You know the story. Jeffrey Loria bought the Montreal Expos, ran them into the ground, then swapped them for the Florida Marlins. For the next 10 years, he ran, essentially, a skeleton operation, at one point so brazenly failing to compete that Major League Baseball started leaning on him to spend more on player salaries. He argued that, as a multimillionaire, he couldn’t make enough of a profit unless the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County (who have a median household income of $43,957, and 17.9 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the latest census figures) bought him a new stadium.
And when they did, at the eventual cost of more than a billion dollars to taxpayers, Loria and his front office made a good-faith effort to compete for one season, before shipping off Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle and replacing them with players who make the major league minimum. All told, it’s a tale of class warfare that would make Karl Marx’s hair stand on end even more than it did before.
But despite the overall ickiness of their ownership group, one that seems to view actually having to field a baseball team as an annoyance (and wouldn’t you, if said baseball team was in the habit of hitting Greg Dobbs cleanup?), the Marlins are in an interesting position. They know they aren’t going to win, and so with all the depressing, .600 OPS-toting retreads and career replacement-level non-prospects they’re marching out there, they’ve taken the opportunity to blood a couple more exciting young players.
This seems to be how the Marlins work — they assemble oodles of talent, develop it slowly, make the playoffs and win the World Series, then sell that championship roster for parts. No owner, perhaps in all of North American sports, is trying less hard to build a champion than Jeffrey Loria. But if these players grow up together, in a couple years he might get one anyway.
There’s an understanding among baseball fans who can read and do math that relief pitchers are pretty much interchangeable. Certainly not all relievers — some are consistently good, like Mariano Rivera, while others are consistently awful, like Josh Lindblom. But in general, one relief pitcher is going to pitch so few innings over the course of a given year that a great bullpen isn’t a foundation to build on, but rather the last piece of a championship puzzle. And even then, relief pitcher performance varies wildly from year to year. Consider the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, who won the World Series thanks, in part, to one of the best bullpens in the game. Then consider what Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Chad Durbin were doing even one year later.
One exception to this rule is the 2011-12 Atlanta Braves, whose bullpen performed wonders. The poster boys for Atlanta’s late-inning run prevention were closer Craig Kimbrel and lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. In 2011, O’Flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel were first, third, and fifth, respectively, among Braves pitchers in WAR. In 2012, Kimbrel and O’Flaherty were second and fifth. Put another way, in the past two years the Braves had three different relievers post three-win seasons. That’s ridiculous.
Since the start of the 2011 season, O’Flaherty has appeared in 161 regular-season games, 55 of them on less than a day’s worth of rest. Venters appeared in 151 games, 49 of them after having pitched the day before. And last week, we found out that both of them would be headed for Tommy John surgery — in Venters’s case, for a second time.
Sunday afternoon, the Phillies came back from down 2-0 to beat the Reds. That’s not particularly newsworthy on its own — the Phillies aren’t a bad team, and in a game as unpredictable as baseball, comebacks like that are commonplace.
But dive a little deeper into what happened and you’ll start to appreciate exactly how unpredictable baseball was on Sunday afternoon.
And we are BACK, with your all-purpose* guide to the weekend in MLB action.
*Single-purpose, really. It's super limited in function. You can only read it.
10. no. 2 UNC vs. no. 3 Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. and Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN3)
Whoa! Super controversial start! Who is this guy? He must think way outside the box to be including a college baseball game in a post specifically dedicated to MLB. What a challenging artistic choice! I imagine people will have split reactions, but it'll definitely get them talking!
OK, this is here because college baseball gets zero attention, and this is a great series. UNC is 46-7 and UVA is 44-8. Both teams have gaudy statistics; the lowest batting average among UNC's top nine hitters is .278, while the Cavs aren't far behind. But the real attraction here is Carolina's pitching staff, which boasts a 2.50 ERA. Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson are the starters for the weekend, and we could see both in the bigs someday soon. Anyway, if you're ever going to watch a college baseball game before the College World Series, this is a good start. And I swear, the fact that I'll be at one or both games has nothing to do with why I included it here. (Lies.)
After years of seeing poor receivers like Ryan Doumit cost them strikes, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history over the winter. According to Baseball Prospectus analyst Max Marchi’s pitch-framing statistics, Martin, a converted infielder who worked hard at becoming a better receiver, ranks fourth among major league catchers with more than 105 runs saved because of framing from 2008 to present, or roughly 0.23 runs per 100 pitches. Pittsburgh’s two-year, $17 million commitment is already paying dividends. With Martin behind the plate picking up extra strikes, the Pirates had their best April since 1992, the last season they were a winning team. I caught up with Martin to find out how he does it before a game at Citizens Bank Park.
With PITCHf/x in the past few years, people have tried to put a value on turning a ball into a strike, and what the best catchers are worth. Have you seen those stats? Have you noticed more emphasis on it from teams or coaches?
It’s been talked about more. It never really used to be talked about. I’ve always known that it makes a big difference, just looking at the greats over the years that have been really good receivers, but there’s never been an association with numbers. It’s kind of hard to put a value on it. It’s hard to illustrate.
This is a plot of the called strikes for all the Pirates pitchers. The first image is the last five seasons, and then the second image is this season. The red area is where the called strikes are. This season it’s been a much bigger blotch than the last five seasons, so that seems to suggest that might be you doing something.
Short sample right now, though.
But yeah, sure.
It seems like the main difference is on the top and bottom there. Is there an area that you feel like you’re most able to get those extra strikes?
Probably bottom-middle of the zone. I’ve always been pretty good at getting that pitch.
Baseball players' careers rarely show up as perfect bell curves. You might see a player break in with a big rookie season, only to stagnate or regress over the next few years. Then just when you're ready to write off that player's chances for stardom, the breakout comes.
This is the Carlos Santana story. This season it might also be the story of the Cleveland Indians, one of the hottest teams in baseball and one of the biggest surprises of the early season, hot on the heels of the powerhouse Tigers.
Santana broke into the majors mashing, hitting .260/.401/.467 in 46 games and looking like an immediate star, a worthy successor to Victor Martinez as the weak-gloved catcher who more than made up for his lack of defense with a huge bat. In Santana's sophomore season of 2011, his power-hitting ability translating well over a full season, as he bashed 27 home runs; he also hit just .239, walked less often, and struck out more often. Last year, he walked more often and struck out less often, but his power dipped, and his overall numbers suffered.
Before the season, I drafted in my head (but never published) a column on how the Cleveland Indians could win the AL Central this season. They’ve got a good offense, and a good bullpen, but one of the worst starting rotations you can imagine. So to make a run at the playoffs, the Indians, I thought at the time, would need to catch every break from a rotation of question marks: Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Less than two months into the season, we can say pretty safely that those breaks aren’t going to happen. Myers is hurt; Bauer’s brief major league cameo featured a constellation of hard-breaking pitches that wound up farther from the plate than a pissed-off toddler’s dinner; Matsuzaka didn’t even make it out of camp; and while Jimenez has shown improvement in his past few starts, a return to his Cy Young form in Colorado is almost certainly out of the question.
But one place I (and just about everyone else) never even considered to look for a savior is in Scott Kazmir.
Shelby Miller might go his entire baseball life without matching what he did Friday night. Facing the Rockies in St. Louis, the 22-year-old right-hander gave up a leadoff single to Eric Young Jr. and nothing else, mowing down 27 straight hitters en route to a one-hit shutout. He struck out 13 batters and walked none, hurling not only the best game of his young career and the best game in Cardinals history, but also one of the most dominant starts of all time, for anyone.
Miller's near-perfect game might've been the overwhelming choice for best pitching highlight of the Cardinals' season and a lasting memory for the rest of the year until Adam Wainwright came along and nearly topped it. The very next night. In Game 2 of the Rockies series, Wainwright fired 7⅓ no-hit innings before Nolan Arenado broke up the no-no bid on a clean single to center. Wainwright would close out the game with a two-hit shutout, striking out seven batters and walking just one. The two Cardinals starters combined to retire 49 straight Rockies hitters, basically one and a half perfect games.
That stretch of pitching might seem borderline impossible to pull off. Given recent events, maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised. Miller's start was one of four one–base runner shutouts last week, as many as we saw in five years (2003 through 2007) last decade and not even including Wainwright's three–base runner gem. Miller had already been pitching exceptionally well, going into Friday's start with a 1.79 ERA in 50⅓ major league innings, with 54 strikeouts and just 15 walks over his brief cup of coffee last season and his first six starts this year. Wainwright's seven-strikeout, one-walk night actually hurt his strikeout-to-walk rate, which sat at an unfathomable 48-to-3 before that Rockies game. None of this was all that new for the Cardinals rotation either, not for a starting five that leads the majors with a 2.29 ERA, 2.81 FIP (second-lowest in MLB), 3.29 xFIP (also second-lowest), and just 12 home runs allowed. The Cardinals own the best record in baseball as we near the season's quarter-pole, and their rotation is the biggest reason they're here.
Somewhere in West Virginia, the Pirates have a 22-year-old corner infielder who’s putting up Miguel Cabrera–like numbers in low-A. That player, Stetson Allie, is old for the level, but this is his second year in the South Atlantic League. (The placement of West Virginia in the South Atlantic is a stunning feat of geographic creativity. One suspects that the late Sen. Robert Byrd was somehow responsible.)
The first time around, Allie, a former second-round pick, was a pitcher. Blessed with a name befitting a character from The Expendables and a fastball that cracked 100 miles an hour, Allie made two appearances, faced 12 batters, recorded two outs, and walked eight men. Allie’s control problems were well known, even when he was an amateur, and once it became clear that he’d never get over them, the Pirates moved him to first base with the eventual plan of moving him to third, where he can take advantage of, you know, a pretty good throwing arm.
Allie’s story is fascinating, and while hardly unique, his spectacular wildness and transition to position player is going to be the first line in his baseball obituary. Which makes it all the more astounding that when Rick Ankiel got cut by Houston last week, people talked about him like he was a normal baseball player. Ankiel’s own control issues led to a similar change more than a decade ago, but the road he’s taken since has managed to push wild pitches and prospect rankings down a ways in his own career postmortem.
Joel Peralta is a real-life Eddie Harris. The 37-year-old Dominican might have more pitching tricks than anyone this side of the Major League character, most of them legal, one of them illegal.
Peralta didn't make his minor league debut until he was 24. He appeared in 300 minor league games over the next decade, spending parts of seven different seasons at Triple-A. Peralta bounced around from the Angels' system to the Royals, then to the Rockies, finding only fleeting success. Playing for the Nationals in 2010, he posted some of the best numbers of his career, with a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 5-to-1 and career bests in ERA (2.02) and FIP (3.02). Signed by the Rays the following offseason, he's found a more lasting home in Tampa Bay, emerging as the team's go-to eighth-inning guy and one of the most effective setup men in the league. Though his bag of tricks might rival ol’ Eddie's, Peralta's a uniter and not a divider in the clubhouse, described by teammates as a bridge between different cliques rather than an antagonizer of Jobu worshippers.
I sat down with Peralta before a recent game at Coors Field to ask about his evolution as a pitcher, his old-school techniques for fooling hitters, and how confidence has played a role in his success.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a starting lineup of the most entertaining players in baseball, and Jonah Keri objected to my including only one pitcher, Yu Darvish. Of course, you can have only one pitcher in a starting lineup at a time. That’s how baseball works. But because I crave Jonah’s approval as if he were an aloof and uninterested father figure, I put together what would be the most entertaining pitching staff in baseball: Yu Darvish, plus …
Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Please, Hernandez’s elbow, don’t blow up. Just please don’t blow up. I’m a sucker for a good sinker. Back in the day, one of my favorite things about baseball was that, once a week, it gave me the opportunity to watch Brandon Webb dive-bomb hitters for seven or eight innings. After the tragic passing of Roy Halladay, King Felix might now be the archetypal no. 1 starter — an enormous dude with a strong fastball, great command, and a long and distinguished list of off-speed and breaking pitches. Not only does the archetypal no. 1 starter have to throw good innings, he has to throw lots of them, consistently. It’s hard to just go out there and carpet-bomb hitters start after start for 220 innings a year. At the moment, it might be down to Hernandez and the next guy.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
I’ve been writing about baseball for five seasons now. Whenever preseason prediction time comes around, I pick Justin Verlander to win the Cy Young every time. I have literally never picked another pitcher. I almost didn’t add him because his brilliance is really perfunctory at this point. On Sunday, Verlander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and I even didn’t turn the game on because it seems like he does that twice a month. “Oh, did Verlander just throw eight innings, strike out 10, walk one, and give up four hits and one earned run? Fascinating. Let me do the Aubrey Plaza eye roll.”
For most of us, it happens gradually. You lose a step, start forgetting to file your TPS reports. The attaboys you got when you were young and hungry start to fade. Years and years of erosion, until one day, your boss calls you into his office. You're not fired, exactly. But here's a nice, early retirement package. Do the right thing and take it now. Your slow, inevitable march toward irrelevance has finally reached its end.
Baseball players don't always have that luxury. The end can be merciless, especially for pitchers. One day you toe the rubber and find you can't crack 90 anymore. You're throwing meatballs, and the other team is teeing off. Finally, mercifully, skipper takes the slow walk out to get you. You look back at the scoreboard and see a big, fat nine staring back. Your shoulder is shooting waves of pain through your body. Years and years at the top of your game, and the top of the league, all washed away with one excruciating beatdown.
Roy Halladay isn't necessarily done in the literal sense. He'll very likely pitch again. But watching the sad-sack Marlins batter Halladay for nine runs in 2⅓ innings Sunday, with their one dangerous hitter on the DL no less, reinforced what we've all been thinking for a while: The Doc we knew is gone. It took Juan Pierre, Marcell Ozuna, Greg Dobbs, and Adeiny Hechavarria to read him his last rites.
Sportswriters love telling people how unbiased sportswriters are, and a big part of that is rooting for stories, not individual teams. That’s pretty obvious. It’s much easier and much more fun to write about an unusual defensive play, or a no-hitter, or a walk-off hit, than it is to write about an arduous 12-5 yawner that stopped being close after the third inning.
And it’s not just writers who do this. Even without the professional self-interest, fans want to see the underdog overachieve. They want to see the unusual, the exciting, and they want the drama and uncertainty to last as long as possible.
So in the spirit of lasting drama, everyone ought to be rooting as hard as they can against the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers are kind of old news, with two consecutive division titles in their pockets. They rely heavily on slow guys who walk and hit home runs (and if you’re going to do that, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are two pretty good slow guys to have), and they’ve got a starting rotation that might be better than all the other rotations in the division. To balance those strengths come two glaring weaknesses. First, the bullpen has been quite good so far this year but is built on a foundation of quicksand. Second, they have the kind of defense one might expect when a lineup has a lot of slow guys who walk and hit home runs.
Now, none of this makes the Tigers particularly objectionable. The reason you should root against them is that they’re by far the best team in baseball’s worst division, and they’re starting to pull away in the standings.
Here we are, another Friday. Another week without accomplishing our dreams. Unless your dream is watching baseball games on May 3–5, 2013, in which case I am your guardian angel, lifting you by the underarms and carrying you to self-actualization. Here are the top 10 things happening this weekend in American stickball.
On the one hand it's hard not to conjure up a little sympathy for Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. Travel south about 15 stops down the CTA Red Line from the Addison station next to Wrigley Field and there sits another major league ballpark built for Jerry Reinsdorf with tax dollars from the kind people of Illinois. All Ricketts wants to do is spend some money to put up a more modern scoreboard inside a baseball stadium he already owns. Not to mention one that was privately financed. Almost a century ago, and not by him, but privately nonetheless.
On the other hand, Ricketts owns the Cubs (of course that could be a reason to pity him further), and suffice it to say that he had access to the $850 million or so needed to buy the Cubs (the purchase also included Wrigley Field and 25 percent of Comcast SportsNet Chicago). Ridiculous money will abrade sympathy.
And for someone who might need to court more public goodwill to help push through renovation plans for Wrigley Field — the centerpiece of which is a new JumboTron in left field — he's not grading out very high in charm. Said Ricketts at a City Club of Chicago event yesterday: "I'm not sure how anyone is going to stop the signs in the outfield, but if it comes to the point that we don't have the ability to do what we need to do in our outfield then we're going to have to consider moving." He later clarified his remarks: "We've always said that we want to win in Wrigley Field, but we also need to generate the revenue we need to compete as a franchise."
Here's the thing: That’s total crap. The Cubs don't need (more) money to compete.