miami, San Francisco and Colorado -- all have one thing in common: They rank in the bottom third of MLB teams for shifts used this year, with Colorado ranking dead last, with zero employed. Shifts aren't necessary for good results; Atlanta is in that bottom left quadrant, but they rarely shift, relying instead on some outstanding defenders including all-world shortstop Andrelton Simmons. But the four clubs in the top-left might benefit from even moderate increases in their use of the shift, especially Washington, which employs three very good defenders in its infield, anyway.
Moving along to 2013, where the sample sizes are larger and perhaps a lot more meaningful:
Teams that didn't shift as often are more likely to appear above the middle line, with Detroit, St. Louis, Washington, Colorado and Minnesota all in the bottom 10 overall in shifts employed. The Tigers and Cardinals appear in the top-left quadrant, allowing higher BABIPs on slightly lower well-hit averages allowed, perhaps a function of having great pitching, average or worse defenses, and not using the shift.
Of the 10 teams that employed the most shifts in MLB last year, eight come in below the horizontal line in the middle of the graph; only the Yankees and Astros are exceptions, with the Astros likely suffering the consequences of running a lot of below-average pitching out there.
The biggest standout was 2013's biggest story on a team level, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who allowed the majors' lowest well-hit average (good pitching and good luck) but also allowed the fifth-lowest BABIP. The Pirates weren't an elite defensive unit, especially in the infield, but they ranked sixth in the majors in shifts employed, and may have been the most aggressive at using batter-specific positioning, moving fielders to suit individual batter tendencies, even if it didn't amount to a full shift.
The data are still pretty noisy, as even good pitchers will allow a lot of well-hit balls in play, and even excellent defense can only slightly reduce hits on balls in play. However, it's clear that much of the gains here are low-hanging fruit for teams willing to make the small investment in time and coaching. Any hit that you allow because you didn't shift was avoidable, and the evidence we have to date (beyond just these charts) says that shifting is a net positive for clubs that employ it.
Eye-catching early-season numbers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Early-season numbers that catch your eye:
That is the ground ball percentage of Prince Fielder this season, a significant increase over past seasons. Fielder hit his first home run of the season Tuesday night, but it goes without saying that if he is generating ground balls, the Rangers are not going to get what they banked on.
His ground ball rate is higher than that of Jimmy Rollins and 138 other hitters currently qualified for the batting title.
Fielder's home run Tuesday was his longest since last May, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That's Mike Trout's OPS in the first inning this season. He's 7-for-13 with four homers. There are rival evaluators who say that they will make a point to see all of his plate appearances in every game because they fret about what they might miss.
That's the rotation ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bronson Arroyo had a terrible outing Tuesday, and the Diamondbacks' problems continue to mount.
Kevin Towers says top prospect Archie Bradley wasn't passed over, in spite of what Bradley's agent says.
At this rate, Arizona's run differential would be minus-429 at the end of the season. To put that into perspective, the run differential of the infamous '62 Mets was minus-331.
The number of consecutive scoreless innings for Jim Johnson since the Athletics shifted him out of the closer role, a move that seems to be working for him and the team. He has allowed two hits and a walk and picked up a couple of wins.
That's the OPS of Mike Morse of the Giants this season. Among the moves made during the winter, the signing of Morse was really surprising to me, because of how much time he had missed the past couple of seasons and because it didn't seem like his defensive deficiencies could play in the ballpark in San Francisco. But I should have remembered: At the end of Barry Bonds' career, he wasn't exactly a Gold Glover, and neither was Pat Burrell, and it worked out OK for them.
Morse has paid off for the Giants, writes Alex Pavlovic.
The number of consecutive games in which Alexei Ramirez has a hit this season -- in other words, every game the White Sox have played. He got a big hit again Tuesday to beat Boston.
Ramirez singled in the ninth inning to extend his hitting streak to 14 games. Frank Thomas holds the club record for such a streak, as he began the 1996 season with hits in 15 straight games.
That would be the number of runs generated by a lineup full of Chase Utleys based on his early production, as Jayson Stark noted on Tuesday's podcast. He has been the best player in the majors this season, with 10 extra-base hits and four strikeouts.
That's the Nationals' rotation ERA after Stephen Strasburg was hit hard by the Marlins on Tuesday; that's more than three runs worse than the rotation ERA of the Atlanta Braves (1.80).
I watched a lot of Strasburg's start, and his breaking pitches seemed really flat.
The ground ball percentage of Robbie Ross this season, the best in the majors. Ross had a strong outing Tuesday.
That's the fastball velocity of the Royals' Yordano Ventura, easily the best in the big leagues so far. Ventura picked up his first victory Tuesday night.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how he won:
A. Averaged 96.8 mph with his 61 fastballs, peaking at 100 mph.
B. Averaged 87.3 mph on his 27 changeups (20 were strikes), against which the Astros were 0-for-7. Got 13 of his 15 swings and misses with his fastball and changeup.
Around the league
• The Braves received racist emails aimed at Hank Aaron.
• Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik says the Mariners offered Kendrys Morales $30 million last summer.
• On Tuesday's podcast, Doug Glanville discussed Robinson Cano's new position of leadership and Mike Trout's many tools and Jayson Stark and I discussed instant replay.
• Bud Selig defended instant replay. Replay is right for baseball, writes Larry Stone.
• John Farrell still faces a fine.
• The Astros' George Springer got the call to the big leagues.
• Hal Steinbrenner says flatly, and out loud, that the Yankees don't want Stephen Drew.
• The Giants had a lousy 2013 season but won 11 of 19 from the Dodgers, and this year they have won three of four, including Tuesday's walk-off.
• Oakland rallied late again against the Angels.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Free-agency questions loom for the Tigers.
2. Chris Johnson was back in the Atlanta lineup.
3. Lucas Harrell was designated for assignment.
4. The Rangers could move out J.P. Arencibia when Geovany Soto comes back, writes Gerry Fraley.
Dings and dents
1. Josh Johnson is going to see Dr. James Andrews.
2. As expected, Matt Moore will have season-ending surgery.
3. Maicer Izturis was placed on the disabled list.
4. Brian Wilson was activated, as Alex Pavlovic writes.
5. The Angels lost a game and their leadoff hitter.
6. Mark Ellis returned to action.
7. Avisail Garcia faces six months of rehab.
8. Michael Bourn was activated from the disabled list.
9. Bartolo Colon has a back issue. This is what teams feared about signing Colon: that he would turn into a pumpkin on their dime.
10. Dustin Pedroia could play today after getting a cortisone shot.
11. Adam Jones is dealing with the flu.
12. Manny Machado is scheduled to run the bases today.
1. Juan Nicasio's education continued, and the Rockies won again.
2. Brett Lawrie had a big day.
3. Phil Hughes fell apart in the sixth inning.
4. The Reds needed a win, and Mike Leake provided it, as C. Trent Rosecrans writes.
5. The Pirates played to a split.
6. Xander Bogaerts made a pivotal error.
7. The Mets skunked the D-backs.
8. The Cardinals continue to get great work on the mound and beat the Brewers again.
• Christian Yelich has rebounded.
• The Nationals and Marlins had a dust-up.
• The starting pitchers are causing some of Philadelphia's bullpen issues. It's time to find out if Mike Adams is going to help the bullpen, writes Jim Salisbury.
• The Mets' endless talk about their young arms becomes tiresome, writes John Harper.
• Lucas Duda isn't going back to the outfield.
• The Brewers insist the Cardinals aren't in their head.
• Jonathan Broxton filled in at closer.
• Gaby Sanchez is making the most of his starts at first base.
• The Rays are confident they will weather the storm of injuries they are facing.
• Michael Pineda will face unwanted scrutiny today, writes Jorge Arangure.
• Ken Williams likes the direction of the White Sox.
• The Indians' rotation was jumbled once again.
• Ian Kinsler is earning praise.
• The valuation of the Mariners continues to climb, writes Geoff Baker.
• Kyle Seager broke out.
• Don Mattingly says he's not worried about his team's safety, in the aftermath of a report of death threats against Yasiel Puig. MLB and the Dodgers aren't talking about it.
Here's a link to the story that raised the questions. The piece is a must-read for Dodgers players, writes Bill Plaschke.
• Jeff Francoeur was pranked, and some Indians laughed about it.
• There's no question about what the best game of today is: Yu vs. King Felix.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Houston's hope for George Springer.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The best part of Leon Roberts’ job happened again Tuesday night, when George Springer was summoned into the manager’s office in Colorado Springs. Springer probably had some idea of what was to come, said Roberts, the hitting coach of the Oklahoma City RedHawks.
The word passed down from the Houston Astros’ front office reached Oklahoma City manager Tom Lawless late in the game, and Springer was pulled out for the ninth inning. On Tuesday he was 3-for-4 with four RBIs and four runs scored -- in other words, just another day for Springer, who had batted .353 with an OPS of 1.106 for the RedHawks.
When players are told they’re going to the big leagues, Roberts said, they usually react in one of two ways: Either they break down and cry, or they are speechless. Springer, Roberts said, was “more shocked and subdued. But he was playing like his hair was on fire.”
Springer forced his way to the big leagues by dominating the minor leagues. Oklahoma City played a day game Wednesday, and the plan for the coaches, Roberts said, was to locate a place where they could get some dinner and find the Astros game on television to watch Springer's first MLB game.
Houston lost in Springer’s debut, but in his second plate appearance in the big leagues, he got his first hit, an infield bouncer, and you see his exceptional speed. In the days ahead, you will see his power.
Springer and Roberts had talked recently about the type of hitter Springer is, and Roberts -- who had worked for years in the Atlanta Braves' farm system -- told Springer that the player he was most like, in Roberts’ experience, was Andruw Jones. “He’s going to do a lot of offensive damage,” Roberts said.
Springer is known to be very smart, disciplined and aggressive. He swings very hard and will generate a fair number of strikeouts, but those will not wear on him, Roberts said. Springer has seemingly processed the whiffs as the cost of doing what he does best, in scorching blistering ground balls and liners. “When he swings,” Roberts said, “he wants to hit it hard.”
So he will take aggressive hacks, and Roberts believes this will work for him, even as Springer faces pitchers who can throw different types of pitches in all parts of the ball-strike count. “His swing is sound,” Roberts said.
Eduardo Perez was the bench coach for the Astros last season and is a former hitting coach and now a colleague here at ESPN. After Springer got the call to the big leagues, Perez texted Springer congratulations. “Thank you,” Springer texted back. “I won’t change a thing, I’ll have fun.”
I asked Perez whom Springer reminds him of as a player. “He’s got the physical ability of Eric Davis, and yet stronger,” Perez said, referring to the longtime outfielder of the Cincinnati Reds. “He’s the real deal. He’s got every tool, and he’s smart.
“He swings hard -- it’s a hack -- but that’s his swing.”
Perez had watched Springer hit a couple of years ago, earlier in his minor league career, and saw how spread out he was. Perez mentioned to Springer that he would start to do more damage if he became more upright in his stance. By this spring, Springer was standing straight up and was more athletic in his movement.
“I don’t want to compare him to Mike Trout because he hasn’t had success like Trout,” Perez said. “But he could produce the same numbers as Trout.
“The biggest thing for him is that he’s got to know he belongs, and I think he knows he belongs.”
• An embarrassing mistake was made in Springer’s debut.
• Astros manager Bo Porter spoke about two players the Astros moved out, including Robbie Grossman.
Around the league
• Speaking of top prospects: The Pirates’ Gregory Polanco is owning Triple-A, with a 1.255 OPS, six extra-base hits and only four strikeouts.
• On Wednesday’s podcast, Jerry Crasnick discussed MLB’s defense of instant replay, and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke talked about Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee’s unusual lineup and the awkward manager-umpire conversations these days.
• Not long afterward: The Brewers got an important win, Tom Haudricourt writes.
• Hanley Ramirez was drilled on the left hand, and the Dodgers feel lucky that his hand isn’t broken.
• The Angels needed this badly: a walk-off win against the Athletics.
• The Rangers walked it off against the Mariners after a Seattle error gave them more life. The Rangers are the first team with four walk-off wins by April 16 since the 2000 Kansas City Royals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. When Yu Darvish pitches, he seems to go hand in hand with walk-offs.
• Padres starter Andrew Cashner continues to dominate.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Masahiro Tanaka allowed just two hits in eight innings against the Cubs.
• Masahiro Tanaka was tremendous against the Cubs on Wednesday. From ESPN Stats & Info, how he won:
A. He threw 31 splitters, his most in a game, and Cubs were 0-for-10 with six strikeouts vs. his splitter. (Hitters were 5-for-16 vs. his splitter in first two starts.)
B. The Cubs were 0-for-16 (with one walk) after reaching an 0-and-1 count. (Hitters were 9-for-27 after an 0-and-1 count in his first two starts.)
C. He reached only two counts of three balls.
Tanaka now has 28 strikeouts this season, the most by any Yankee in his first three appearances with the team and tied for the third-most by any player in his first three major league appearances since 1900.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tanaka is also the second pitcher since 1900 to start his MLB career with at least eight strikeouts in each of his first three games. The other was Stephen Strasburg in 2010 (first four games).
• Michael Pineda followed Tanaka’s outing with a great start of his own.
• Meanwhile: The Cubs did not score a run in a doubleheader for the first time since 1962.
• The Reds have had a couple of good days, and on Wednesday, it was all about Johnny Cueto.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Cueto won:
A. He started 11 of 13 lefties he faced with a first-pitch strike. (LHB went 0-for-13.)
B) Pirates were 0-for-8 vs. his fastball (second time in past six seasons he didn't allow a hit off his fastball in a game).
C) His fastball had 8.7 inches of vertical break, an inch more than it averaged in his first three starts.
D) Eight of his 12 strikeouts were looking, his most looking strikeouts in a game in his career.
• Joel Hanrahan will throw for scouts Thursday, at a time when the Red Sox, Yankees and a whole lot of other teams could use some bullpen help.
Dings and dents
1. Bryce Harper is expected to play Thursday.
2. Jose Tabata got hurt.
3. Michael Cuddyer got hurt.
4. Mike Napoli sat out.
5. Kole Calhoun will be out four to six weeks.
6. Bruce Chen was scratched from his start Thursday.
7. Joe Kelly will miss at least one start.
8. Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman are progressing.
9. Some Orioles are fighting the flu.
10. Craig Kimbrel reported no shoulder soreness.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. John Farrell was fined, as mentioned within this Scott Lauber notebook.
2. Josh Reddick was given a day off.
3. The Mariners summoned Nick Franklin.
4. Scott Sizemore is back in the big leagues.
5. Arizona could become one of the first teams to move into dump mode, Joel Sherman writes within this notebook.
6. The Marlins will go with a four-man rotation.
1. Julio Teheran outdueled Cliff Lee, and Atlanta’s starting pitching continues to be great. Evan Gattis ruined Lee’s night with a solo homer in the fourth inning. He’s the second player in MLB history to go 4-for-4 or better with a home run in a 1-0 win. The other was Rogers Hornsby in 1929, according to Elias.
2. In this case, instant replay worked and was decisive, on behalf of the Nationals.
3. Jackie Bradley Jr. got a huge hit.
4. Felix Hernandez has been baseball’s best pitcher so far, but the Mariners wasted his outing Wednesday.
5. The Royals rallied.
6. Zach McAllister was "the man" for the Indians.
7. Dillon Gee sparkled, and the Mets finished their sweep of the Diamondbacks, Tim Rohan writes.
• The Orioles had a nice series against Tampa Bay.
• The Rays have stopped scoring runs: 14 in their past eight games, Marc Topkin writes. Wil Myers epitomizes the Rays’ hitting woes, writes Roger Mooney.
• A.J. Pierzynski has a second father figure.
• The Blue Jays faced a snowstorm.
• Alexei Ramirez is out to set a record. Ramirez has a hit in all 15 games this season, matching Frank Thomas for the longest hit streak to start a season in White Sox history.
• The Tigers have some problems with their lineup, writes Drew Sharp. Brad Ausmus had his first strategy tragedy, writes Lynn Henning.
• Carlos Santana says his defense is taking away from his offense.
• Phil Hughes had a nail issue.
• The Athletics had a rough game defensively, Susan Slusser writes.
• The Phillies cannot match the Braves, writes Bob Brookover.
• Neil Walker has worked on refining his swing.
• The Reds are confused by the block-the-plate rules.
• Since Joey Votto moved into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, he’s 8-for-17 with three homers and four walks.
• The Diamondbacks lost their sixth straight and are 1-11 at home. The team’s pitching woes weigh on Miguel Montero. The Diamondbacks are 4-14, the worst 18-game start in team history.
• In Troy Tulowitzki the Rockies trust, writes Patrick Saunders.
• The Giants’ rotation had a turn, writes Henry Schulman.
• There has been a whole lot of stuff swirling around Yasiel Puig. Don Mattingly says Puig is fine.
• Puig’s laziness grates on GM Ned Colletti, writes T.J. Simers.
• Pablo Sandoval pitched in the bullpen ... left-handed. Beneath the girth, a tremendous athlete.
And today will be better than yesterday.
O's defense key to contender status.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
BOSTON -- There was no batting practice for the Boston Red Sox or Baltimore Orioles here Saturday morning, despite the warm sunshine that enveloped Fenway Park. The warning track around the entire field was filled with fans waiting to take photographs of Red Sox players who slowly rotated toward them.
Meanwhile, the Orioles players lounged in the shoebox-sized visitors clubhouse. Adam Jones picked at some breakfast and chatted about Jack Murphy Stadium, while Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and others watched television.
This was a rare day when the Orioles would not go through their regular extensive defensive preparation with their infield work and with outfielders working on throwing to a particular spot. It's a practice which isn't always commonplace these days.
Like every other team in the AL East, the Orioles have their issues. Manny Machado is out, although he is making progress. Their starting rotation has been spotty. They've had a flu bug burrow into their ranks in recent days.
But day after day, this is a team that catches the ball. “That’s the key,” Jones said. “Don’t make mistakes.”
Shortstop J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glover, and so is Jones and catcher Matt Wieters. The Orioles acquired outfielder David Lough during the winter largely because they loved the defensive metrics attached to his play, and even as Ryan Flaherty struggled at the plate early this season, Buck Showalter has seen value in his work because of his steadiness in the field.
Going into Saturday’s game, the Orioles had -- remarkably -- made only three errors on the season, the fewest in the majors. They had allowed only two unearned runs. Somebody asked Showalter before Saturday’s game about the Orioles’ almost pristine error total, and Showalter jokingly gawked, in acknowledgment of a possible jinx situation, and asked the reporter where he would be during the game if Baltimore made an error, so he would know where to aim his death stare.
The Orioles made an error in the first inning: Schoop fumbled a grounder in the middle of a Boston rally, and a run scored. The rookie’s defensive skills are exceptional and he has played third base well by all accounts, but he has made three of the team’s four errors, and when Gold Glover Machado comes back, Schoop will play second base.
It was just a one-day hiccup in three weeks of the regular season. No matter the alignment, the defense will continue to be at the core of whatever the Orioles accomplish.
We’ve got the Orioles and Red Sox on "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN and WatchESPN, with a special 7 ET start time. Ubaldo Jimenez will be pitching for the Orioles, looking to be more aggressive with his mechanics. Machado played in his first extended spring game.
MLB's new investigation
Last week, a document retention memo was issued to all 30 teams by Major League Baseball, as it began its investigation of the article posted here April 9, and positioned itself to examine the history of communication of the hundreds of folks employed by the clubs: text messages, phone records, etc. Here's a look at the situation from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
The investigation was prompted by a strongly worded statement from new union chief Tony Clark on April 11:
“I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”
It’s the responsibility of Clark and MLB to protect the integrity of the collective bargaining agreement, of course. But if this is really about the CBA -- which binds club employees and agents from leaking details of negotiations to reporters, or passing on imaginary offers -- then presumably the union will also begin a corollary investigation of the communications of agents and their text messages, emails and phone records to track the interaction with specific reporters, and cross-reference those documents with subsequent reports.
When an agent informs a reporter that a player has drawn interest from a team or teams when in fact there is none, as part of an effort to artificially bolster the player’s market value, that’s a CBA violation. When a report comes out that a player has offers from X number of teams, where is that almost certainly coming from? Yes, the agent. And this has been happening for years and years, and Clark knows it.
When an agent leaks the terms of a deal before the full deal is completed, that’s a violation of the player’s rights under the CBA. But it happens all the time, and MLB and the union know it. Some of the particular reporter-agent quid pro quo relationships are so ingrained and such a consistent stream of seeming disinformation that they've become Baghdad Bob punch lines within the industry.
Similarly, if Major League Baseball is devoted to protecting the sanctity of the CBA, then it will investigate the cases of when club-operated websites have reported news of a contractual agreement -- before the completion of a physical exam, in some cases -- which is a blatant violation of the agreement.
But in all likelihood, the ongoing investigation of the April 9 piece will be an isolated exercise, because in fact this isn’t really about a CBA violation. The union isn’t interested in aggressively pursuing CBA violations by agents -- which occur routinely -- nor is MLB interested in investigating the reporters it employs for evidence. This whole thing is about creating a smokescreen for a negotiating mistake.
Drew and Morales, both represented by renowned agent Scott Boras, each turned down $14.1 million qualifying offers from the Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, respectively. Nelson Cruz and Ervin Santana made the same choice, after getting qualifying offers from the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.
[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Nelson Cruz has had some early success with the Orioles, but he lost a lot of money by declining his qualifying offer from the Rangers.
But something happened. Cruz, Santana, Drew and Morales didn’t receive the expected offers on the open market. Some teams desired to retain the draft pick they would’ve had to surrender for any one of those four; some were concerned about medical information they reviewed; and some teams didn’t view them as difference-making players.
Those four players waited for offers to materialize. Through December. Through January. Through a long, cold offseason.
Finally, Cruz -- who is represented by Adam Katz -- decided to make the best of a bad situation, and he took a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles, landing on a team that gives him a chance to rebuild his value in a good lineup and a ballpark that fits him. Santana got something of a mulligan when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were injuried, and he signed a one-year, $14.1 million to pitch in the NL East and do his homework in a pitchers' park. Cruz and Santana opted to get back to work.
Drew and Morales have continued to wait, through all of March and the first weeks of the regular season. Hundreds of stories about their market stall appeared. About 100 days passed from the time that they rejected their qualifying offers until the article appeared here -- and no team made suitable offers.
So the idea that a handful of anonymous opinions somehow affected their market value is so laughable that it’s incredible that anyone in a position of authority -- Clark, et al -- is taking it seriously.
Boras is upset, as he made clear in Heyman's piece. From the story:
"It's a clear violation of the CBA," Boras said in a phone interview. "As many as five executives continue to use ESPN as a conduit to violate the collective bargaining agreement."
"The bell is rung," Boras continued. "Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew were damaged by these comments."
To make this claim this late in the game -- more than four months after Morales and Drew rejected their qualifying offers -- is like an infielder saying he lost a ground ball in the sun, or a pitcher blaming an eight-run inning on an umpire’s ball-strike call.
Boras is the most prominent agent in professional sports, and he’s made his clients a ton of money, with record-setting contracts. He’s gotten a lot of credit for those deals, and rightly so. I remember when Prince Fielder waited and waited to sign a few winters back, and it appeared that Fielder and Boras were in a terrible position. Then, after Victor Martinez got hurt, Fielder landed a breath-taking $214 million deal with Detroit -- a great contract for Fielder, and a coup for Boras. He received and deserved kudos for it.
But with Morales and Drew, the essential truth is that mistakes were made. Plain and simple. Every day that these two players are not signed and not moving forward with their playing careers, the tote board of lost money continues to roll over.
After the new rules were negotiated -- with the draft-pick compensation affecting far fewer players than in the past, a good thing for the players -- a lot of agents struck quickly for their clients. Larry Reynolds moved swiftly in the fall of 2012 and worked out a five-year, $75 million deal for B.J. Upton before the start of the winter meetings. Curtis Granderson reached an agreement in early December, despite the fact that the Mets had to give up their second-round pick to sign him (their first-rounder is protected). Brian McCann quickly settled on a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees. Agents privately explained that under the new system, they believed it would be important to get their clients off the board -- before the money dried up and teams settled into their winter malaise.
The last two winters, Boras has represented the last unsigned players: Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse in 2013, and now Morales and Drew.
Boras has made his case repeatedly that the draft-pick compensation is unfair to some players, and he’s absolutely right in that. But it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to complain about the rules that aren’t going to change right in the middle of the game.
The investigation is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, and it’s a little stunning that instead of wasting time and resources and fostering anxiety for team employees in a red herring investigation, Clark and MLB officials don’t simply buck up and tell Drew, Morales and Boras: Sorry, there’s no real issue here. The only problem is that you guys gambled that you’d get more than $14.1 million, and it didn't happen. The system we have is the same system that’s been in place for two full years, and while you might not like it, it’s a negotiated piece of the collective bargaining agreement. You have no one to blame but yourselves.
Around the league
• On Friday’s podcast, Reds manager Bryan Price explained Joey Votto's move into the No. 2 hole in the lineup, while Justin Havens and Karl Ravech went next-level on Yangervis Solarte and Robinson Cano.
• Jackie Bradley Jr. has demonstrated the strength of his arm repeatedly this April, cutting down some runners and discouraging others from trying to advance. Like a lot of other players, including Derek Jeter, he was taught at a young age the value of daily long-tossing -- playing catch with a partner and gradually extending the distance to build and maintain arm strength.
Bradley once watched Trevor Bauer go through his long-toss work from foul line to foul line, and wanted to see if he could do that. One day at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Bradley recalled, he stood at the right field foul line and threw toward the left field foul line -- and went past it, into the stands.
• After talking with Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, Dan Bickley perceives that Kevin Towers is in greater jeopardy of losing his job than Kirk Gibson, partly because Arizona doesn’t use advanced metrics as much as other teams.
The Diamondbacks lost again Saturday, as Nick Piecoro writes; they are 5-15.
• Bryce Harper was benched for not hustling.
Here’s what Harper said. Here’s what Matt Williams said.
Andrew McCutchen was benched once for a similar transgression. He went to Clint Hurdle and acknowledged that he blew it, took his punishment and moved on and speaks openly to this day about how he made a mistake.
• So far, so good in Max Scherzer's decision to forgo the six-year offer from the Tigers: He beat the Angels, and now has a 2.33 ERA, with 34 strikeouts and seven walks in 27 innings. From ESPN Stats & Info, here's how he won:
A. Scherzer got to two strikes on 19 of 25 hitters and retired 15 of them. The 76 percent of plate appearances to reach two strikes matches his highest in a start in the last two seasons.
B. The Angels missed on 56 percent of their swings against Scherzer's off-speed pitches, the highest such percentage by any opponent against Scherzer in the last two seasons.
C. Scherzer's four strikeouts with his changeup were one shy of his season high from last season, and the Angels were 0-for-8 in at-bats ending with his changeup.
D. Sixty-four percent (9-of-14) balls the Angels put in play against Scherzer were grounders. That matches the second-highest percentage by any team in a game against Scherzer in his five years on the Tigers.
• The Orioles can’t quite figure out why they were warned after a dust-up between Bud Norris and David Ross.
• Bo Porter barked at Jed Lowrie on Friday after it appeared that the Astros may have tried to hit Lowrie on purpose following a bunt. Here’s the video, and I agree completely with what Lowrie said: If it’s OK for the Astros to shift against Lowrie, no matter the score, then it should be OK to bunt, especially so early in the game.
Dings and dents
1. Cole Hamels is ready to go.
2. Adam Eaton strained his hamstring. Not good.
3. David Robertson is ready to go.
4. Shane Victorino ran without hesitation.
5. Aroldis Chapman is ready to throw live batting practice.
6. Sean Marshall was activated.
7. Clayton Kershaw is scheduled for a simulated game.
8. A tweet by Delino DeShields Jr. got a lot of attention.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Ike Davis is looking forward to playing more with the Pirates.
I wonder how the lineup will play in close games -- given the high number of strikeouts that Davis and Pedro Alvarez generate -- because undoubtedly, opposing pitchers and catchers will look to get to their spots in the lineup if they need a strikeout. So far this season, Alvarez has cut down his strikeout rate, to 19 in 80 plate appearances, but is hitting .162, and Davis struck out 101 times in 377 plate appearances last season.
2. The Indians made the right call with Aaron Harang, writes Paul Hoynes.
3. Pablo Sandoval is slumping, and Bruce Bochy intends to give him some time off.
4. Jedd Gyorko will remain in place.
1. Ivan Nova and the Yankees were destroyed. Nova walked off with right elbow soreness. For the Yankees, this is the first test in a long season.
2. Brock Holt got a big hit for the Red Sox.
3. The Braves beat the Mets again, despite a late-inning blip. From ESPN Stats & Info, how Ervin Santana won:
A. For the second straight start, Santana threw his changeup 21 times. He had thrown it that many times only once in the previous five seasons. He got six outs with the pitch, and allowed no baserunners with it. Lefties were 0-for-4 against the pitch, and 2-for-12 against Santana overall.
B. He allowed his first hit of the season against his slider, but still struck out five hitters with it. Opposing hitters are now 1-for-20 (.050) with 12 strikeouts in at-bats ending with Santana's slider this season.
C. Santana worked around baserunners early in innings; in six of his seven innings, he allowed one of the first two men to reach. As a result, he threw 64 pitches with men on base -- his highest total in the last three seasons -- but Mets hitters were 2-for-16 with men on against him. With men on, Santana leaned on his slider, throwing it 39 percent of the time. He threw it 26 percent of the time with the bases empty.
4. The Cubs snapped a losing streak.
5. Ryan Braun took down the Pirates.
6. Jose Reyes came back, and the Jays won.
7. Henderson Alvarez dominated, Clark Spencer writes.
8. Wil Myers and the Rays crushed a bunch of homers.
• Evan Longoria's home run Saturday was the 164th of his career, breaking a tie with Carlos Pena for most all time by a Ray.
Most career home runs in Rays history:
Evan Longoria: 164*
Carlos Pena: 163
Aubrey Huff: 128
B.J. Upton: 118
* Homered on Saturday
• The Toronto bullpen has been overworked.
• The Royals are on a roll.
• Billy Butler has not been plugged in at the plate.
• The Indians made mistakes.
• The Twins couldn’t touch the K.C. bullpen.
• Depth and versatility keep paying off for Oakland.
• Colby Lewis got a sentimental win.
• The Rangers continue to test their depth.
• Lucas Duda must now produce for the Mets.
• The Cardinals are loaded with young outfielders.
• Tony Cruz is hitting despite not getting consistent at-bats.
• Everybody’s got an opinion, says Bryan Price.
• Charlie Blackmon is starring for the Rockies.
• Ryne Sandberg is the latest manager to be upset with the inconsistency of calls.
• The Pirates are learning the hard way what is and isn’t an out.
• Brad Ausmus is baffled by some replay calls. From this piece:
Earlier this season, Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine dropped a ball as he transferred it from his glove to his throwing hand as he attempted to turn a double play in a game against Baltimore. Instead of the runner at second being out, both runners were ruled safe. Ausmus lost the challenge.
Ausmus said how the transfer play would be interpreted was discussed in spring training, “but I don’t know the explanation we got ahead of time has held any water.”
• Jason Kendall has written a book.
And today will be better than yesterday.
MLB must fix the transfer rule now.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
BOSTON -- We can all agree that it would've been better to test the implementation of the replay system over the course of a summer, so that all of the technological and interpretative kinks could've been worked out in all 30 ballparks through the sort of extensive trial-and-error that is now taking place at the outset of the 2014 season.
But at this point, that's like someone in a lifeboat saying out loud to fellow survivors, "We should've packed more flares and food, and water.” That's the guy you want to punch in the mouth.
It really doesn't matter anymore how Major League Baseball got here. What matters is how it reacts, how it adapts, how it deals with what seems like a daily squall of controversy stemming from some of the implemented changes.
And their No. 1 crisis at the moment -- the spot where they're taking on the most water, as we saw at Fenway Park on Sunday Night Baseball -- is the interpretation of that precise instant when a player is ruled to have caught the ball: the transfer rule. MLB needs to patch this over as soon as possible, and officials are working to do that, perhaps by the end of the month. Hopefully, it happens sooner than that.
As our colleague Jayson Stark wrote recently, a play that was called by umpires in real time for more than a century seems to have become a muddle because the actions are being seen and dissected in slow motion and high definition for the first time. Before each movement was shot in thousands of frames per second, the question of when a catch became a catch was never really asked in the way that it is being asked in 2014.
Almost certainly, the way that Ryan Flaherty made the play on Sunday night would have been ruled a catch in the past: The ball was received deep into his mitt, he drew his glove closer to his throwing hand, and then, as he worked to extricate the ball out of the ball, it fell to the ground. For hundreds of years, that was a catch, and a drop on the transfer. One out.
But the transfer is being interpreted differently this year -- so that the ball almost has to be grasped in the bare hand for a moment, after being transferred, before an attempted throw, in order to be ruled a catch. Flaherty was charged with an error, and instead of many on first base and two outs, there were men on first and second and one out. The Red Sox would go on to score twice in that seventh inning to tie the game before winning in the ninth.
Replay was put in place to correct mistakes, but in this case, it appears to launched Major League Baseball into a place it probably didn't want to go, a gray area that can make your head spin. It's something akin to Bill Clinton's deposition in 1998: "It depends on what your definition of the word 'is' is."
MLB was already reviewing how this play was being called, and on Sunday, it seemed the most likely place for change was in the transfer plays for outfielders. But hopefully, in the conversations with the umpires and players union, MLB takes a step back from the abyss of how something like this can turn into navel-gazing, and makes a quick change: Call it the way you called it before.
How we got here is irrelevant now. As one basketball coach noted about dealing with adversity, what matters is the NBA: next best action.
Brittany Ghiroli writes that Flahery took responsibility. From her piece:
"That's the way the rule is," Flaherty said of the hotly debated transfer play. "I didn't turn the double play like I should have."
Boston capitalized, with Pedroia singling and Ortiz knocking in a run to close the gap to one and prompt Showalter to insert Evan Meek. Meek got a grounder from Napoli, and Schoop fielded it cleanly, but his throw to home was off line, allowing the Red Sox to tie it up.
Showalter, who like many others around baseball has been confounded by the new interpretation of the transfer rule, said he never thought about challenging the play.
"It's a waste of time," he said. "That hasn't been overturned all year. I've got a young pitcher out there, a cold pitcher, it's 40 degrees. They would look at it for about thirty seconds, that's the good news. They haven't overturned one of those all year. Wasn't even worth challenging. Maybe in two weeks it will be. Which is what I'm hearing."
Peter Schmuck says the transfer play is now a national embarrassment.
Showalter also wondered why they couldn't appeal the question of whether Pedroia had properly tagged up on the final play of the game.
Fenway Park helped Boston heal, again, writes Michael Silverman. The Red Sox rallied, writes Peter Abraham.
• Mike Napoli had an interesting week of games, between getting smoked on the knee by a pitch Sunday night and dislocating a finger while sliding in Chicago on Tuesday.
Napoli is dealing with the finger trouble by constantly taping two fingers together, something he has to re-do over and over during games. When he's in the field, he tapes his middle finger and ring finger together, before tucking them into his first baseman's mitt. When he bats, however, Napoli uses batting gloves, so he has to peel off the tape over the bare fingers and pull on the batting glove before taping the two gloved fingers together. Napoli said that he's had situations when he's due to bat fifth in an inning and he's not sure whether he needs a new tape job, and when the rallies have developed quickly, he's scrambled to throw tape off and applying new tape as he steps out of the dugout.
• Meanwhile, J.J. Hardy has a hamstring strain.
Around the league
• Instant replay helped the Marlins sweep Seattle.
• Carlos Gomez tends to annoy opponents, and on Sunday, he annoyed Gerrit Cole, whose response to him kicked off a brawl that was short but nasty.
Here's Gomez's take on the incident.
Three were ejected, as Travis Sawchik writes. The Pirates were not happy with the actions of Martin Maldonado, who might wind up getting the biggest piece of discipline because of the punch he threw at Travis Snider.
• A lot of the questions about the Tigers' release of Alex Gonzalez are fair and appropriate. Was it a mistake for Detroit to trade the usable Steve Lombardozzi, an infielder with minor league options, for Gonzalez? Yes. Was it a relatively expensive mistake, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars? Yes.
The bigger mistake -- the compounding of the initial mistake -- would have been to retain Gonzalez after they determined for themselves that he couldn't play shortstop anymore. And that's clearly what Manager Brad Ausmus felt. From Rod Beard's story:
"It's not certainly anything we wanted to do. Gonzo has worked hard, had a tremendous career and in his prime was one of the better shortstops in the game of baseball,” manager Brad Ausmus said. "Time takes its toll on everyone. At this point, we decided to make a change and bring Danny Worth up.”
• Something we haven't seen often: Derek Jeter was removed for a pinch-runner.
• Prince Fielder is frustrated by defensive shifts, writes Gerry Fraley.
• Albert Pujols is closing in on 500 homers.
• The Astros have lost seven straight. At their current trajectory, they would finish the season with 42 wins, a run differential of -349. But they have a better record and run differential than the Diamondbacks.
Dings and dents
1. Ivan Nova is probably facing Tommy John surgery.
2. Matt Harvey is making progress in his rehab.
3. Clayton Kershaw continues to make progress. The Dodgers are hopeful he'll be back in early May, writes Dylan Hernandez.
4. Carlos Gonzalez hurt his knee.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Bobby Abreu was summoned to the big leagues, as Kristie Ackert writes.
2. Tyler Lyons is the guy stepping into Joe Kelly's spot in the St. Louis rotation.
3. Vidal Nuno, a candidate for the Yankees' rotation, helped them win Sunday.
4. Kyle Farnsworth is taking over as the Mets' closer.
5. Jedd Gyorko got a day off.
6. Billy Butler will likely move back into the cleanup spot in the K.C. lineup, writes Andy McCullough.
1. Stephen Strasburg had a solid game.
2. Yasiel Puig put on a show.
3. The Blue Jays couldn't quite finish off the sweep.
4. The Cardinals made mistakes.
5. Nick Castellanos came through at the plate, again.
6. Asdrubal Cabrera had a good day.
7. Buster Posey broke out of a slump.
8. The Rays split a series. A sign was missed.
• Bryce Harper needed a reality check, writes Thomas Boswell.
• Ryan Howard almost completed a cycle.
• Some late defensive changes are paying off for Ryne Sandberg.
• Curtis Granderson is struggling at the plate.
• An adjustment helped Evan Gattis.
• The Pirates have had some rotation struggles so far this year.
• Zack Cozart joined the hit parade, as John Fay writes.
• Billy Hamilton's been hitting better.
• Trevor Cahill has pitched well out of the bullpen.
• Mark Kiszla writes that Troy Tulowitzki's time with the Rockies might be running short.
• The past 10 games played by the Giants have been decided by 11 runs, writes Henry Schulman.
• Kevin Gausman had a strong start in Triple-A.
• The Red Sox shift their defenses based on the pitcher.
• Yordano Ventura had a bad day.
• The White Sox offense is capable of some fireworks.
• Yu Darvish is going to confront a nemesis today.
• They Mariners aren't panicking after six straight losses, writes Ryan Divish.
• Jesse Chavez: pitcher of the century?
• Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will play against each other in a series that starts today.
• Yadier Molina does a lot for the Cardinals.
• A 100-year-old Cubs fan won't have to wait until next year.
And today will be better than yesterday.
How MLB can fix rule problems right now.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The three major rule changes/adjustments that MLB made over the winter -- instant replay, banning collisions at home and the "transfer" rule -- have already caused a lot of controversy this season. On one hand, I think MLB should be commended for being proactive, but it's clear all of the modifications need a little tweaking.
While I understand why the sport would want to wait until the winter to change anything, I think MLB should look to make some needed tweaks before the first of May, even if it means invoking the "best interests of baseball" clause. Remember, MLB instituted instant replay on home runs in August 2008, so there is precedent for major rule changes during the season.
Here are the changes I would recommend for each controversial rule.
1. Instant Replay
Intent: To make sure obvious mistakes get corrected, and quickly.
What's worked: Pretty much every review -- once it has reached command center -- has been completed in a timely manner, and MLB Advanced Media seems to have created a technologically sound system.
What hasn't worked: The process before the challenge and the umpiring in the command center. Managers are wasting time by stalling, walking out slowly and chatting with the ump before being told by a player or coach if they should challenge. The amount of wasted time for non-challenged plays is unacceptable, and the fact that we have to review plays just to review plays doesn't make sense. The worst part has been the few instances when the video umpires in New York have blown calls that should have been reversed. The Red Sox-Yankees game of last Saturday was case and point when Yankees shortstop Dean Anna's foot was clearly off the base and Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts was clearly tagging him out. The umpires called him safe, and when it was reviewed, the umpire at the command center didn't overturn it. How is that possible when this was a nationally televised game where any fan was able to see five angles, with three of them clearly showing us he was out? (The command center has all the video feeds and replays that we had.) Human error? Laziness? Busy watching other games? Not spending the time to see all the angles? Not using slow motion? Going to the bathroom? Eating a tuna sandwich? All of the above? Some of the above? Angel Hernandez? It's unacceptable in any case.
How to fix it: There should be one video umpire assigned to each game. The present system has an umpire checking multiple games at the same time. Secondly, they need to make that umpire accountable by announcing his name with the other four umpires at the time of the game. That umpire should be subject to the same accountability as the four umpires on the field; he's part of the crew.
They should be reviewing every play before it's officially challenged by the team so that they have an answer for the ump on the field as soon as he puts the headset on to talk to command center. If it's inconclusive, then they shouldn't overturn a call. But with today's technology, there really shouldn't be many, if any, inconclusive calls. The Dean Anna decision can't take place. And the change can be made immediately.
At the end of the season, baseball should eradicate the manager's challenge system. Instead there should be a five-umpire system, with four on the field and one in the command center in New York. On every close play, whether the manager comes out and argues or not, the video umpire should be studying all of the angles and speak directly to the crew chief and overturn any missed calls. Replay shouldn't be about manager strategy, it should be about correcting mistakes.
Baseball is getting more calls right than ever before, we just need to tweak it to make the system more efficient.
2. Banning home-late collisions
Intent: To reduce concussions and other serious injuries to catchers.
What's worked: There hasn't been a single injury to a catcher because of a collision.
What hasn't worked: Umpires, managers and players all seem to be interpreting the new rule differently, and there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes blocking the plate. We're seeing indecisive runners, and I could easily see injuries stemming from them not knowing how to behave and making an awkward slide.
How to fix it: Adopt the college rule, which is basically as follows: A fielder can block the plate when he has clear possession of the ball, and a runner is prohibited from making "unnecessary and violent" contact. And any contact the runner does make must be below the waist. In other words, a runner can make a hard slide through a fielder, but he can't barrel over him. College players have no problem with this rule, and a large number of MLB players should be familiar with it from having played college ball.
Managers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals have been preaching this concept from day one, and why the industry doesn't listen to them is beyond me.
3: Transfer Rule
Intent: Enforce an existing rule.
What's worked: The communication of the new rule to the managers and players.
What hasn't worked: Just about everything. Sure, they all understand it -- it's just that no one likes it or agrees with it. At least no general manager, manager or player I've spoken with. This is the rule change that makes no sense to me, as I can't remember anyone having an issue with it to begin with. It used to be accepted that if a fielder dropped the ball while making a transfer, he got credit for the catch as long as he had possession for a split-second before the transfer. Now that doesn't count as a catch, and fielders and runners are confused. I understand why we wanted instant replay. I understand why we have the new collision rule. No one was complaining about the transfer rule.
Read David Schoenfield's breakdown for more on that.
How to fix it: Go back to the same way it was called last year and every other year before that.
Again, I think MLB should be commended for wanting to adjust with the times, but they should also be willing to adapt on the fly. They did it in 2008 when they instituted instant replay on home runs, and I hope they show a similar willingness to change this season.
How I'd fix the Diamondbacks.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Entering the season, many people saw the Arizona Diamondbacks as a .500 team with an outside shot at the playoffs. After a 4-14 start, those postseason odds seem remote because not only is this team losing, it's getting crushed -- with a run differential that would be comparable to the '62 Mets if prorated over a full season.
The D-backs have made a lot of mistakes in recent years in their attempt to mimic the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, teams that have thrived by targeting "high-character" players. The difference is that Arizona did this at the expense of talent, something Boston or St. Louis never did.
For example, the trades of Justin Upton and Adam Eaton were both made with team chemistry in mind, but those players are better than the guys who replaced them -- Mark Trumbo and A.J. Pollock. And the D-backs also had to give up Tyler Skaggs in the Eaton deal, a quality young starter they could desperately use right now.
So what should Arizona do? A lot of fans probably want to see GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson fired, but I don't think that is the solution. They were both recently given contract extensions -- terms were not disclosed -- but they have good continuity with president Derrick Hall and owner Ken Kendrick, and continuity is a virtue.
I'd like to think that Towers and Gibson can learn from recent mistakes and start rebuilding the team with talent as the priority. The good news for the D-backs is they have some intriguing trade assets.
Looking at Arizona's roster, four names jump out to me as trade candidates: Aaron Hill, Martin Prado, Miguel Montero and Trumbo. All four have reasonable contracts and could help a contender, but they don't fit the D-backs' ideal long-term roster.
Hill: When healthy, Hill has been solid for the D-Backs since Towers acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Kelly Johnson, a deal he clearly won. Hill, now 32 years old and owed $11 million this season and $12 million each in 2015 and 2016, is a luxury for a rebuilding team but a moderate cost for a contender. At least three theoretical contenders come to mind -- the San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles and Blue Jays -- who are getting virtually nothing from second base and could use a player like Hill.
If the D-Backs deal Hill, they could then move rookie Chris Owings to second and put their best defensive shortstop, Didi Gregorius, back in that spot. A young Gregorius-Owings double-play combination should be a long-term solution and allow the D-backs to concentrate on starting pitching and corner-outfield needs.
Prado: The 30-year-old is owed $11 million this season and the next two. Like Hill, he wouldn't be a huge expenditure for a team in contention. The benefit of Prado is that he could be marketed as a third baseman, second baseman or super utilityman because he can also play left field.
One club that makes a lot of sense is the Giants. They reportedly offered Pablo Sandoval a three-year, $40 million deal that he turned down, and it seems certain he will test free agency. Prado could replace Sandoval at third -- or play second -- and give San Francisco some cost certainty for a few seasons, something the Giants desperately need considering their huge salary commitments to Buster Posey, Matt Cain and Hunter Pence.
The D-backs, on the other hand, could use another dynamic power bat in their lineup and have shown a willingness to spend on free agents, as demonstrated by their pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka. They could easily give Sandoval the kind of deal that the Giants aren't willing to give him right now.
Montero: This continues a theme of players who are good yet too expensive and not quite good enough for a team in Arizona's position. The 30-year-old Montero is signed through 2017 and could help a few contenders in need of a catcher, most notably the Texas Rangers. If I were Towers, I'd be calling Rangers GM Jon Daniels every day to see what I could get for Montero.
Trumbo: The D-backs' outfield is really dysfunctional right now, and no one represents this better than Trumbo, a guy who can hit 40 homers but should be limited to first base or DH. Of course, the D-backs already have a superstar first baseman in Paul Goldschmidt -- the best discovery/long-term deal of the Towers era -- so Trumbo has to play left field, where he is a liability.
As a result, Arizona has Pollock, a decent player but not a starter on a championship team, in center and Gerardo Parra, an elite glove whose bat doesn't profile in a corner, in right. The D-backs should be looking to move Trumbo, who won't be a free agent until after the 2016 season, to a team that needs a first baseman -- like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins or Mets. Then they can replace him with Cody Ross when he comes off the DL. At least Ross' glove is adequate.
With all these players, the D-backs should be looking to get young pitching in return, which brings us to their next step.
Call up Bradley
Archie Bradley is arguably the best pitching prospect in the minors right now, and the D-backs should call him up whether or not he is ready. Based on what I've seen, he'll succeed now with his fastball and breaking ball alone. And those who are worried about whether he could handle the pressure of pitching for the lowly Diamondbacks haven't met him yet. He is a dynamic personality with great makeup, character and intelligence, and he can handle the pressure of the big leagues.
And if he's not ready, the D-backs can option him back to the minors, the way the Cardinals did with Michael Wacha after promoting him in May last season before bringing him back up in August.
Part of the reason Arizona needs to do this is because its best pitcher, Patrick Corbin, is out for the season and another one of its starters doesn't look right. Bronson Arroyo's back appears to be bothering him -- he complained about it during spring training -- and he should be shut down until he is 100 percent. He's the kind of pitcher who won't ask out of the rotation, and the D-backs need to try to salvage the two-year deal they just gave him. He has a 9.95 ERA right now, so it's not as if he's been effective.
The D-backs made some mistakes in recent years, but it's time to learn from them. They need to shop their moderately priced veterans in search of the best pitching talent they can get and move toward the future by promoting Gregorius and Bradley. With a couple of shrewd moves, they are not that far from contending. But they can't double down on their mistakes of the past.
Kolek makes case for draft's top arm.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Shepherd (Texas) High School right-hander Tyler Kolek is the top prep righty in the draft class this year. He’s one of a handful of prep arms to hit 100 mph already, but he also brings unusual size and strength to the table. It’s a combination that makes him unlikely to get out of the top five picks and a good bet to go in the top two.
Kolek threw on Thursday evening at home, about an hour northeast of Houston, and while he didn't hit triple digits, he still worked with plus velocity. Kolek was 93-97, mostly sitting 95-96, showing good two-seam life on some of the pitches, with others straightening out because he overthrew them. He throws a hard, slurvy slider that is average to above-average when he's pitching to a right-handed batter, 79-83 with sharp break and good tilt. However, it gets sloppy with a left-handed batter at the plate, as Kolek tries too hard to hit the outside corner and the pitch loses its sharpness and some of its angle. He has a changeup but barely uses it -- at this level, it's just doing hitters who can't catch up to 94-plus velocity a favor.
Kolek is massive for a high school student -- I've seen him listed at 6-foot-5 and anywhere from 230 to 250 pounds, but eyeballing it I'd guess he's closer to 265-270. He looks like a late-20s Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan, with a strong trunk and legs to generate all that power. The other body comparison I might offer is Jeff Juden, who started out at 6-8, 240 pounds but peaked near 300 pounds in 1994. The challenge for Kolek will be maintaining his conditioning, and the challenge for scouts is to convince themselves he's up to the task.
His delivery works well from start to finish, as he stays tall over the rubber then takes a powerful step-over stride forward. He pronates his forearm right on time with his landing, and he finishes well over his front side -- combine that with his height and right-handed hitters must think he's throwing at them from two feet away. He doesn't land perfectly online to the plate, starting on the first base side of the rubber but landing in front of the rubber's opposite end, which probably gives him a little more deception against right-handed hitters. He's not cutting himself off to the point where he's throwing across his body, fortunately. He lost the handle for a stretch in the third inning; after striking out six straight batters, he hit a batter with two outs, threw a wild pitch, walked the next batter and then threw another wild pitch to let the runner score.
AP Photo/Frank Gunn
Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 MLB draft, underwent Tommy John surgery.
Kolek reminded me a lot of Jameson Taillon, another Houston-area prep right-hander who had size and velocity, but didn't have command or consistency with his breaking ball. Taillon had the same habit of rushing his delivery and yanking the ball to his glove side, resulting in flat sliders and fastballs to the backstop, and he benefited from the move to pro ball where Pittsburgh's pitching coaches could work on keeping his rhythm consistent from pitch to pitch while also getting him to stay online to the plate. (Unfortunately, Taillon injured his elbow this spring and will miss the 2014 season after Tommy John surgery.) Taillon was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and was No. 3 on my board that year going into the draft.
Kolek fits in the same range in this draft class, especially without a position player who's worthy of the first overall spot. And even though he's a high school right-hander, there's a measure of safety in taking Kolek -- no one is getting fired for taking the 6-5 kid who throws 100 mph. And oh, by the way, scouts will be back to Shepherd next year to see Kolek's younger brother Stephen, who's not as thickset as Tyler but is 6-3 and was already hitting the low 90s as a rising junior last summer.
" A “pop-up” guy, in the draft vernacular, is a player who wasn't on the industry radar at all, or at least not for a pick in the top five rounds, but who emerges in the spring and jumps up into that range on draft boards. It causes a scramble to get enough looks at him to validate a decision to take him and pay him the commensurate bonus for a pick that high. Heath Fillmyer at Mercer County Community College in Trenton, N.J., is about as clear an example of a pop-up guy as you'll find: He was primarily a shortstop last year, throwing just 7.1 innings for Mercer, and the Rockies took him in the 28th round to try to convert him to pitching full time. (It's too bad it didn't work out for them, but that's a great job by their area scout.)
Fillmyer is filled-out physically already, and at 6-1 will have to show he can work down in the zone with his fastball. He was mostly 91-94 on Sunday when I saw him, but did touch 96, and he was mostly around the plate although his control is way ahead of his command right now. He showed at least an average curveball, 79-81 mph mostly, getting slurvier when he threw it harder (up to 84), short with some two-plane break, and he threw it for strikes. He's very athletic and his delivery is surprisingly clean and easy for someone with very limited pitching experience.
The run he gave up on Sunday, which was unearned, was the first he'd given up all season in 36 innings; he's punched out about 40 percent of the batters he's faced. Fillmyer will need to work on several things in pro ball, from getting some downhill plane on his fastball to developing a third pitch, but as a very signable, athletic pitcher with two average or better offerings already, I think he'll go before the end of the third round.