Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Night In Oakland

Two weeks ago while we were on the road, the band had an off day in between Portland and San Francisco. When the band is on the road in the US, Max and I make a point to try and take in as many games as we can. Touring Canada is wonderful, but our home and native land doesn’t offer the same bevy of minor and professional sporting options the United States does. So with a day off in the Bay Area, we were primed to watch some Major League Baseball. Now like everyone else in Northern California, we wanted to see if the more competitive, more centrally located, San Francisco Giants were at home. Like most trips to Oakland, it began with someone uttering the phrase “sadly, the Giants aren’t in town”. With the Giant’s on the road for the week, Max and I happily started planning our trip to the Oakland Coliseum. What our ensuing adventure lacked in the usual contemporary ballpark amenities, it made up for in originality, leaving us with one of our most unique ballpark experiences to date, and a valuable lesson about our sports fandom.

In order to beat traffic, Max and I decided to take the subway from San Fran (where we were staying) across the Bay into Oakland for game two of the midweek A’s/Rangers series. When we got on the train, we started to chat up some of the local commuters, asking about where to find a sportsbar to watch the basketball game (it was game 5 of the Eastern Finals) and have a beer before the A’s started. The locals laughed us off, warning that there was nothing around the ballpark and that we should head straight into the stadium. Thinking this was just the attitude of the yuppie, west bay San Franciscans’, we shrugged it off and figured we would find a place when we got off the train.

When we got off the train, we realized that the San Franciscans’ were actually understating the Coliseum neighborhood. Connecting the stadium to the subway station was a barbwire covered concrete walkway that ran fifty feet above the ground - right from the station to the Coliseum gates. Underneath the bridge was a completely empty parking lot and some abandoned, graffiti covered shipping yards that stretched as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t that there was no sports bar in the area, there was no organic life in the area. Standing on the bridge, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was in a scene from a post-apocalyptic war movie akin to Mad Max, rather than a baseball stadium. Because the stadium is also home to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, the Oakland Coliseum is a three level high oval the entire way around - resembling a giant concrete crater, devoid of the design intricacies and charms afforded to baseball only stadiums.

But for two Canadian baseball fans, it was going to take a little bit more than an improperly located, poorly attended stadium to get us down. We are after all, going to watch baseball. As we presented our tickets to one of the many underworked ushers, we asked about the regional ballpark fare, inquiring as to what eats unique to the Coliseum they recommended.

“We got garlic fries...but they ain’t as good as the ones in San Fran” he replied. Message received.

Once inside, we decided to find any place we could to watch the basketball game. We found a bar on the second level behind home plate that overlooked the field. As we walked into the bar, a lo-fi version Billy Joel’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” fittingly sputtered out of the restaurant’s outdated sound system. Beside us, a couple decked out in full A’s gear ordered the usual, while Max and I bought the traditional over-priced ballpark beers and turned our attention to the game. Despite the TV being improperly formatted (we couldn’t see the score because it was in the bottom right hand corner of the frame), we left the bar in high spirits due to a Miami Heat playoff defeat and made our way to our seats.

As we sat down (at least the seats we decided we wanted to sit in), we looked up to section after section of closed-off seats. Things were getting so bad that the team was running out of retired numbers to have printed on the giant green tarps that covered the empty seats: Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Ricky Henderson. If things get worse, they might have to retire Frank Menechino’s no. 4. Even the luxury boxes were draped and abandoned. Like many older stadiums, the washrooms utilized trough style urinals in the men’s room. Unlike other older stadiums, these troughs had not been emptied. The Rangers won the game 5-3, and while Oakland was never more than three runs down, it never felt like they had a shot. Maybe it was the atmosphere the stadium created, or maybe it was the A’s lineup that featured Johnny Gomes and whoever Cliff Pennington’s backup is, but the game never felt close.

Given our Oakland Coliseum experience, the prevailing Brad Pitt-fuelled outsider perception that Oakland is desolate and impoverished professional baseball organization was starting to look like an understatement. It wasn’t that just that the games went unwatched and the stadium was left unattended, it was that no one seemed to care at all. Despite the dire state of affairs at the Oakland Coliseum, I couldn’t help but smile and think of how much I enjoyed our experience. There is nothing about the Oakland Coliseum that would make someone say the Coliseum is a nice place to watch baseball. There is also no one who could say that watching baseball at the O. Co. is not a completely unique and memorable experience either. As wonderful as new ballparks have become, they have become common to the MLB experience. The beautiful sightlines, tasty ballpark fare, regionalized decor, creative dimensions (there’s a hill in centre field!), and fan friendly experience can be had in almost any Major League Stadium. Whether it’s PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the Great American Ballpark in Cincy, Safeco Field in Seattle or Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia; the details may change but the idea remains the same. This is not so in Oakland. It may be outdated, unfriendly, cheap and even a little bit miserable, but if you’re a baseball fan, you have to admit, there’s nowhere else quite like it. Just like you have to sit in the bleacher seats at Wrigley or try Bull’s BBQ in Philly, Oakland offers another “unique” stadium experience. And to this baseball fan, that is still worth something.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jays Notes

There’s been lots to talk about in camp Blue Jays these days. Here’s one man’s opinion on all of the Jay’s happenings.

Guerrero Signing
Low risk usually means low reward, and if we were to calculate the odds of the Guerrero signing working out positively, little to no contribution from Vlad is probably the most likely outcome. That isn’t to say however, the Jays can’t get lucky and, as Eno Sarris pointed out, see Guerrero enjoy some success against lefties in the DH slot. Production aside, the chance to see a player as prestigious as Guerrero in a Jays uniform and the possibility of the comic bedlam that would ensue if he saw time in the field, is reason enough to give Vlad a shot.

Lawrie Suspension
To borrow a page from the realist school of international relations (I’ve been out of school for a while now, so I hope I have this right), if we want to curb this type of behaviour, we need MLB to flex some muscle. If the league really wants to create a disincentive for this kind of behaviour, hit the player where it hurts and fine them. It boils my blood as much as the next guy to see umpires entice players - I am happy to see umpires like Bob Davidson get his come-uppins, but I’m still not sold on robot umpires just yet.

Hot(ish) Start and Playoff Chances
Let’s talk in late July. Did we not learn anything from last year’s collapses? Baltimore was in first place last year too and it didn’t last. So was Cleveland. Boston won’t be under .500 for much longer either. While they Jays are off to a pretty decent start, the good folks at Getting Blanked pointed that some of the starting pitcher’s peripheral stats (K/ BB rate, BABIP) suggest that a regression may be coming. As the Orioles will most likely prove, it’s probably too early to get excited. With that said, the Jays’ potential to improve, either through trades or the promotion of prospects means that there is more to be hopeful about this year than there was in the past. Fingers crossed.

Lind Demotion
It’s hard to see Lind sent down, everyone (myself included), was rooting for the happy-go-lucky Hoosier to succeed. As remote as it now appears that he will be able to figure things out, here’s hoping that he can still turn things around. Fresh on the heels of the Lind demotion, I can’t help but think of another underachieving Blue Jay: Colby Rasmus. Rasmus, has been almost as bad as Lind at the plate over the past season and a half (.216/.291/.365 slash line this season). I was very excited when I heard the Jays acquired Rasmus last year, but Rasmus is now almost 700 plate appearances removed from his 2010 season. In addition to providing defensive value that Lind cannot, Rasmus is also 3 years younger than Adam Lind.

Phillies Trade Rumors
If the Phillies are interested in trading Cole Hamels or Shane Victorino (and I doubt they are), bring ‘em on board. Hopefully the Jays’ are connected to lots of major trade candidates and free agents moving forward. Especially top line starting pitchers like Hamels. The Jays’ system appears to be deep enough that parting with one or two high tier prospects won’t deplete the system and I think they are close enough to contention that they can justify absorbing the additional salary. If it’s the right fit. This is no way an endorsement on signing Prince Fielder.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fantasy Flyer: Rick Porcello

Few young pitchers have been more frustrating than Rick Porcello over the last few years – in both reality and in fantasy baseball. Like the girl harbouring a grudge when getting back into the dating game, we’ve all been “hurt before” by Rick Porcello types. But this year, in deep leagues, It might be worthwhile to once again roll the dice on Porcello. If he is able to put things together, Porcello could provide surprising value at the back of your fantasy rotation.

One of the biggest storylines coming into 2012, was the Tigers’ abhorrent infield defence. Porcello, along with fellow groundball inducer, Doug Fister, were the pitchers believed to suffer most from Detroit’s infield made of stone. While the Tigers’ infield defence will no doubt hurt him, Detroit institutions Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta have been hurting Porcello’s numbers for the last few years. The addition of Fielder may not be as drastic as we are led to believe. The increase in WHIP and ERA may be offset by the extra win opportunities Procello should have playing for the Tigers and pitching in the AL Central.

Infield defence and win totals aside, there are other reasons why I am optimistic Porcello can be a good buy low fantasy candidate. Right now, Porcello has an ERA of 5.64 and xFIP of 3.64. The past two seasons, Porcello has posted ERA’s of 4.92 and 4.75 while his xFIP has come in at 4.24 and 4.04. While the poor Tigers defence will probably continue lead to an ERA that remains somewhat higher than his xFIP; Porcello’s xFIP does suggest that we should see some improvement in his performance. There is also reason to be slightly optimistic about Porcello’s ability to build further upon his skillset. Right now, Porcello’s value comes from his ability to prevent walks and induce groundballs. Mike Podhorzer at Fangraphs has noted that Porcello has increased his fastball velocity by 1.7 mph this year. If Porcello is able to increase his strikeout rate to over 5 K/9; like it was in the minor leagues, it would go a long way in adding to his fantasy value.

To pepper in some anecdotal evidence. Baseball Prospectus scouts Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parkes (on their podcast Up and In), both discussed that coming into the 2012 season, neither would be surprised if Porcello can put it all together and take the next step. Keith Law, scout for ESPN, has also written that he believes Porcello improve on his 2011 performance. It’s also easy to forget that Porcello is still only 23 years old. To assume he has reached his peak may be premature. While it also may be premature to roster Porcello in a standard 10 team mixed league, in deeper leagues, gambling on Porcello now may pay off sooner rather than later.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Maybe, Possibly, Potentially: Why Bad Closers Mean Some Managers Might Be Thinking Differently About Bullpen Management

Among the analytical and Sabermetic community of baseball writers, one issue that generates more scorn per capita than any other topic is Major League organizations’ use of relief pitchers. Central to this criticism are managers, “managing to the save”. Managing to the save means assigning one reliever, in most cases your best, to pitch the last inning of any game where your team is leading by one to three runs. Hence this reliever gets the save.

A long line of writers and analysts have screamed like Al Pacino in Scarface about how this is a misusage of bullpen arms. To summarize a body of work that is vast, precise, and usually unnecessarily cruel; pigeonholing your best pitcher into a role that requires he pitch one inning (and one inning only) at the very end of the game when a save is on the line is not the best way to use your top bullpen arm. The reasoning suggests that there are many instances where using your best reliever earlier in the game during a tight situation - say for example, in the 7th inning of a tie game with the heart of the order coming up, is more valuable. Admittedly, this is a quick and dirty version of the how Major League teams could better utilize their bullpens; but it’s not hard to see that having your closer come in with a three run lead in the bottom of the 9th to face a lineup’s 7-9 hitters is not necessarily getting the most bang for your buck.

Typically, this new type of thinking has been ignored by Major League clubs, who continue to trot their best relief pitcher out in ninth inning save situations. They tend to use this anointed closer regardless of platoon splits or any of the other factors mentioned above. Over the past couple of years however, there have been a few managers on the block that look like they could be interpreted as trying something differently; if you look at it in the right light that is.

To be clear, no manager has come out and said that anything that refers to a more progressive approach to bullpen management. But even if someone is trying to do things differently, why make it into an issue and create a story in the media? Big league managers are in a different position than people looking at the game from a purely analytic role. There is more to lose and people to answer to. With that said, certain managers, like Robin Ventura, Don Mattingly and Joe Maddon have made the “peculiar” decision to appoint someone other than their best reliever as the team’s closer. In the right light, this may suggest that maybe (and it is a big maybe), they are thinking a little differently about bullpen management.
In Chicago, Ventura has chosen to use Hector Santiago in many of the team’s save situations, instead of the harder throwing Matt Thornton and Addison Reed. Using Santiago in a majority of save situations, frees up Reed and Thornton to pitch in higher leverage situations that the game dictates. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, sophomore manager Don Mattingly has chosen to stick with closer Javy Guerra instead of turning the job over to dominating setup man, Kenley Jansen; much to the chagrin of fantasy owners everywhere. Like Ventura and Mattingly, the always forward thinking Joe Maddon has elected to use Fernando Rodney instead of Jake McGee or Joel Peralta. By refraining from committing their best reliever to work the 9th inning, these managers are free to use their most dominant bullpen arms as they see fit.

After Sunday’s game, in which Matt Thornton, not “closer” Hector Santiago, was sent out to pitch the 9th inning, rookie manager Ventura, made comments that could be interpreted in a way that suggest he may be going against the old baseball wisdom of defined bullpen roles. Ventura said the following to Kerry Walls of about managing his pen:
"I think it kind of goes with the game and how games are going," Ventura said, "how guys are feeling. I feel like I understand it. It's just more of getting to know your guys and who might need a day and who might not. But the game kind of dictates what happens."

He isn’t coming out and saying that they don’t need a defined closer, but he is suggesting that roles don’t need to be etched in stone.

Some may look at Fernando Rodney, Javy Guerra and Hector Santiago and see ineffective closers. If you’re being optimistic, these closers could mark a changing of the guard in bullpen management. Like a Marxist interpretation of Die Hard, just because you can correlate something, doesn’t make it true, but change happens gradually in baseball, so maybe (and it’s a big maybe), not committing your best relief pitcher to the 9th inning is the first step to getting rid of rigid and defined bullpen roles that allow for a more fluid and ultimately more effective use of relief pitchers.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jamie Moyer, Brandon Morrow and the Michael Pineda Injury

Jamie Moyer
One of my favourite baseball writers, Keith Law, has been very tough on Jamie Moyer’s recent comeback. Like many analytically oriented writers, he is quick to mention the power of the “narrative” in Moyer’s performance. Everyone gets that Moyer is running more on fumes at this point. Everyone understands that he hasn’t faced one of the leagues better offences and that he probably can’t continue to be an above average league starter. But can’t you give him at least a little bit of credit? The man is almost fifty years old and doing something that the vast majority of the population can’t do at their physical peak. Sure it’s more story than substantial analysis but some stories are worth telling. Kudos to you Jamie Moyer, I hope you keep getting the attention.

Brandon Nolasco
As a Blue Jays fan, it’s hard to accept things we just don’t want to be true. It was hard for us to come to terms with the fact that Aaron Hill isn’t a 30 home run hitter, or that the team isn’t one “proven closer” away from contention. We have to learn to live with the fact that Adeiny Hechavarria may not ever hit enough to play in the Major Leagues, or that Adam Lind may not revert to his 2009 form. The scariest of these hard truths is that Brandon Morrow may never realize his otherworldly potential and become an ace. Morrow is now entering his third year as a full time starter with the Jays and has not yet been able to harness his potential, despite strong peripheral stats (xFIP and K/9). I know it’s very early in the season, but Morrow also has two full years of pitching exactly like he has thus far to include in his sample size. I don’t want to accept it, but someday soon, we might need to take Morrow to be one of the rare pitchers who despite positive peripheral statistics and enormous raw stuff, is not able to translate this into on field results. Like the Marlins’ Ricky Nolasco

Michael Pineda Injury

The news that Michael Pineda is out for the year with a torn labrum has led many (including Baseball Prospectus/Grantland writer Rany Jazayerli) to echo a familiar refrain: “this injury shows that hitting prospects are more valuable than pitching prospects”. The injury definitely throws a wrench into the Yankees plans for 2012; and the injury definitely raises question marks about Pineda’s future, but even with Pineda sidelined for the year, I think it’s a little premature to classify the Pineda trade as a failure. The Yankees have a potent offence. They are third in all of baseball in runs scored. That number shouldn’t drop too much as the season continues. The Yankees didn’t need Jesus Montero. They did need another top of the rotation pitcher. Teams have also started locking up their young starting pitchers. Matt Cain, Jarred Weaver, Brandon Morrow, Cory Luebke, and Madison Bumgarner have all signed contract extensions in the past twelve months. There are fewer and fewer high quality pitchers getting to free agency. Young pitching may be more volatile than young hitting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not more valuable. Especially to a team that has offence to spare and a hole in the top of their rotation. Remember that Pineda is out for the year, his career isn’t over. Even if the trade doesn’t work out, Brian Cashman and the Yankees shouldn’t be criticized for taking an area of strength (surplus of hitting) and trying to fill an area of weakness. Even if that pitcher gets hurt.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The All “Put Me In Coach” Team

Nothing is more frustrating to a baseball fan than watching a player you think can contribute ride the pine. If you were in charge, things would be different; and the team would be better off because of it. Like any other fan, I think I know better. Here is a list of players I would like to see penciled into the starting lineup every night.

Brandon Belt – Giants, 1B/OF
Technically he has a Major League job right now, but despite being one of the Giants better offensive players, Belt is always one 0-4 away from a demotion . As far as anyone can tell, Belt has been boxed out of the Giants lineup to ensure that 2010 World Series hero Aubrey Huff gets his hacks. The Giants’ handling of Belt is even more confusing given that they are playoff contender that could help improve the team’s anemic offence. If either Bruce Bochy or Brian Sabean could commit to starting Belt (I’m not picky - left field or first base will do), there would be a glut of baseball bloggers who would need to find someone else to lambaste. At least for a little while.

Lonnie Chisenhall - Indians, 3B
Chisenhall, who was called up to the majors last year, has begun the 2012 season at triple A. Chisenhall, may struggle at the major league level in the short term given his issues with plate discipline, but one of the reasons Indians’ management cited in sending him to AAA is that he was pressing at the plate. What better way to alleviate pressure than give him the starting job and the confidence that comes with knowing it’s secure? Cleveland is in need of offensive production, evidenced by the deal the team just negotiated with left fielder Johnny Damon. Chisenhall’s offensive upside is greater than incumbent Jack Hannahan. If the Tribe have any intention of making things interesting for Detroit in the AL Central, getting Chisenhall hitting will be a necessity. They can always have Hannahan ct as a late game defensive replacement if you really need his defence that badly.

Domenic Brown - Phillies, OF
Kevin Goldstein referred to Brown yesterday on twitter as the “East Coast Brandon Belt”. The Phillies are just as offensively starved as the Giants and have no player (they are currently starting Juan Pierre) blocking Brown in leftfield. According to EPSN’s Eric Karabell, Brown’s defence in left field is still very suspect, but he really shouldn’t be held out of a Phillies lineup that is already without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Brown would inject some much needed youth and upside to a lineup that needs to improve if the Phils are going to hang onto their NL East crown.

John Jaso – Mariners, C
Jaso is unlike the other players on this list; he is older and doesn’t have a particularly high ceiling. That doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of more playing time, especially in Seattle. Currently, the Mariners are starting Miguel Olivo behind the plate every night. Jaso has started once this season, and that came as the DH. While Olivo can hit for more power than Jaso, that is the only thing he does better than him. Jaso could provide slightly better defence and more importantly, some much needed on-base skills (.341 career OBP) for an offensively challenged Mariners lineup. Olivo needs to hit a lot more than 19 home runs to make up for a .253 OBP. By the way, this is in no way bitterness related to me drafting Jaso as the second catcher in a very deep fantasy baseball league.

Travis Snider – Blue Jays, OF
The longer Snider stays in the minor leagues, the less likely it appears the talented outfielder will realize hit potential with the Blue Jays. According to some Blue Jays bloggers, Snider’s troubles lie in his inability to hit curveballs and lefthanders. At the end of March, the Blue Jays were not convinced that he had remedied the problem enough to strip Eric Thames of his job. Snider has more upside than any other left fielder in Toronto who is close to Major League ready. He is slugging .844 at Triple A this year and probably won’t fix anything that needs fixing in the Pacific Coast League. If Eric Thames struggles, giving Snider 400 at bats to learn on the job would go a long way in telling whether or not he has a future in Toronto. But that’s what we Snider fans have been advocating for the last three years.

Trevor Bauer – D-Backs, P
I am merely echoing what many qualified baseball bloggers and analysts have already said. Sure he is very young and inexperienced, but Bauer is having his way with minor league hitters and wouldn’t need to be more than a back of the rotation starter to be valuable to the Diamondbacks. If he matures quickly, Arizona could have another weapon in the front of their rotation. It doesn’t hurt that Bauer will be facing the pucnless Padres and Giants a good chunk of the time. Like a lot of teams mentioned above, if the Diamondbacks have intentions of contending, why not use every bullet in the chamber you can?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not the Splash You’re Thinking Of – Why Chris Iannetta Might be Key to LA’s Success

Everyone knows about the Angels’ big offseason acquisitions. Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson were two of the top players on the market, and some combination of Jerry DiPoto and Arte Moreno were able to woo them both to Anaheim in one afternoon. Now both Pujols and Wilson are good players that should help the Angels compete with the Rangers in the AL West, but one acquisition that may be the key to their success is the less talked about acquisition of catcher Chris Iannetta.

Back in the winter of 2011, the Tony Reagins led Angels were involved in a string of events that resulted in trading Mike Napoli to the Rangers (via the Blue Jays) for Vernon Wells. Aside from taking on the never talked about Vernon Wells contract, the Angels lost their starting catcher. Or at least what should have been their starting catcher (I’m sure we’ve all heard plenty about Mike Scioscia’s displeasure with Napoli). With Napoli’s plus bat and poor catching skills in Texas, the road was paved for Jeff Mathis and Hank Conger to take over catching duties.

The Mathis/Conger catching platoon did not work out well for Los Angeles in 2011, leaving the many analysts who were opposed to giving Jeff Mathis 300 at bats saying “I told you so”. The two players combined for a WAR (Fangraphs’ version) of -0.5 last season. Chris Iannetta posted a 3.2 WAR in 2011 and has posted a WAR over 2 in three of the four seasons since 2008. Even in his abhorrent 2010 season, where he hit under .200, his .318 OBP was still better than Mathis’ and Conger’s. In one of Jerry DiPoto’s most underrated moves thus far, he was able to ween Mike Scioscia off Jeff Mathis and upgrade a position that was a major weakness for LA at the same time. When evaluating a team’s offseason transactions, it’s not just about who they are acquiring; it’s about who they are replacing. That’s why an upgrade at catcher for the Angels is so important, and why replacing Victor Martinez with Prince Fielder in Detroit may not be as impactful as many people believe it will be.

CJ Wilson strengthens an already talented rotation, and Albert Pujols is most definitely an upgrade over Mark Trumbo, but Iannetta provides value at a position that was an absolute black hole for the Angels last season. If the Angels do overtake Texas this season, we will justifiably hear about Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson. Let’s just not forget to give Chris Iannetta his credit either.