Stating the obvious, strikeouts are a wonderful thing for a pitcher. Retire a batter by your own hand and you don't have to sweat the vagaries of luck, defense, park effects, and all the factors that can conspire to ruin a pitcher's day, through no fault of his own. More broadly, strikeouts are a great predictor of success: Other than the occasional Carlos Marmol, the top strikeout pitchers in baseball often double as the top pitchers in baseball, period.
But that doesn't mean pitchers can't find success in other ways. In 2011, Jim Johnson shook off a career full of mostly unimpressive results to become one of the league's top setup men; few noticed because he lacked the glory that comes with getting the last out of games. Given his first extended shot at closing last year, Johnson flourished, marking just the 12th time in history that a pitcher had racked up 50 or more saves. The Orioles played a ton of close games last year and famously posted the best record ever for one-run games, which played a big part in Johnson's gaudy save totals. But Johnson himself was responsible for much of that success, and not because of his strikeouts. The right-hander's 15.2 percent K rate ranked just 219th among 270 pitchers with 60 or more innings pitched last year. His 62.3 percent ground ball rate, on the other hand, ranked 6th among those same 270 pitchers, his tidy 5.6 percent walk rate ranking 45th. If you walk very few batters and induce a ton of grounders, you're simply not going to put many men on base, nor allow many extra-base hits. Sure, you'll be susceptible to a few five-hoppers sneaking through the infield. But if that's the worst of a closer's problems, he's probably going to put up a bunch of big seasons.
He might not fit the profile of the fire-breathing ninth-inning man. But Johnson is one of the game's best, his hold on the closing job is rock-solid, and there's no regression monster lurking around the corner.
In case you were busy using an already awesome milk shake as the base for an even thicker and more decadent uber-milk shake, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman shot 6-under to share the opening-round lead at the Masters. Garcia, considered among the best active players to have never won a major, said afterward, "Oh, no, please don't notice I'm leading. I can't choke if I'm not in front. I had no idea my round would be good enough to put me on top. Please, don't even talk to me. Talk to Leishman! Just talk to Leishman! Why won't you just talk to Leishman?!" Garcia then ran into a greenside bunker at the fourth hole, attempting to bury himself in the sand.
The Bulls continued their streak-snapping ways, and Nate Robinson scored 35 points in Chicago's 118-111 win over the New York Knicks at United Center. New York came to Chicago on a 13-game winning streak. Knicks coach Mike Woodson was reflective after the loss, saying, "Oh, we laughed when Erik Spoelstra came in shouting, 'I'm out!' when the Bulls brought down his team's streak earlier this year. And we shrugged off his warning that they'd lay us low, as well. We were sure we'd remain kings of our castle, masters of our domain, lords of our manors. And yet here we are, sweaty, drained, and out of the winning streak contest ourselves."
Jered Weaver will miss four to six weeks with a fracture in his left elbow. This could be great news for the Los Angeles Angels.
To understand how losing someone considered one of the best pitchers in the game could be a good thing for a pennant contender, we need to start with this: Jered Weaver wasn't pitching like himself even before the injury. In fact, he's been throwing off red flags since last season.
This might seem insane to ponder, given the lanky righty's end-of-year stats. In 2012, Weaver went 20-5, posted a 2.81 ERA, made his third straight All-Star Game, and finished third in Cy Young voting. But there were broader signs of skills erosion at work. Weaver's strikeout percentage dipped to 19.2 percent, the second-lowest mark of his career (his 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings were also the second-lowest total of his career, and also below league average for a starting pitcher). His 8.6 percent home-run-per-fly-ball rate was his worst in his seven big league seasons. Beyond those numbers, you could see a difference in the quality of his pitches. Weaver's average fastball dropped to 87.8 mph, the lowest mark of his career and the kind of speed that will punt most other right-handed starters out of baseball, never mind trying to maintain elite performance with such soft offerings.
There were health problems, too. In his final start of 2012, against the Mariners, Weaver exited after just one inning. "You know what? My body just kind of shut down," he said after the game. "I felt it in the bullpen. My shoulder wasn't feeling up to par. I wanted to give it a go, but I didn't want to push it and have something bad happen and go into the offseason worried. The best thing to do was shut it down."
In case you were busy soothing your aching joints with an old-fashioned Epsom salt soak, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The NCAA tournament Sweet 16 is set, and the biggest story thus far has been the run of Florida Gulf Coast University, who find themselves among college basketball's elite after an 81-71 win over San Diego State. Based on all my knowledge of the school from before the tournament started, "FGCU," which has probably been around for over a decade, has amassed a number of victories on their way to becoming a true school where NCAA basketball is played. The team features players, of which five play on the court at the same time, barring truly unusual circumstances, who shoot basketballs toward baskets, which is a thing those players do to get basketball points. They employ strategies regarding where they should run so that they can shoot basketballs from preferable positions, implemented by a coach with a unique backstory that I remember hearing about once but mostly forget. He might have been a baron of some sort? So mark it down in your personalized line drawing of college names: Florida Gulf Coast University is a school from Florida, probably located along the gulf coast, that plays basketball and is eligible for advancement in the NCAA basketball tournament. Up next for Florida Gulf Coast University is the University of Florida, a school that is also run by the state of Florida. Expect basketball shots, two strategic men telling basketball players what to do, and collusion.
Louisville, the tournament's no. 1 seed, advanced to the Round of 16 after dismantling Colorado State, 82-56, at the University of Kentucky's home court, Rupp Arena. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after the game, "Man, it's nice to be back at the old stomping ground, playing out of the home locker room. Hey, has anyone heard how the Wildcats are doing? No? Yeah, no, me neither. That's really unusual. But hey, tell John, old friend of mine, 'Thanks for the hospitality.' Also, we used all of the condiments that were in the fridge here. Hope that's not a problem."
In case you were out getting back what's rightfully yours, here's what you missed in sports this weekend.
Duke avenged an earlier loss at Miami to beat the Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 79-76, behind 36 points from Ryan Kelly. Kelly, who had missed the previous two months with a foot injury, said after the game of Miami's NCAA title chances, "We have done far worse than killed them; we have hurt them. And I wish to go on hurting them. I shall leave them as they had left us: marooned, on the periphery of contention. Buried alive. Buried alive."
In case you were out stocking up on discounted Swedish meatballs, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
George Karl's Denver Nuggets continued their torrid offensive play as they beat the Los Angeles Lakers at home, 119-108, to deny the Lakers a chance to get back to .500. After the game, Kobe Bryant was all smiles, joking around with teammates and coaches in the locker room. When asked about his cheery demeanor, Bryant said, "I'm so glad you asked. You see, I enjoy losing to Coach Karl in the regular season because it reminds me of the last time I lost a postseason series to him back in, hmmm, I can't remember when. He's been coaching my whole career, though, so I'm sure he must have beaten me once in the postseason. No? No." Bryant then pulled a microphone out of his waistband and dropped it on the ground.
The wildest day of this Hot Stove season featured the winter's biggest contract for a position player, an affordable two-year deal for a veteran starting pitcher, and a fierce, two-team battle for an underrated starter.
A few hours after the Angels' 11th-hour rush ended with a $125 million deal for Josh Hamilton, the buzz turned to a Cubs-Tigers tug-of-war for Anibal Sanchez. Multiple early reports had Sanchez headed to Chicago for five years and $75 million. But while Hamilton reportedly reneged on a promise to give the Rangers a chance to match any competing offer, Sanchez had no such reluctance, approaching the Tigers to see if they'd match the Cubs' proposal and keep him in Detroit and they did, signing the best remaining pitcher on the free-agent market to a five-year, $80 million contract.
Jumping suddenly and aggressively into the fray, the Angels reeled in Josh Hamilton for five years and $125 million, delivering a sharp blow to the rival Rangers and further cementing the West divisions as the most compelling races for 2013.
Industry consensus had Hamilton ticketed for a return to Texas, given Hamilton's supposed promise to the Rangers that they could match any competing offer and the lack of rumors signaling a megadeal from another team. But as the Angels swept in last offseason to grab Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson at the end of the 2011 Winter Meetings, so, too, did they pull off a shocker here.
The Red Sox are rumored to be interested in Cody Ross, which makes no sense for a team that already has every outfield position and DH covered unless Jacoby Ellsbury's on the block. The problem with an Ellsbury trade, which has also been rumored, is finding a suitable trade partner. The 29-year-old center fielder should get a healthy raise in arbitration following an $8 million salary in 2012. Problem is, he's coming off an injury-wracked season in which he hit a measly .271/.313/.370 and played in just 74 games. He's also a free agent after next season. So you've got a player with a solid argument for 2011 MVP who tanked the next season, now stands to make eight figures, offers only one year of team control, and would likely require a quality pitcher in return. It's baseball, so we should never say never. But if Boston's going to add pitching during or after the Winter Meetings, it might very well be via a straight free-agent signing, rather than a trade.
News and notes as we roll into Day 2 of the Winter Meetings
• The Rangers signed former Royals closer Joakim Soria to a two-year, $8 million deal. This marks the second straight offseason in which Texas inked a closer rehabbing from Tommy John surgery to a multi-year deal, following the November 2011 signing of Joe Nathan. I hated that deal at the time, writing that Nathan had lost fastball velocity and seen his strikeout rate drop considerably after TJ, and that the Rangers were getting at best a diminished pitcher and, at worst, a pitcher who's about to get injured. I was, obviously, spectacularly wrong. But beyond dwelling on my incredibly poor judgment, the Nathan deal is a great example of information asymmetry. Simply put, teams often know things that we the public do not, even when deploying intelligent statistical analysis. This is doubly true for injured players, or players coming off injury. Doesn't mean we should blindly trust every general manager to make the right decision every time. Only that there might be more to a deal than the obvious circumstances might suggest, such as when a team signs a late-30s relief pitcher with major surgery in his recent past to a multi-year contract.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP award, beating out Angels rookie Mike Trout by a healthy margin. And now it's time for the ANGRY OLD SPORTSWRITER! "Look, I know all you stat nerds out there are going 'Wahhh, wahhh, Trout should have won because he has a higher WAR.' You know what I think of that? HAR. As in HARDY HAR-HAR, morons. There's so much Trout love going around that I think the sports world is full of bears. And guess what? Bears eat salmon, so you're wrong there, too. Get a grip. Miguel Cabrera won a Triple Crown, you sniveling little Adlai Stevensons. Back when I was around, in the 1930s, that used to mean something. In fact, players back then would actually wear three different crowns to signify that they'd won. Was it uncomfortable? Sure. But I dare you to find a more beautiful site than Jimmie Foxx strutting around Philadelphia with three golden crowns perched atop his gorgeous head. There wasn't a man there who didn't get an erection. So can the stupid Trout arguments. Mike Trout is threatening to ruin baseball, and if Bud Selig had any cojones, he'd send him on the next ship to Venezuela, and he'd say, 'Either you take down that tyrant Hugo Chavez and his nationalized oil, or you don't come home.' And that's a Triple Crown we can all wear."
The series of tubes are still buzzing over Sergio Romo's parade-stopping T-shirt, and already we've got reams of Hot Stove news to sort through. Here are some of the biggest happenings from the past week:
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Despite Dwight Howard's 33 points and 14 boards, Steve Nash suffered a bruised leg and the Lakers fell to 0-2 with a 116-106 loss to the Blazers. "Look, I don't want anybody saying Mike Brown should be fired, or anything like that," Howard told the media after the game. "He's our coach, and I just don't want to hear that kind of talk. I won't stand for it." When the confused reporters began to tell him that nobody had suggested it, Howard cut them off. "It's way too early for that talk," he said. "Not cool, guys. Mike Brown? Fired? Way too early. Come on."
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Jay Cutler threw four interceptions and the Packers scored a touchdown on a fake field goal as the Packers dominated the Bears 23-10. Following the fake, Bears coach Lovie Smith repeatedly ordered his team into the field goal block defense on inappropriate downs, reasoning that if the Packers would run a normal play when they were supposed to kick, they could easily kick when they should be running a normal play. "Fool me once," he began, and then tripped over a Gatorade cooler.
Coming into Monday, David Price was the leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award. His 2.28 ERA led the major leagues among qualified starters, and he'd given up just two runs over 30 innings in August. His strikeout rate was just south of nine per nine innings, above other hopefuls like Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, and Jered Weaver, and just below Justin Verlander. He had 16 wins, the most in the league, and for better or worse, wins matter. He'd also spearheaded Tampa's August surge up the AL East leader board, another circumstantial fact that wouldn't hurt his candidacy.