The history of all hitherto existing ballgames is the history of base struggles.
Hurler and slugger, ace and masher, closer and bunter, mop-up man and clean-up hitter, in a word, pitcher and batter, stand in opposition to one another. They carry on a fight, hidden and in the open, a fight that each time ends with quick resolution in only three outs or common ruin writ large across the bases and scoreboard.
In the previous epoch of baseball, we found almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of ephemeral factors which were believed to have led to a significant increase in offensive production across the league. Off the field, we had focused weight training, performance enhancing drugs, and advanced medical procedures. On the field, we had shrinking strike zones, body armor, maple bats, and pitch counts.
The modern era of deflated WHIP and OPS that has sprouted from the ruins of the offensive explosion has not done away with baseball antagonism. It has established new villains and heroes, new conditions of domination, new forms of at-bats in place of the old ones.
The aggregate ERA of the league has dropped to a meager 3.86, down from the halcyon days of 4.32 in 2009 and 2008. Slugging percentage, the lifeblood of the hard-working designated hitter, has fallen in two years from .418 to .390.
This new revolution was brought about with a tool of insidious quietude, the creeping rise of K/BB rate. In the long-past days of the offensive explosion, the league K/BB rate hovered comfortably around 2.00. In 1999/2000, perhaps the zenith of the hitters’ epoch, K/BB dipped into the 1.7s. Unsurprisingly, ERA rose into the 4.7s. Today, in these dark times, the league K/BB is an uncharacteristically high 2.16. But where did this come from?
The circulation of baseballs over home plate is the starting point of strikeouts. The throwing of baseballs, and the more developed form called “pitching” create the historical groundwork from which this era of strikeouts arises. The modern history of strikeouts dates from their creation in the 19th century, in a world which slowly came to embrace pitching. Firstly, a third strike could be thrown over the plate and not swung at, resulting in an out. Hurlers were allowed to throw overhand. Batters could no longer specify whether they wanted the ball low or high. The development of the strikeout led to a dramatic change in baseball related transactions between pitcher and batter
To generalize, there are two sorts of transaction between the pitcher and the batter. The simplest form of circulating baseballs is known as “pitching to contact”, in which the objective is to induce the batter to strike the ball with the bat in the hope that such striking will be ineffective and render the ball directly to the pitcher’s teammates. This transaction can be simplified into the following pitch sequence, in which B represents pitches outside of the strike zone, K pitches within, and H the intended contact: B-K-B-K-H. The pitcher uses balls and strikes to set up the batter in order to force him to swing and make contact. When the batter strikes the baseball, both the batter and pitcher are placed in equal positions as described by the terms of BAbip. Therefore, pitching to contact places both participants on even footing. This is not only the most egalitarian form of circulating baseballs, but also the original, as intended before even the called-strike rule was implemented in the 1850s.
Alongside this form of pitching, we find another specifically different form: K-B-K-B-K. This is simplified from the actual form that real-world pitching takes, but it exemplifies the desired effect. The pitcher begins with a strike, then pitches a ball, and eventually converts his pitches into a strikeout.
Both forms are resolvable into the same antithetical phases: K-B, an attempt to force the batter into swinging at a bad pitch, and B-K, an attempt to placate the batter into taking a good pitch. In both of these phases the same elements–a ball and a strike–and the same baseball dramatis personae–pitcher and batter–confront each other. Each form unifies these phases, but one reconciles them in a balanced outcome: “H”, or contact with the baseball.
What distinguishes the two forms is the manner in which they are resolved. The simple act of pitching to contact begins with a pitch and ends with a ball in play. The majority of balls in play, as evidenced by a league-wide BAbip of .300, turn into outs. Meanwhile, short of a walk, the only method for a batter to reach base is to put the ball in play. Therefore contact is a mutually desired outcome.
The ciruit K-B-K-B-K, on the contrary, begins with a strike and ends with a strike. The strikeout is the leading motive of the pitcher, and the goal that attracts the repetition of strikes. The strikeout brings another batter to the plate, without involving the prior hitter or any fielder, and allows another strikeout to take place immediately subsequent. The circulation of strikeouts has no limits, other than the 27 standard outs which constrain the game of baseball.
The pitcher who throws strikeouts therefor becomes the strikeout pitcher. His person, or rather his arm, becomes the point from which strikes begin and strikeouts return. With every strike he throws, whether fooling the batter over the plate or inducing him to swing against the wind, his sole objective becomes the expansion of his K/BB rate. The restless, never-ending process of striking out batter after batter is his aim. The circulation of the baseball becomes an independant process, devoid of input from the batter.
But if strikeouts beget strikeouts, where does the value in pitching come from? A cursory glance at baseball-reference or fangraphs tells us that pitching has value, whether it is represented in WAR or VORP or WPA. Quite simply, this value is extracted from the batters themselves: from their effort to reach the ball or incorrectly discern its outward dive. Even in these flashes of futility, the batter provides a modicum of labor. This labor is converted into value for the pitcher and the batter is left with nothing, neither the fruit of his effort or even the lop-sided roll of the BAbip dice.
But what is to be done? If the reign of the hitter has been replaced by the tyranny of the pitcher via the conversion of bat-labor into strikeout value, is there any hope for the beleaguered batsman?
The hitters must use their strength and supremacy to wrest all strikeouts from the pitchers. They must follow in the path of Jose Bautista, the leader of the vanguard which intends to seize the means of (run) production from the oppressive regime of the pitching elite. He does not fear the power of the strikeout and the imbalance inherent within the circulation of baseballs. With 20 HR and a .500 OBP in these trying times, Bautista is a model for future revolutionaries.
In the footsteps of Bautista the hitters will, by means of revolution, make themselves the ruling class once more, sweep away the conditions of strikeouts, and eliminate the current state of batter/pitcher antagonism. The K/BB rate will drop to 2.00 (or perhaps lower) and the era of the unfettered home run and base hit will begin anew.
Working Hitters of All Teams, Unite!
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, Contracts, Ryan Braun, St. Louis Cardinals
Just about two months into the season, Albert Pujols is putting up a thoroughly disappointing .257/.326/.395 batting line. Fangraphs has him at only .8 WAR on the season to go along with a negative WPA (-.41). Some of this is BAbip related, but he’s also hitting almost 50% groundballs, which doesn’t do any favors for a guy not known for his speed. It’s ugly.
I expect Pujols will rebound. Or perhaps that he’s injured and refuses to acknowledge it in a contract year. Either way, I highly doubt we’re seeing the real Albert Pujols. But this gives me a good opportunity to write about something that I thought a lot about during the Pujols contract extension talks, as well as after the recent extension given to Ryan Braun. That is the risk-shifting function of long term extensions and how little that seems to affect certain negotiations.
There’s no way to really know what Albert Pujols and his agent asked for at the beginning of their dialog with the Cardinals front office this winter. However, what little we do know indicates that he was looking for a contract in the range of Alex Rodriguez’s 10 year/$275 million deal from 2007. The reasoning was solid. Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball. By pure OPS, he’s been the best right handed hitter of all time. He believed he deserved to be paid like it.
Alex Rodriguez’s deal, however, was not an extension. In the unlikely event that talks broke down between him and the Yankees, he could have chosen to sign with another team. That wasn’t the case with the Cardinals and Pujols last winter. No matter what happened between the parties, Albert Pujols would play in STL in 2011. And no matter what happened, the Cardinals would pay Pujols $16 million for his services.
With that in mind, the Cardinals should have never topped Alex Rodriguez’s record contract. And Pujols’s agent shouldn’t have expected them to, although baseball teams have done stranger things. A pre-2011 extension shifted the risk of the 2011 season from Pujols to the team. And, even with the best player in baseball, that is a significant risk.
I’m not talking about decline. There’s a fair amount of historical precedent that the best players age slowly and Pujols could be expected to produce fantastic numbers for at least 5-6 more years. (On the other hand, there is Jimmie Foxx, whose career was fairly similar to Pujols). Injury is also a factor. A hip injury or disorder could sap Pujols’s power (see Albert Belle). A freak accident and broken leg could put him out for a year and call his career value into question (see Kendry Morales, perhaps Buster Posey). A foul ball could injure his eye, or his elbow could finally explode, or he could cut his hand with a hunting knife. All of this is exceptionally unlikely, and it only happens to a few players a year, but it happens. And so does a bad streak of luck, an unprecedented GB%, and a possible sudden drop in interest from certain money-conscious team. If Pujols ends the season with an OPS under .800, how many GMs will line up to give him a record 10 year contract?
All of this risk moves to the team with an extension. If Pujols’s career takes a downturn for any reason, he still gets the ridiculous amount of money he’s promised on his new contract. And the Cardinals, or perhaps an insurer (in the case of unexpected catastrophic injury) still has to pay him.
I’m not saying the Cardinals did the right thing. I have no idea what happened between them. I still think both sides could have found a reasonable, agreeable contract. And I think both sides would have been smart to consider the risk of the 2011 season. Right now, we’re seeing what that risk means. Right now, the Cardinals are probably breathing a huge sigh of relief that Pujols didn’t accept their offer–whatever it was. If he did, they’d be facing down 7+ uncertain years and hundreds of millions of dollars on a 1b who can’t put up a positive WPA. But by the end of the year that might change. Probably will. Pujols is too good to keep hitting this bad.
Maybe the strangest example of a team failing to take risk into consideration is the Ryan Braun extension, signed earlier this season. The extension covers the 2016-2020 seasons. Braun wasn’t just committed to the Brewers next season. He was committed to them until 2015. Any number of things could happen between now and then, and yet the Brewers still agreed to give Braun more than Holliday makes per year.
To me, that’s completely bizarre. I understand that inflation and proper accounting practices makes the ~19 million he will make per year at the end of the decade considerably smaller than it seems. But baseball can’t be predicted that far in the future, and there was no reason for the Brewers to take this risk. They don’t know where the team will be in 2016. They certainly don’t know where Ryan Braun will be then. Unlike Pujols, he’s having a fantastic season in 2011. But Braun could have an entire 4 year slow decline phase between now and then. The team took on all of the risk for everything that might happen to Braun in those four years. I understand a team being willing to bet against a sharp drop-off or freak injury. But wagering ~100 million dollars against potential decline along with all of those other things? When the team already has Braun under contract well into the future? No way.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, Daniel Descalso, Nick Punto, ryan theriot, St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler Greene
As I’m writing this, Albert Pujols is playing at third base. He’s starting there for the first time in almost a decade. Apparently it was his idea, and he approached La Russa about it. The whole thing is ridiculous given the history Pujols has with his throwing elbow. I’m tempted to write about that, but there’s not much more to say than “what the hell?” especially when I heard La Russa’s justification. He wanted to get Allen Craig into the lineup without playing Allen Craig at 2b. Never mind that Craig’s spent significant amount of time at 3b himself…
This brings me to what I really want to talk about. For some reason, the Cardinals have insisted on handcuffing themselves with their defensive alignment. In my last post, I complained about the pool of players that have been “hitting” in the 7-1 slots for the Cardinals. Theriot, Punto, Descalso, and Greene have been Very Bad at Hitting and ideally we wouldn’t see so much of them on a day-to-day basis. But assuming that we have to see them, why is TLR playing them all at the wrong position?
There have been several variations of this problem, but I’ll use the May 14 lineup as the best example. Tyler Greene at 2b, Ryan Theriot at SS, Daniel Descalso at 3b.
I’ve already talked about Ryan Theriot and how he should play 2b instead of SS. He’s lost some range in the last couple seasons, and he proved he can play there last season. He was mediocre, with 7 errors in 119 games, a -1.6 UZR, and fangraph’s Total Zone runs above average pegged him as neither a plus nor minus defender. It’s not great, but if you have to play Theriot for some reason, 2b is the place to play him.
Daniel Descalso is also a 2b. Not because of age or skill reasons–he’s actually shown a good arm for 3b so he has the natural talent for the position–but because of experience. Between his rookie season in 2007 and the beginning of this season, Descalso made 17 plays at third (all last year). He doesn’t have much experience there. Counting this season, where he’s gotten almost all of them, Descalso has 239 innings at 3b.
Tyler Greene, meanwhile, never played 2b in the minors. The first time he was ever asked to play second in pro ball was in the majors. In two seasons, Greene has shown himself to be a bad second baseman. He made 2 errors in 76 innings there last year, and has already made 2 errors in 66 innings this year. His time at 2b is so limited that there simply isn’t enough of a sample size to use advanced fielding stats to determine anything. Counting this season, Tyler Greene has 160 innings total at 2b in his 7 year pro career.
To put everything together, the Cardinals are surrounding a bad SS (Theriot) with two players who have played less than 1/3 of a season at their respective positions combined. There’s no reason for this. Nick Punto, as much as I like to trash him, should probably never be on the bench with the current roster composition. Not only does he have significant experience at 2b, 3b, and SS… But he’s actually a good fielder.
The composition of the Cards’ roster isn’t great right now. But they’re utilizing what little they have terribly. When the Cardinals keep sending out lineups with defensive alignments like the one on May 14 (or ones featuring Pujols at 3b) they are practically playing with a handicap…and against the Reds, they shouldn’t be hurting themselves like that.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Daniel Descalso, Kyle Lohse, Nick Punto, Progressive Game Blog, ryan theriot, St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler Greene, United Cardinals Bloggers
Today I am participating in the United Cardinals Bloggers progressive game blog, an annual UCB event where a number of Cards Blogs each cover an inning of a single game.
For coverage of the second inning of today’s game, check out the awesomely-named Aerys Sports Cardinal site Aaron Miles’ Fastball . For a full list of bloggers participating in the UCB Progressive Game Blog, head over to the main United Cardinals Bloggers page.
After the third inning, the Milwaukee Brewers have a 1-0 lead. It could be a lot worse. Fortunately, we can thank Casey McGehee for giving Colby Rasmus the chance to get his first outfield assist of the season, allowing the Cardinals to escape the top of the inning with minimal damage.
It could have been a great inning for Lohse, who struggled with his pitch count through the first two. He retired Counsell and Braun quickly. Then Prince Fielder came up and spooked Lohse, probably by looking at the pitcher like he was an extra-large veggie burger. Lohse all but pitched around him, setting up McGehee’s RBI double.
Prince Fielder scored from first base, the ground shook as far west as Colombia, and Rasmus threw to the cutoff man instead of trying to nab fielder at home. This was a heads-up play, not only avoiding a potential fatal collision between Fielder and Molina, but catching McGehee off-guard.
If you believe in momentum, that was the sort of play that should have reversed it. Rasmus stopped a rally before it could get out of hand, and the Cardinals came to bat with the wind at their sails. Unfortunately, it was also time for the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup.
First up was Daniel Descalso, who earned some leniency with a well-timed HR on Tuesday to give the Cards the lead over the Marlins. Single game heroics aside, Descalso has been awful so far at the plate. He came into today’s game batting .221/.276/.368. After him was Tyler Greene, who has managed to be even worse at .206/.289/.324.
Nine pitches later, Kyle Lohse came up to the plate with two outs to complete an easy inning for Brewers starter Yovanni Gallardo. If Lohse reached base, next up would have been Nick Punto and his .222/.349/.306 line. That’s a nice IsoD. It’s remarkable that pitchers throw Punto anything but strikes. But it’s still abysmal.
Counting the pitcher, the Cardinals have four players in the lineup with an OPS under .660. Ryan Theriot is out today. At least at the moment, he would marginally improve the situation with his .682. .682 is also bad. And this success, which is only relative to the rest of the light-hitting infielders on the team, has come from a BAbip-fueled high batting average. Even when he comes back, the Cardinals are conceding almost half their at-bats to fringe hitters. Three out of nine starters are utility players who would be fine bench options or #8 hitters on a good team. Surrounding the pitcher, they create an oasis for opposing starters. Berkman and Holliday aren’t going to hit .400 forever, and when they regress it’s going to get ugly if they don’t have some backup from the rest of the lineup. Hell, even an off day from the heart of the lineup could turn into a no-hitter.
To make things worse, we’re not sacrificing offense for defense with these guys. As long as Theriot continues to start at SS, the infield defense will be shaky. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving any time soon. So the Cardinals aren’t getting anything out of the black hole at the bottom of the lineup… although I admit that Descalso is incredibly impressive at 3b considering the last time he spent significant time there was 2007 at low-A ball. It’s not good enough to make up for his hitting, and it’s not good enough to make up for the error machine that TLR installed at shortstop at the beginning of the season.
So, what’s the solution?
I want to see Matt Carpenter and his .429 OBP in AAA on the major league team. Bat him leadoff. No, I’m not kidding. He’s got a career .107 IsoD in the minors. He gets on base.
Move Theriot to 2b, and platoon him with Skip when he comes back. Theriot against lefties, Skip against righties. I don’t like Skip’s defense at 2b at all, but he’s got a .780 OPS against righthanders for his career. Theriot has a similar .782 against lefties. It’s not fantastic, but it’s a lot better than what we have.
I wouldn’t mind handing the position to Descalso, hoping he could work out the kinks and find the success he had in the minors. But TLR won’t give up on Skip or Theriot. Descalso should work on his hitting in AAA as a starter at 2b. If putting Carpenter at leadoff isn’t an option (and I know it isn’t) a Schumaker/Theriot platoon could probably get on base at a decent clip.
As for shortstop? Well, absent a trade I don’t think we have any great internal options. Punto can take a walk and he has decent defense. I’d let him have it for now but explore trade options. Tyler Greene? At 27 he hasn’t shown any indication he can be a major leaguer. He needs to go.
Carpenter-Rasmus-Pujols-Holliday-Berkman-Molina-Schumaker/Theriot-Punto. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. The Cards need to do something if they’re going to avoid ugly innings like the bottom of the third.
For the fourth inning, head on over to Fungoes.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Defense, Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals, Yadier Molina
There is something wrong with Yadier Molina and that means bad news for the Cardinals.
If there is anything that Cardinals fans should take for granted, it’s a good defensive catcher. Over the last decade, the Cardinals have employed two excellent starting backstops. First there was Mike Matheny. Then, after he left for San Francisco, Yadier Molina took over and has held the job ever since.
First, there was Mike Matheny. Matheny was an abomination with the bat. In 2001, he got 424 PAs despite a .218/.276/.304 line. Don’t look too long at that stat line. It’s been known to cause headaches, confusion, nausea, and abandonment of hope. Also you can add the BA, OBP, and SLG together and it’s still lower than Barry Bonds’ 2001 SLG (.863) so there’s that.
There’s probably a good argument that Matheny should not have been an everyday player for a major league team. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Matheny managed to keep the starting job because Tony La Russa loved him, and because he was amazing behind the plate. A disclaimer: evaluating catcher defense with statistics sucks right now. I’m not sure if anyone has come up with a good stat yet, so I’m stuck using the eye test (which is both biased and bad in general) and numbers that may only be marginally illuminating. But I don’t think anyone will argue that Matheny was a bad catcher. What stats we do have back up my assertion: in his five years with the Cards, he averages 4.4 passed balls a year, 27.2 wild pitches, and 2.8 errors. For his career, he threw out 35% of attempted basestealers. He also won a few Gold Gloves, but so has Derek Jeter so Gold Gloves mean nothing.
Yadier Molina followed him with more excellence. In his first 6 full years as the Cardinals’ starting catcher, Molina averaged 6.3 passed balls, 28.7 wild pitches, 6 errors. Not as good as Matheny, but outside of a godawful 2006 (which he redeemed with a certain timely HR) he’s a better hitter and he’s thrown out a stunning 46% of baserunners.
Granted, there are a lot of things wrong with all these numbers I’ve thrown out there. The difference between a passed ball and a wild pitch is the whim of the official scorer. CS% is also dependent on the pitcher and the speed of his delivery. Errors? Official scorer again. But Molina, like Matheny, passes the eye test. Almost every game, we see his strong throws and his quick feet and his ability to block the plate.
Something’s different this year. He’s not as quick as he has been in the past. His arm is weaker and more errant, though he’s still managed to nail 38% of runners. This speaks to the baseline that he’s deviating from–a bad throw from Yadier is still a good throw. His errors yesterday were bad, and that’s what prompted me to make this post, but that’s not the biggest issue. Most pressing, he’s not protecting his pitchers like we’re used to. He’s not getting out in front of pitches before they can fly errant. It shows both on the field and in the (admittedly bad) stats. He already has 14 wild pitches and 2 passed balls.
What does this mean? It’s not just bad for Yadier and his quest for a fourth Gold Glove. It’s bad for our pitchers. For a decade now, our pitchers have never had to fear bouncing a curveball in front of the plate. They’ve been able to throw a slider off the outside corner without worrying about it slipping from the catchers glove. And they’ve rested a bit easier with a speedy runner on first base. Undoubtedly, TLR and Duncan’s pitch selection has been influenced by this security as well. But what if it went away? If Molina is injured, or age and workload are catching up to him, the pitchers will have to adjust. Hopefully the “Dave Duncan Effect” wasn’t actually the “Cardinals Catcher Effect”
Hopefully this is just a slump. People say defense doesn’t slump. Those people never watched a full year of Brendan Ryan. If Yadier Molina works his way out of this, then I’ve written a whole bunch of words about nothing. But it’s a concern, especially when the defense everywhere else on the diamond is so suspect.
PS: This weekend I will be taking part in the fourth annual UCB Progressive Game Blog. It’s a collaborative look at a single game, with each inning handled by a different blogger. Check out the information here.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, Allen Craig, David Freese, Infield Defense, ryan theriot, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
There are a whole lot of things I could write about Sunday’s game against the Braves. Most of them have already been covered earlier at some point in this blog. Ryan Franklin is a bad pitcher, Ryan Theriot is a bad shortstop. Trying to wring anything more out of these subjects would be agonizing. I think everyone knows my opinion about the two Ryans at this point. Frankin is a long reliever and Theriot is a second baseman. Relying on them in critical innings or at shortstop respectively has led to predictable disaster. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Et Cetera. Et Cetera.
But that’s not all that happened. The Ryan-fueled collapse wasn’t the biggest loss the Cardinals suffered on Sunday. David Freese was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his hand. Once again, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a third baseman.
Freese getting injured and missing significant time was almost as predictable as a Ryan Theriot error or a Ryan Franklin walk-off loss. Yes, HBP injuries are unexpected. Yes, it has nothing to do with his ankle. But we’ve seen this before. Think back to June 17, 2001, when J.D. Drew lost 6 weeks to a broken finger when David Wells drilled him in the hand.
These two injuries, combined with the bizarre career of Nick Johnson, almost make me want to believe that avoiding the DL is an innate talent that certain people simply lack. But I won’t go that far. It’s far more likely that this is just confirmation bias rather than some incredibly mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta that allows the victim to play baseball and live a normal life but makes HBPs, foul tips, and bad baserunning far more dangerous.
Whether or not an injury to David Freese can truly be unexpected, the injury still happened. And it caught the Cardinals off guard. In fact, combined with an earlier precautionary exit from David Freese, TLR was forced to move Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since–
Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s not why Albert Pujols had to take his surgically reconstructed elbow across the diamond, where he actually has to use it. That’s not why a player who hasn’t played 3b in nearly a decade was put there during a tie game.
All of that happened because Tony La Russa pinch hit Jon Jay for Tyler Greene. AFTER both of the injuries. The decision was made to pull Greene from the game with the full knowledge that someone would have to play out of position at either 2b, SS, or 3b. (And Ryan Theriot was already playing out of position at SS.)
It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen from TLR. And that’s saying a lot, because I can still remember the day he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman, and when he double switched Matt Holliday out of the lineup during a 20 inning debacle. There’s a reason Albert Pujols is not the Cardinals’ 3b. It isn’t like we’re keeping him at first because of the fantastic options we have at third. He’s a 1b because he’s been diagnosed with a bad case of Fucked Up Elbow. And last I checked, throwing across a baseball diamond is not part of the recommended physical therapy for Fucked Up Elbow.
Unsurprisingly, TLR has backed himself into this corner before. On April 22, 2008, an injury to Cesar Izturis coupled with typically poor bench management by the Cards front office left the team with a deficit of infielders. That time, however, TLR made the right decision. He put Pujols at 2b.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the right decision. But if you start from the assumption that “moving Pujols off 1b” is a critical part of the solution, 2b is the best place to stick him. Throws at second base rarely require much force, and it’s probably the second best position on the diamond for a player with a halfway reconstructed elbow. Yes, Pujols wouldn’t have any range at 2b, but neither does Skip Schumaker and that never seems to bother La Russa.
If TLR moved Pujols to 2b for a couple innings, I might have made a few jokes. It would have been funny. It would have made a few fantasy baseball teams with very low playing time requirements juggernauts. But it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous for the Cardinals’ season, or Albert Pujols’s career.
And now, of course, the team has to make do without David Freese. From the sounds of it, the Cards are activating Allen Craig rather than calling up Matt Carpenter. What does this mean? It means we’re going to have to fill three spots in the lineup (and the entire infield defense minus Albert) with the following players: Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig.
How terrifying is that?
If you pressed me to name the two Cardinals I’d least like to see at the plate during a critical at-bat, I would say Nick Punto and Gerald Laird. Punto is a perennial joke. If not for Cesar Izturis, he’d probably be the worst major league hitter who has somehow continued to be a major league hitter. Gerald Laird is almost as bad, with a worse batting eye. Their value is entirely on the bench, as backups, and they should be as far from critical situations as possible.
But in the last two games, both Punto and Laird have come to bat in those critical situations. And they have both hit go-ahead triples and led the Cardinals to victory. It’s almost enough to make me wax poetic about the magic of baseball.
These are both guys I like to make fun of. Watching Nick Punto hit is like watching Orlando Bloom act. He’s terrible, but he tries really hard.
Announcers say this all the time. We hear all the time about the hustle of Ryan Theriot or Skip Schumaker or Aaron Miles. But I’m inclined to believe it with Nick Punto. Maybe I’m buying into the act. Maybe it’s just that, unlike most gritty terrible players, Punto has developed a good batting eye. Given how awful he is, it’s amazing how many walks he takes. When he gets lucky, and BAbip treats him well (see 2006, 2008) he’s almost decent. He really seems to do all he can with the talent he has. It’s just he doesn’t have much talent, relative to other major leaguers.
I don’t think that’s a good reason to give him a lot of playing time. I think he’s an ideal 25th man because he can, in theory, play every position. It’s helpful to have one player on the team who can fill that role. He can make double switches work smoothly, he can be a buffer against mid-game injury, and he can pinch run/fill in for the terrible defensive players the Cards have in the infield in the late innings.
Gerald Laird, on the other hand, is only on the team because he is a member of the Backup Catchers Club.
The Backup Catchers Club is a mysterious organization. I have never been to one of their meetings. I have never seen one of their membership cards. I have never even heard one of their members acknowledge their existence. But I know they are real. There are certain players who have, through age or some other black magic, become members of an exclusive organization that vouches for their ability as major league catchers. And that is all teams need to know, damn the stats.
How else would Gerald Laird still have a job? Why was Jason La Rue employed past 2006? Is there any other possible explanation for Henry Blanco?
Anyway, because of his membership in the Backup Catchers Club, Gerald Laird is on the Cardinals. And he occasionally starts games because Yadier Molina needs a break and because Bryan Anderson has not yet completed the twenty-six rundowns required to achieve total freedom on all dynamics and become Backstoperating Thetan V and an official member of the Club. Until then, he’ll never be a backup catcher.
So yeah, I kind of resent the amount of playing time that Nick Punto and Gerald Laird get. But that doesn’t mean I don’t cheer for them. In a strange way, a huge hit from an unlikely source is even more exciting. I might hate on Laird and Punto, but was still thrilled by their unexpected triples.
What will happen next? Ryan Franklin triples home the winning run tomorrow?
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Dave Duncan, Lance Berkman, Positive Post, skip schumaker, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
I don’t like TLR. I don’t think he’s a particularly good manager. He’s stubborn and wrong-headed, his bullpen management is puzzling, and he bunts way too often. Of course, this is true of most managers. It’s rare to watch a game where both teams don’t make some inexplicable move that flies in the face of common sense and/or advanced baseball statistics.
Perhaps TLR’s biggest sin is the leeway he’s given. On his own, he’s no worse than a run-of-the-mill bad manager. He makes too much money to make the same mistakes as everyone else in baseball. He seems entirely invulnerable from criticism, even when he does insane things like leak a private trade request from Colby Rasmus to the media that wasn’t actually a trade request.
But I’ve been entirely too pessimistic on this blog lately. I’d like to try and write a positive post about the Cardinals, because outside of Ryan Franklin (and TLR’s misplaced faith in him) the team has been really quite good lately. So I’m going to do the hardest thing I can think of: I’m going to talk about the good things TLR brings to the Cardinals.
First off, there is Dave Duncan. I generally don’t believe that coaches at the major league level have a huge effect on the performance of their players. Most major leaguers are fully developed, most coaches think alike and use similar systems… And most of the time there’s no data to back up the impact a coach has on individual players. Duncan is somewhat of an outlier. He’s helped several pitchers resurrect their careers, and even overseen the transformation from journeyman to ace a few times. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what he did for Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter. A cursory look across the usual stat-head baseball sources reveals that, for example, fangraphs and Tom Tango, author of The Book via a link to 3-D baseball acknowledge that statistics are consistent with the existence of a Dave Duncan Effect.
Keeping Duncan and losing TLR doesn’t seem like a possibility, so we have to count him among TLR’s positive attributes. Admittedly, it’s really fun to watch Cardinal pitching, and to speculate about which pitchers Dave Duncan could “turn around”. Without TLR, we wouldn’t have that.
Second, TLR is willing to take certain chances that are rare in baseball. They don’t always work, but they show a creativity that is sorely lacking in other managers. TLR’s creativity may lead to mistakes, but I’d rather see a team fail because the manager was thinking outside of the box rather than because the manager was conforming to established thought.
The pitcher hitting eighth? Fantastic idea. I’d like to see it more often. The Book, which I seem to be citing a lot in this post, agrees that it’s the best position to put the pitcher in the lineup. TLR was the first person to try it and the only one who dares return to it, even though it’s the right thing to do. That’s worth something.
Skip Schumaker to 2b? It turned out to be a disaster, but I really respect the Cardinals and TLR for trying. I don’t respect them for sticking to the experiment even though it failed, but I’m glad they tried. Schumaker was a hitter with marginal value in the outfield but a plus if he could play 2b. If it worked, it would have been a coup. Given Schumaker’s willingness to try, his athleticism, and the dearth of 2b options over the last couple of years… I think it was a bold attempt, and there are few managers who would have pursued such an unorthodox move with enthusiasm.
Lance Berkman back in the OF? Okay, the jury is still out on this one. He doesn’t look good out there. He’s been party of 2-3 really bad plays. When we signed him to play RF, we essentially punted defense for a good hitter with the potential to be great. And his hitting has been great. It’s worked so far. He’s made up for his defensive shortcomings by being a much better hitter than Jon Jay or Nick Stavinoha, or whoever else we might have put out there.
There have been other good unconventional things that TLR has tried. The Batista/McClellan fakeout during the Friday rain delay comes to mind. That was a great move, and it’s rare for me to think that any move is particularly great.
Of course, this is all offset by TLR’s problems. Whenever I start to reflect on the good aspects of TLR, I go back and look at this article, Joe Posnanski’s excellent take on the 20 inning game last year: For baseball’s great overmanaging artist, this was his Mona Lisa . La Russa is terrible at times, and he’s unapologetic about it.
But, just once, I felt like looking at his positive qualities. Even if one of those qualities is Dave Duncan, and the other is a fortunate side effect of his hubris.
He certainly makes baseball in St. Louis more interesting.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Boos, Bullpen, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Ray Lankford, Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
Normally, I don’t like it when Cardinals fans boo Cardinals players. It’s usually stupid. I can’t help but remember Ray Lankford’s 2000/2001 seasons, when the crowd at Busch absolutely turned on the only player who was worth a damn for the team in the early 90s and one of the best Cardinals outfielders of all time. He wasn’t even playing badly. His OPS was around .840, which isn’t fantastic for a corner OF, but it’s certainly not bad.
But that was ten years ago, before OPS was on the scoreboard of almost every stadium and overlay of almost every broadcast. All most people saw was his .250 average and his abundant strikeouts. Suddenly Ray Lankford, who was the face of the Cardinals before McGwire, was greeted and ushered from the plate with boos. It was ridiculous, and I was thankful that the Cards brought Lankford out of retirement for one more season in 2004. Not because he still had talent–though a 99 OPS+ is fairly impressive for a guy who took a year off–but so he could get a more fitting send off from the Cards and their fans.
This is different. I understand why Cards fans are booing Ryan Franklin. It’s not disgraceful. We haven’t turned into New York or Philadelphia. We’re fed up, and not just with Franklin.
Saturday’s game was nationally televised. Anyone who knew when to turn the television back on after the rain delay watched it from coast-to-coast. And I’m fairly certain the Tony La Russa was the only person in the country who believed that Ryan Franklin should come into a tie game with the bases loaded against the division-rival Reds.
Being a baseball fan can be very frustrating, especially in situations like this. I guess I’m used to the occasional moment where I want to slam my head into my computer out of frustration. For example, bunting Chris Carpenter over in the third inning with Ryan Theriot. Or, for that matter, bunting Yadier Molina to third so that Tyler Greene can “bat” against Aroldis Chapman. That stuff annoys me, but I’ve accepted it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the big picture, I know that it hurts the team more often than it helps, but I can at least get excited about the possibility that it will work. I can still appreciate small ball even if I think it’s stupid.
But I can’t appreciate what is happening with Ryan Franklin. A few days ago, I indicated that Franklin would get better. He’s always depended on luck, and he’s had a lot of it the last couple of years. I wasn’t arguing that he should stay in the closer spot–he should have never been there to begin with. But I thought he could get better and have some value in long relief. Maybe he still can, but now that I’ve had a couple more chances to watch him pitch…something is wrong. He never had great stuff or location, but he had just enough to put himself in a position to benefit from good luck. I don’t think he has that any more.
TLR should see this. Duncan probably does see this, and I’d be very curious to hear what he had to say about Franklin, but the organization has kept him on a tight leash with the media ever since his “adventure” posting on one of the stltoday.com message boards. But today, despite mounds of evidence against such a move, TLR put him in a tie game. In fact, he put him in during a higher leverage at bat than most save situations ever see. And, of course, we all know what happened.
So, yeah, fans are going to boo. They are not booing Ryan Franklin the Person. This has nothing to do with him. Outside of maybe a few people who have problems with unruly facial hair, every one of those booing fans would much rather be cheering Franklin. They are booing out of frustration. They know that he shouldn’t be pitching in a high leverage situation. Everyone knows that. And yet it keeps happening. The only thing they can do is voice that frustration.
It’s only going to get worse. In a few days, Brian Tallet will be eligible to come off the disabled list and TLR/Mo will have a tough choice to make. It’s not really a tough choice. Neither Tallet nor Franklin should have roster priority over Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez. Unfortunately, we all know TLR wants multiple lefthanders in the pen, so dropping Tallet is not an option. Miller and Motte are understandably safe. That leaves three spots for Ryan Franklin, Miguel Batista, Salas, and Sanchez.
The decision should be between Franklin and Batista. Maybe Franklin is hurt. It’s entirely possible. Even if he’s not, the Cards FO could say he has an “oblique strain”, DL him, and then send him down on rehab to recover. If that’s impossible, for whatever reason, Batista should go. Unfortunately, I think everyone knows that the real choice will be between Salas and Sanchez. One of them will go down. Franklin will remain in the majors. And the boos will continue. They will intensify.
Maybe they should. Maybe that’s the only thing the fans can do in the face of the obstinance of Cardinals management. TLR and Mo need to realize that the fans aren’t satisfied. We don’t want to see TLR’s friends play baseball, damn the results. We want to see wins. And we’ve all noticed that Ryan Franklin is giving us only losses.
I promise this will be my last Ryan Franklin entry (at least until Salas or Sanchez is sent down and he remains and I lose my mind).
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Closers, Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
Bernie Miklasz wrote something in his column this morning that got me thinking:
A St. Louis team that’s 8-8 could easily be looking at a 12-4 record if not for the frequent ninth-inning pyrotechnics.
A lot of people say that it is early, that you cannot draw overarching conclusions about the entire season based on 16 games. That’s true, and a lot of what we’ve seen in these 16 games proves that. We can’t expect the offense to be as terrible as it was in the first week or as amazing as its been in the last week.
However, the first 16 games matter just as much as the last 16 games. Four games in April have the same effect on the standings as the last four games in the season. It is still the difference between a 88 win team and a 92 win team. Often, it is the difference between playing in October and sitting home in October.
Enough people, including me, have slammed Ryan Franklin. He was never a great closer, or a good pitcher. He survived on a steady diet of luck but I don’t think anyone expected him to regress this quickly. And he’s not this bad. Guys who “pitch to contact” and give up a lot of fly balls are easily swayed by the winds of fortune. In 2009, they helped him glide to a 1.92 ERA. In 2011, they’ve battered him for a 11.57 ERA.
There are other issues, such as the fact he’s either throwing his cutter more often, which is exactly what we saw in the Great Jason Isringhausen Debacle of 2008. His location isn’t good, but it’s never been. It’s possible that age is catching up to him, which can be devastating for a guy who throws just hard enough to get outs with his fastball.
But unless he’s hurt, it’s very likely that if TLR keeps running him out there, he’ll end up with an ERA right in line with his 4.5 xFIP. He might even have another string of scoreless innings and successful saves that convinces everyone that he’s “bacK” or “regained his bulldog mentality” or something equally ridiculous.
Hell, if not for certain weather conditions–pressure systems, humidity, and yes, gusts of wind–we might not even be having this discussion. Those fly balls would have hung up and found their way into gloves, and Ryan Franklin wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder at Mitchell Boggs. The sportswriters would be praising him for his toughness and playfully joking about tightrope antics.
But that’s not what happened, and now we’ve lost four games we probably should have won. We don’t know what those four games mean yet, but if we’re one game back of the Reds in September, those errant fly balls are going to hurt.
Something good has to come out of this run of bad luck, bad weather, and bad pitches. Ryan Franklin needs to be taken out of the closer role. Not because he blew four saves in a row. Save percentage is bullshit. It doesn’t mean anything. He could have easily saved all four of those games. Because he shouldn’t have been the closer in the first place, and now everyone can see it. Franklin’s problems are no longer the realm of the sabermetric and the predictive. We’re no longer talking about unsustainable BAbips or suspiciously high xFIPs. Those stats have given way to an atrocious WHIP and a disastrous ERA.
Franklin doesn’t “pitch to contact”. He pitches to the warning track. He shouldn’t be facing the best hitters in one run games. He should be pitching long relief, handling RH batters, eating innings.
This isn’t on Franklin. This is on TLR now. Just like in 2008, when Izzy was faltering, and even the most basic stats reflected it, you can’t blame the pitcher. Everything is there for the manager to see that something has to be changed.
The damage is only four games now. Hopefully TLR has learned something from those four games.