Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Post-Season Off Days: A Silver Lining in the Rain Clouds?

I'm sure, if you're a baseball person, you've already heard plenty about rain delays and suspended World Series games. If you read here regularly, you've also heard my rant about so many off days during the post-season. Well, the perfect rationalization for those days is that they make it an easy decision to create an official rule requiring that all playoff games go the full 9 innings, or 8 1/2 if the home team is ahead.

This is pretty simple. Any game during the post-season that is started, but not finished, becomes a suspended game, even if only an inning is played. Although if that's the case, then a serious error was made in beginning the game in the first place. The excessive number of off days make it easy to do this without extending the World Series, unless, of course, the suspended game occurs in Game 7.

Pretty simple, right? Hopefully that's the decision that is eventually made by the MLB front office.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

World Series Game 3 Wrap

There are a couple of recurring themes here, with respect to my series predictions. The first is that the Phillies' starting staff has pitched better than I thought. Last night, Jamie Moyer out-pitched Matt Garza, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits and a walk, with 5 strikeouts, over 6 1/3 innings. With Garza lasting 6 innings, and giving up 4 runs on 3 home runs, it was the third game in a row that the Rays' starter has failed to last as long as his counterpart.

The second is related to the lefty vs. lefty matchups. While Chase Utley hasn't been shut down as badly as Ryan Howard, it has proved beneficial to the Rays that these two bat consecutively in the order. J.P. Howell came on in the 8th and struck out Utley and Howard back-to-back, although his 9th inning HBP of Eric Bruntlett eventually earned him the loss and the Phillies a 2-1 series lead.

Games 1-3 self-evaluation: C+

Saturday, October 25, 2008

World Series Game 2 Wrap

Brett Myers didn't pitch badly Thursday night, recovering after a shaky start to make it through 7 innings. Still, yielding 3 earned runs in the first 4 innings does not qualify as coming up big, so I feel like my vote of no confidence in him was not totally unwarranted. James Shields only lasted 5 2/3 innings, scattering 7 hits and allowing 2 walks, but no earned runs, and that's the bottom line. However, this is the second game in a row that the Phillies' starter went further than the Rays', contrary to my prediction. Actually, I wasn't referring to Cole Hamels vs. Scott Kazmir when I said this, but I certainly expected Shields to last longer than Myers.

Once again, we saw last night why the back-to-back of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will continue to be a problem for the Phillies. The Rays only used one of their three left-handers out of the bullpen, but it's no coincidence that David Price's 2 1/3 innings of relief began and ended with Utley and Howard. After starting off by walking Utley in the 7th, Price then struck out Howard. In the 9th, Price made Utley look bad in striking him out and induced a groundball from Howard to end the game. Howard is now 0-for-6 with 4 strikeouts and a walk vs. lefties in the series, and 2-for-3 vs. Shields, the only right-hander he's faced.

My Game 2 self-evaluation: B

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voluntary Release III: My Interview with Rick Roder

Before I wrote Voluntary Release II, I had placed a call to Rick Roder, one of the co-authors of the Jaksa/Roder Manual, and operator of the web site Rules of Baseball.com. I would certainly have understood if he wanted to steer clear of this recent controversy, but he did return my call last week, and spoke very candidly with me for about 30 minutes. Rick was very cooperative and his insights clarified this issue as much as possible, as far as I'm concerned.

The main point I came away with from this conversation is this play clearly exposed a deficiency in the rule book, and this is an area where there potentially is a disagreement among umpires. Rick clarified that the Jaksa/Roder Manual's interpretation of the rule book is not official, and Welke apparently chose to interpret the rule differently. He also stated, while he believes his own interpretation to be correct, Welke's call was not technically wrong.

It seems to me, from my discussion with Roder, this is a rule interpretation that will be discussed by the Major League Baseball Playing Rules Committee in the off-season and, very likely, clarified. He also raised my awareness to the possibility that, even if the Jaksa/Roder interpretation becomes official, this does not necessarily condemn the ruling Welke made. If this occurs, it most likely will be determined his call was technically correct at the time, but the tag requirement will become more stringent going forward.

The conclusion I draw from this is it reinforces the point I made in the final paragraph of my last article on this subject. That is, the most important thing that needs to come out of this is Major League Baseball's clarification of this rule. I still feel, had Welke not taken his eyes off the ball, he may have seen this one differently, and for that reason, it was a serious mistake for him not to ask for help. More importantly, I think MLB dismissed this too easily and not convincingly, and I'm not sure why. But, at this point, I have nothing more to say on this subject.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

World Series Game 1 Wrap

Since yesterday's post was basically my World Series prediction, I figured I'd do a game-by-game analysis of how things are looking.

Last night didn't start off very well, in terms of my prognostication. Chase Utley hit a first inning two-run homer off of Scott Kazmir, despite the fact that I said Kazmir would give Utley and Ryan Howard a hard time. But, after that the two combined for an 0-for-4, with Howard walking once and striking out once. I also called the lefty-lefty matchups between these two Philly hitters and Tampa Bay's bullpen a key factor. Utley, of course, singled off of J.P. Howell in the 7th, but both Howell and Trever Miller struck out Howard.

So, it appears I was right about Howard, but not about Utley. I should have listened when my friend Smitty said to me that Utley doesn't have as tough a time with left-handed pitching as Howard does. I knew the splits didn't look as bad for Utley (.888 OPS vs. lefties in 2008) as for Howard (.746, vs. .881 overall), but I tend to think that when a nasty lefty is on his game, this doesn't matter. Well, Kazmir wasn't really on last night.

I also said that the Rays would have an edge in the DH department, with Chris Coste being Philadelphia's best option. Coste went 0-for-4, but Willy Aybar went 0-for-3, so that hardly qualifies as an advantage. The Rays bullpen did pitch three shutout innings, giving up only two hits and two walks, while striking out five, so my points weren't all bad.

My Game 1 self-evaluation: C-

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

9 = 108: The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays' Improbable Run to the World Series

I originally wrote this article for Seamheads.com as the second of our two-part World Series preview, in which I looked at the upcoming series from the Tampa Bay perspective, while taking a look at how it might compare to past Fall Classics. I consider this to be the best piece I've written for that site so far, so I hope you enjoy.

Joe Maddon, whose Zen-like nature has drawn comparisons to the NBA's legendary Phil Jackson, came up with the slogan "9 = 8" as a motivational tool for his 2008 team. Maddon's curious mathematical equation is intended to mean 9 guys playing hard for 9 innings will equal one of 8 playoff spots. Well, the Rays have achieved that goal, and have extended it two steps further to a berth in the World Series. The worst-to-first story of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays now reaches its final stage, as they look to become the first team to win a World Series the year after finishing with the worst record in baseball. If they do so, their 108 regular season-plus-playoff victories will be 42 better than last year's total.

A Fortuitous Injury

The 2007 Rays finished 66-96, 30 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. Still, the team that took the field to start 2008 didn't represent a major overhaul. Besides the addition of Troy Percival as closer, the most significant change was the trade of right fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Brendan Harris to the Minnesota Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. B.J. Upton had already moved from second base to center field, in late 2007, so Akinori Iwamura made the switch from third base to second base. But, perhaps their season's most important change occurred as a result of injury. Willy Aybar won the third base job out of spring training, and went 6-for-20 with two doubles and a home run in 6 games until he was placed on the disabled list with a sore left hamstring on April 12. That same day, 22-year old Evan Longoria was called up from AAA Durham. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's likely that Longoria would have played his way onto the major league roster at some point this year, but due to his early season call-up, he would go on to have a season that will likely earn him Rookie of the Year honors. He was also arguably the team's regular season MVP, and when he hit home runs in his first two post-season at bats, he served notice that he was ready for prime time. Despite the injury, Aybar would prove to be an important role player upon his return, especially while filling in for Longoria for the month he was out with a fractured right wrist.

Of course, the story of Tampa Bay's surprising season is that everyone was waiting for the clock to strike midnight, and for their carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. After a sluggish start, they found themselves 8-11 on April 20, but a 19-10 month of May propelled them into first-place, one game ahead of the Red Sox. Then, after battling it out with the Sox for the AL East's top spot throughout June, a 7-game winning streak put them 5 games ahead on July 6. They immediately followed that up with a 7-game losing streak, though, which dropped them to a half game out at the all-star break. This slide was expected to be the beginning of their downfall, but from July 19 through the end of the season, the Rays either led or shared the division lead, clinching their first ever post-season berth on September 20.


The 1991 Atlanta Braves were the only other team to go from the worst record in baseball one year to the World Series the next. However, their quest to ascend from the absolute bottom rung to the top of the baseball world ended on Gene Larkin's 10th inning sacrifice fly in the game that cemented Jack Morris' reputation as his era's ultimate big-game pitcher.

The 1991 Braves had a few similarities to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. The Braves had a starting rotation anchored by three young studs, the 25-year old Tom Glavine, 24-year old John Smoltz, and Steve Avery, who went 18-8 at the tender age of 21. The Rays are led by the 26-year old James Shields, and two 24-year olds, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. Both bullpens entered the playoffs without their regular season leader in saves. While there's still a chance that Tampa Bay could activate Troy Percival for the World Series, the Braves were without Juan Berenguer after he broke his pitching arm while horsing around with his children.

That Braves team had six players with post-season experience, and four -- Terry Pendleton, Lonnie Smith, Alejandro Pena, and Charlie Leibrandt -- who had played fairly significant roles on teams that made it to the World Series. The Rays have less October experience, with Jason Bartlett, Trever Miller and Grant Balfour having previously played in the playoffs, and, unless Percival or Eric Hinske is activated, only Dan Wheeler (2 IP in 2005) and Cliff Floyd (3 pinch-hit AB in 1997) with World Series appearances under their belts.

However, the similarities end when comparing the opponents of the 1991 Braves and 2008 Rays. The 1991 Twins were four years removed from their prior World Series victory, and included four position players -- Greg Gagne, Kent Hrbek, Dan Gladden, and Kirby Puckett -- who were starters on both teams. The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies have only marginally more Series experience than the Rays do, with Pedro Feliz, So Taguchi, Eric Bruntlett and Brad Lidge having played in the Fall Classic.

Why the 2008 Rays are NOT the 1991 Braves

It has nothing to do with how the 2008 Rays and 1991 Braves compare to each other, but rather how this year's Rays stack up versus this year's Phillies. Both teams have strong and balanced lineups, which I would consider virtually equal, so the focus here is on the pitching staffs. But, of course, with an emphasis on how they match up against the hitters they'll face.

While Cole Hamels is the best starting pitcher from among the two staffs, the 1-2-3 of Kazmir, Shields and Garza gives the Rays a considerable edge. A lot has been made of the strong second half of Brett Myers, but a fact that has been overlooked is his 5.24 September ERA, and the 27 hits and 11 walks he's given up in 20 1/3 innings over his last four starts, including the post-season. Jamie Moyer was unimpressive in his first two post-season starts, but these struggles have been well documented, and with Matt Garza's recent success making it difficult to decide which of Tampa's big three is truly the staff ace, the starting rotation edge clearly goes to the Rays.

Another key aspect to this Series are the lefty vs. lefty match-ups. Neither Cole Hamels nor Jamie Moyer are as tough on lefties as Scott Kazmir is, and considering how important Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are to the Phillies lineup, this could lessen the Hamels vs. Kazmir advantage in Games 1 and 5. Add to this the significant designated hitter advantage the Rays will have due to the lack of right-handed options for the Phillies -- it appears Charlie Manuel is leaning towards backup catcher Chris Coste as DH vs. Kazmir -- and the Game 1 edge could swing towards the Rays. Considering that many folks are already calling the first game a must-win for the Phillies, this could be huge.

Bullpens are always a major discussion point when analyzing a World Series matchup. Ever since the Yankees won four World Series in five years with a bullpen built around Mariano Rivera, then failed to continue this dominance when the setup guys could no longer live up to the high standards set by Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson, there has been an increased emphasis on relief pitchers. It has been pointed out frequently, with no argument here, that the Phillies have the edge is this area. While the Rays have a strong group of setup relievers, their lack of a shutdown closer is what gives the Phillies an advantage. Brad Lidge -- his 2005 post-season struggles not withstanding -- is a dominant force to have to finish off games. David Price is certainly the Rays' wild card, but it would be hard to base a World Series prediction on the confidence that he will measure up to Lidge.

So, it comes down to the Rays' advantage in their starting rotation versus the Phillies' bullpen edge. Here are three reasons why the former wins out over the latter:

  • A strong bullpen is only as effective as its starting staff's ability to pitch into the 6th or 7th inning with a lead. The Rays' staff will do a better job of this than the Phillies' will.
  • Other than the ALCS Game 5 debacle, Maddon did an excellent job of managing his bullpen's matchups, and with three lefties available to handle Utley and Howard back-to-back, these decisions will be a little easier.
  • The Phillies are not the Red Sox, and "The Bank" is not Fenway.
9 = 108: while Maddon's formula is, of course, incorrect, despite the fact that a Michigan State math professor "proved"otherwise, this equation is mathematically accurate (well...sort of). 9 really does equal 108 (1 + 0 + 8), and it also equals 72 (7 + 2), the number of losses the Rays will end the season with after they defeat the Phillies in 7.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Franchise World Series Debuts

Rays win ALCSCongratulations to the Tampa Bay Rays for earning their franchise's first trip to the Fall Classic in its short history, especially the five former Hudson Valley Renegades who will be appearing in the 2008 World Series: Evan Longoria, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, Dan Wheeler and Fernando Perez.

I hope to be contributing to a World Series preview for Seamheads.com. If not, I may very well do my own here. But, for now, here's a little piece on the last ten teams to appear in their first World Series.

The most recent two first-time World Series entrants were embarrassed pretty badly.

  • 2007: Colorado Rockies lost 4-0 to Boston Red Sox
  • 2005: Houston Astros lost 4-0 to Chicago White Sox.

Prior to that, four consecutive franchises won their Fall Classic debuts, three of them requiring the full 7 games to do so:

  • 2002: Anaheim Angels defeated San Francisco Giants, 4-3.
  • 2001: Arizona Diamondbacks defeated New York Yankees, 4-3.
  • 1997: Florida Marlins defeated Cleveland Indians, 4-3.
  • 1992: Toronto Blue Jays defeated Atlanta Braves, 4-2.

Rounding out the most recent ten teams playing in the World Series for the first time in their franchise's history:

  • 1984: San Diego Padres lost to Detroit Tigers, 4-1.
  • 1982: Milwaukee Brewers lost to St. Louis Cardinals, 4-3.
  • 1980: Kansas City Royals lost to Philadelphia Phillies, 4-2.
  • 1969: New York Mets defeated Baltimore Orioles, 4-1.

Overall, that's 5 wins and 5 losses for the first-timers, 2-2 for the American League teams and 3-3 for the National League teams. This year's Rays will look to break that 8-game losing streak established by the 2005 Astros and 2007 Rockies. Expect them to have very little difficulty with that.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rant: Non-Traveling Off Days

I started writing this little rant a few days ago, but never finished it. It seems a little less relevant now, but it's still a point I want to make. What is the story with the LCS days off between games 4 and 5, days when the teams aren't even traveling? Is it so that the Phillies players can check out Hollywood Boulevard, or the Rays can walk the Freedom Trail? I know it has something to do with television, and I won't try to deny that this is an unavoidable issue, but I can better understand the reason for this in the first round, when the goal is to stagger those games and not have four on the same day.

I'm willing to accept the fact that teams only need to use four starting pitchers in the post-season when they needed five while playing 162 games during a 181-day regular season. That's 19 days off, which--ignoring the fact that three of those are consecutive days over the all-star break--is approximately one every nine days. But, the extra day off in the middle of the LCS, in addition to the two travel days, makes for seven games played in ten days.

This gives the teams involved the option of using only three starting pitchers during the entire series, with only one pitcher in one game required to pitch on short rest. The Dodgers are the only team that chose to do this, with Derek Lowe, but the Red Sox certainly would have considered it had Josh Beckett been pitching as well as he was last year at this time. This results in the post-season being on a completely different playing field, figuratively speaking, than the regular season.

I hate to use this as an example, but Curt Schilling earned the right to be considered a post-season warrior, long before the bloody sock, when he pitched three games in the 2001 World Series. In doing so, he pitched both Games 4 and 7 on three days rest, and lasted at least 7 innings in all three starts. Even so, the Diamondbacks still had to use four starting pitchers in the series, with Brian Anderson going Game 3 and Miguel Batista getting the call in Game 5. When Schilling did this, it meant something. He went above and beyond his normal regular season workload and, despite the fact that his team only won two of these three games, and he was the winning pitcher in just one of them, he shared World Series MVP honors with Randy Johnson.

Of course, the existence of this extra off day has had no bearing on the current post-season, but I just feel that it cheapens the playoffs by potentially making even #4 starters obsolete. Teams can go through short stretches of the season without their 5th starter, and there are additional occasions when they're afforded the opportunity of skipping him, but no team can get by without their 4th starter taking his regular turn every time through the rotation. So, why would Major League Baseball allow this to be the case in the post-season? I am totally realistic about MLB's need to cater to the networks, based on the simple fact that television is one of its two means of presenting its product. However, this is one situation where the league needs to draw the line in order to, as trite as this sounds, preserve the integrity of the game's ultimate showcase.

ALCS Game 5: Let the Second-Guessing Begin

I have only a few points to make here, after the Red Sox amazing comeback last night. The most important one has nothing to do with Joe Maddon, but the hipster manager from Hazleton, Pennsylvania is not completely off the hook.

What were the fans who left this game early thinking? Well, we all pretty much know. The Red Sox looked lifeless for the first 24 innings played at Fenway Park in this series, so there was no reason to think they had any magic on par with 2004 or 2007. But, those folks missed out on what could eventually be considered a pretty historic moment, and were labeled as last night's losers by my friend over at The Ball Caps Blog.

As far as Joe Maddon is concerned, it's hard to really fault him when a previously good bullpen--one that had given up just 3 runs in 13 innings in the series prior to Game 5--pitches as poorly as it did last night. However, Grant Balfour did not pitch well in his last appearance in Game 2 (0 IP, 1 H, 2 BB, 1 HR), and he had given up three hits while getting only two long flyball outs before David Ortiz came to the plate.

Alright, here's where I admit that I wasn't watching at this point in the game. I was actually walking from the bar to my car, then listening on the radio, so I wasn't able to second-guess the decision in the moment. But, the box score tells the story pretty well, and the fact that Maddon did not bring J.P. Howell in to face Ortiz has to be questioned. I won't call him out for bringing Wheeler in with 7 outs to go, though, because, with Troy Percival injured, Maddon hasn't really officially anointed him the closer, and has effectively worked his bullpen by committee.

My other issue is this: Why was Gabe Gross still in right field, with both Fernando Perez and Rocco Baldelli on the bench? Now, I will say that Gross is a better outfielder than he showed in those late innings. But, Perez and Baldelli are clearly better, and one of them--preferably the more experienced Baldelli--should have been in that game when Gross made that pathetic throw on Coco Crisp's game-tying single in the 8th, and misplayed J.D. Drew's line drive into the game-winning hit in the 9th.

These aren't major complaints, I admit. Maddon has certainly earned his due as the American League's 2008 Manager of the Year and, as I said, it's hard to hold him entirely accountable for the fact that his bullpen simply crumbled. But, these were my thoughts last night, and I'm not backing off of them this morning.

My final question, though, comes from a different angle. What exactly did we witness last night? The Red Sox will have to go on to at least win the ALCS for their comeback to truly go down in history, and they might even need to win it all to make this moment more meaningful than the Yankees' late-inning heroics in two games of a 2001 World Series that they eventually lost. But the real question I have is, have Mystique and Aura, who have been reported missing from the Bronx in recent years, simply moved their act 200 miles up I-95?

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Updated 10/16/08 @ 12:09AM: With the voting closed in my American League MVP poll, it seems that my coverage of the controversial play from last Monday night's Red Sox-Angels ALDS Game Four had more influence on its outcome than my argument for Justin Morneau. Likely, at least in part, due to an influx of traffic from Angels sympathizers, the final tally is as follows:

Francisco Rodriguez, Angels - 5
Justin Morneau, Twins - 4
Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox - 3
Josh Hamilton, Rangers - 3
Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox - 1
Roy Halladay, Blue Jays - 1
Other - 1

I'm certainly not trying to say that Rodriguez is not a legitimate MVP candidate, but I know that my site received over 200 referrals from angelswin.com last week, so I'm assuming that a few of those folks cast their votes while they were passing through.

It was a close competition, with four legitimate candidates, but Francisco Rodriguez is our winner, edging out Justin Morneau, Dustin Pedroia and Josh Hamilton. Thanks to everyone who voted.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sox-Rays ALCS Game 1

As tonight's ALCS Game One reached the bottom of the 7th, I decided to live-blog the remainder of the game. I've never done this before, so I thought it would be fun to give it a shot. I didn't edit anything after the fact, except to correct my mistake of confusing Buck Martinez with Dave Campbell. I should have realized that Campbell works for ESPN.

10:47 - Carl Crawford leads off the Rays' bottom of the 7th with their first hit of the game. Down by one run, I'm sure he's going to try to make something happen on the bases. You know Cliff Floyd isn't going to be bunting.

10:49 - Floyd makes that a moot point, driving a single to left-center that sends Crawford to third. First and third and no one out for the Rays. Dioner Navarro is the batter. They need to push across this run, but, of course, not necessarily settle for just that.

10:51 - Navarro's down 1-2. He really needs to make contact in this at bat. Crawford will certainly score on most anything. I'm wrong. Navarro hits a short fly to left and Crawford holds.

10:53 - Gabe Gross is the batter. I doubt he's going to squeeze. Crawford needs to gamble here, if he gets the chance. Matsusaka still looks tough.

10:56 - 3-2 count on Gross. Buck Martinez is calling for them to start Floyd from first. I'm not so sure. He doesn't run, and Gross strikes out, chasing ball four on the second pitch in a row. Really poor at bat in such a situation.

10:57 - Jason Bartlett is the batter, with the Rays in jeopardy of squandering this opportunity. If they do, they're going to have to face the strength of the Red Sox bullpen, and you know Papelbon will be ready to pitch more than an inning.

10:59 - Bartlett grounds out to short. Tampa Bay doesn't score.

11:02 - Top of the 8th. Shields is still out there. Ellsbury bounces back to the box for the first out.

11:03 - Shields started this inning at 94 pitches. Matsuzaka has thrown 107.

11:04 - Pedroia lines a single up the middle. It looks like that's going to be the end of the night for Shields. He pitched a tremendous game. If not for a fluke check swing double by Mark Kotsay, he'd be pitching scoreless ball as well.

11:06 - J.P. Howell is the new pitcher, a lefthander to face David Ortiz. With J.D. Drew two batters away, I'm sure the plan is for him to face at least three batters.

11:08 - Pedroia steals second. Navarro had no chance. Howell's a lefty, he needs to do a better job of holding a runner than that.

11:10 - Howell walks Ortiz. This has to drive a manager crazy, when his lefty specialist gives a free pass to a lefty. It looks like I'm right. He's leaving Howell in to face Youkilis, and, I'm sure, Drew after him.

11:13 - Youkilis hits a foul pop down the right-field line, into the Rays bullpen. Gross didn't come close to catching it, but the guys in the pen need to do a better job of getting out of the way of their guy.

11:15 - Youkilis hits a liner to left that the best left fielder in the game should have caught, but instead plays it into a run scoring double. 2-0 Red Sox. I made two similar, but tougher, plays than this tonight in my softball game.

11:16 - Maddon pulls Howell for Grant Balfour. He faced two batters and retired neither of them, so he can't take any further chances.

11:18 - Seeing Matsuzaka on the bench, he doesn't look like he's coming out of the game. I haven't heard anything about anyone warming up in the bullpen either.

11:19 - Balfour just drilled J.D. Drew with his first pitch, probably trying to intimidate him right away. Obviously not trying to hit him. Bases are loaded with only one out.

11:20 - Jason Bay is the batter. They just showed the reaction of the Red Sox bench at the beaning of Drew. Of course, Dustin Pedroia looked ready to do battle. They can't really think he was trying to hit him?

11:22 - Full count on Bay. Nowhere to put him. Balfour bears down and blows a fastball by him for strike three. Two outs.

11:23 - Mark Kotsay is the batter. Balfour needs to get them out of this jam down by only two runs. Otherwise, it's over.

11:25 - Kotsay pops it up on the infield. Evan Longoria makes the play. Inning over. Balfour does his job.

11:28 - Top of the order in the bottom of the 8th for the Rays. Dice-K is still out there to face Iwamura leading off.

11:29 - Iwamura singles to left. That has to be the end of Dice-K's night. Nope, he's still in there, but Sox pitching coach John Farrell is on the phone to the bullpen.

11:31 - Dice-K throws a pitch to the backstop. Has to be a wild pitch, even though it didn't bounce and Varitek got his glove on it.

11:32 - B.J. Upton hits a rocket to third. Youkilis gets his glove on it and knocks it down, but has no play. Iwamura wisely holds at second. First and second, none out. Mike Lowell makes this play.

11:33 - That's the end of Dice-K's night. Lefty Hideki Okajima is coming on to face the left-handed Carlos Pena. Similar situation to what the Rays faced in the top of the 8th. Two of the next three (actually three of the next four) batters are left-handed, although they'll probably pinch-hit for Floyd against a lefty, but I doubt Okajima will still be in at that point.

11:37 - Pena gets the green light on a 3-0 pitch, gets a pitch to hit, but hit's a soft-liner to right that J.D. Drew catches for the first out. Buck Martinez was just saying that Maddon wouldn't give Pena the green light on 3-0 with Evan Longoria up next. I have to say that I agree that he shouldn't have, but he's a gambler. This time it didn't pay off.

11:40 - Justin Masterson on to face Longoria. Let's see if the troubles he faced the other night against the Angels carry over. He is a rookie, after all. Of course, so is Longoria.

11:42 - Longoria grounds into a double play. The Rays squander another opportunity. That's it. I'm convinced the Red Sox are going to win the World Series. I should stop watching right now.

11:45 - Top of the 9th. I'm still here. Jed Lowrie leads off against Balfour.

11:47 - Lowrie flies out to shallow center field. One out.

11:48 - Papelbon is warming up in the Sox bullpen. Jason Varitek is the batter. It's interesting that the Red Sox have three catchers on their postseason roster for both the ALDS and ALCS. This has to be so that they can pinch hit for Varitek, then pinch hit for Kevin Cash, and still have David Ross to catch. Essentially, when it comes to late in the game, they're going to treat the catcher position like a National League pitcher.

11:50 - Varitek flies out to deep center field. Sometimes pitchers get lucky and hit the ball well too. I'll give Varitek credit for being like a good-hitting pitcher, though he's no Micah Owings.

11:52 - Maddon pulls Balfour for the rookie David Price. There are two outs and nobody on, but it is the 9th inning of a 2-0 game in the ALCS, so he must have serious confidence in Price.

11:53 - Ellsbury hits a soft liner to left that Crawford catches for the third out.

11:55 - Papelbon is on for the bottom of the 9th. He's poised to break the record for most career postseason IP without allowing a run. He's pitched 19 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.

11:57 - Carl Crawford leads off. Papelbon throws 3 of 4 pitches past him for a strikeout. One out. I guess this ties the record.

11:59 - Cliff Floyd is the batter. They show the goon Jonny Gomes on the bench. Is he on the Rays postseason roster? I don't think so.

12:01 - Floyd pops out to Youkilis in foul territory. Two out.

12:02 - Dioner Navarro is the batter. He strikes out, for the final out. Papelbon does his trademark redneck rain dance. Sox lead the series 1-0.

12:06 - There's a Julio Lugo sighting as the camera shows the Red Sox walking down the runway to the locker room. Jonny Gomes is not on the Rays postseason roster, but I'm sure he's ready to get in the fray and sucker punch someone in case of a brawl.

12:08 - I just missed what I'm sure was a riveting Craig Sager interview of Kevin Youkilis. I simply wasn't paying attention.

12:10 - Could there possibly be a worse studio team than one that includes Ernie Johnson, Dennis Eckersley and Harold Reynolds? Poor Cal Ripken.

12:12 - Well, that's all for me. I'm ready to call it a night. I'm not really looking forward to the EJ-hosted post-game show.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Voluntary Release II: The Controversial Call That Wasn't

This is a summary of the issues surrounding the play I first wrote about right after it happened on Monday night. This also provides an overview of the somewhat controversial and elusive rule interpretation of voluntary release that doesn't seem to have received the attention it deserves. Since I've already covered some of the issues here, this is a slightly abridged version of an article I wrote for Seamheads.com.

The play, of course, involved the Angels' botched squeeze play in the top of the 9th of game four of the American League Division Series, a game the Red Sox eventually won 3-2 to advance to their ALCS matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays. With the scored tied 2-2, Reggie Willits on third base with one out, and Erick Aybar at the plate, the Angels attempted to squeeze home the go-ahead run. But, Aybar whiffed at a Manny Delcarmen offering, and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek ran Willits back to third base. Just before Willits reached third, Varitek lunged and tagged him, falling to the ground in the process.

With the ball securely and firmly (remember those words) in Varitek's glove, he tagged Willits while he was clearly off the base. But, in the process of making the tag, Varitek's momentum caused him to fall to the ground on his left elbow. As soon as said elbow hit the ground, the ball squirted out of his glove, but umpire Tim Welke had already called Willits out. However, Welke had momentarily taken his eyes off the ball, focusing instead on the spot where the tag had occurred, and didn't actually see the ball come out of Varitek's glove. He immediately turned his head, though, and, witnessing the ball on the ground, reinforced his call by indicating the runner was out again. Angels' manager Mike Scioscia came out to argue, but was rebuked by Welke, and surprisingly didn't seem to put up much of a fight. Welke, despite the fact he didn't actually witness Varitek lose control of the ball, inexplicably didn't ask for help on the play.

I explained the concept of voluntary release, to some extent, in Monday's post. In the Official Rules of Major League Baseball, Rule 2.00 covers the definition of terms. Since I already provided the rule book's definition of "catch" and "tag" there, I'm not going to repeat them in this post.

People seem to want to use football analogies when discussing this play, but the voluntary release requirement means football analogies don't apply. There's no "a ground can't cause a fumble", nor does how many feet you get down have any relevance. The only thing that matters is whether or not the fielder is able to release the ball, from his glove or hand, voluntarily and intentionally. Most often, this involves removing the ball from the glove with the throwing hand. Voluntary release is the reason why, when an infielder loses control of the ball while in the act of removing it from his glove in turning a double play, the out still counts. The act of pulling the ball out of the glove is voluntary release.

The question here is whether or not voluntary release applies to the tag play. The definitions in the rule book refers to the concept as a requirement of the catch but says nothing about it in the definition of the tag. Since Varitek held the ball securely and firmly in his glove at the time of the tag, this one is pretty cut and dried, right? Not necessarily. In addition to the rule book, there exists a much more detailed manual, titled "Rules of Professional Baseball: A Comprehensive Re-Organization and Clarification", written by former minor league umpires and Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructors Chris Jaksa and Rick Roder, to deal with the countless vagaries in said rule book. This manual is widely used in umpire instruction at the professional and amateur levels.

The manual clarifies the definition of a tag in Rule 2.00 of the Official Rules, which fails to deal with action that occurs after the tag, with the following interpretation (from the 2008 edition, which is slightly different from the wording I provided on Monday):

"Catch" and "tag" are similar concepts. A tag [2.00] occurs when the ball is live and a fielder has the ball in his hand or glove (or both) and:

a. a base is touched by his person, or
b. a runner is touched by any part of the glove/ball, hand/ball, or glove/hand/ball combination.

Such fielder must have complete control of the ball during and after the touch. If the fielder bobbles or drops the ball during or after the touch of the base or runner, and the bobble or drop is due to his lack of control of himself or the ball, or due to contact with a runner, it is not a tag. A fielder shows complete control by:

a. regaining control of his own body after extenuating efforts to make a tag (especially in regard to a fall, dive, or a collision), and
b. showing that his release of the ball is (or will be) voluntary and intentional.

A fielder need not regain control of his body if he is able to voluntarily release the ball; the voluntary release alone is proof of complete control.

The two conditions of showing complete control are what's important here. Since Varitek fell and dropped the ball upon the impact of his elbow with the ground, he neither regained control of his own body nor showed voluntarily and intentional release of the ball. Therefore, he failed to satisfy the requirements of a tag. According to the Jaksa/Roder manual, that is.

So, at the very least, this leaves the issue in an extremely gray area. The interpretation offered by the Jaksa/Roder manual clearly indicates the call was incorrect. Varitek did not show complete control during and after the tag, so Willits should have been ruled safe. But, Steve Palermo, Major League supervisor of umpires, defended the call, although in very unconvincing fashion, choosing instead to refute the "ground can't cause a fumble" football analogy by saying, "That's the NFL. We don't have that in baseball. He had possession of the ball when he made the tag." Palermo's statement uses none of the important rule book terminology, so instead of clarifying, it leaves the issue still open to interpretation.

I'll briefly add my opinion on this here, something I didn't do in the Seamheads article. My inclination is to believe the Jaksa/Roder manual is correct, since the interpretation it offers intends to elaborate on and clarify what exists in the rule book. The same interpretation existed in the 1992 edition that I own a copy of, and 16 years later, the wording was slightly different, but the interpretation was the same. This leads me to believe this has been the accepted view of this issue for years, but since the rule book definition remains vague, it's possible even major league umpires are divided on this one.

The issue boils down to one specific and easily answerable question. Does the voluntary release requirement apply to a tag play as it does to a catch? If the answer is no, then Bill Welke was correct and the controversy is settled. If the answer is yes, then the call was wrong and that fact needs to be admitted. Major League Baseball has a recent history of coming clean in such situations. But, in this case, MLB officials appear to have dismissed this as a non-controversy when, in fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Obviously, as far as the Angels-Red Sox ALDS matchup is concerned, the answer to this question will have no effect on its outcome. However, it's important for the rest of us -- the fans, players, managers, coaches, and, most importantly, the umpires -- to know, so that this particular gray area becomes black or white in the future.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Voluntary Release

I'm not talking about the armed forces here. Of course, this is about baseball, and the fact that I've never seen a bigger blown call in such an important game. It's one thing watching Don Denkinger miss what is strictly a judgment call in the 1985 World Series, but what happened tonight was a rule interpretation, was totally obvious, and easily correctable.

Most people don't know this--the announcers clearly didn't--but, after making a catch or applying a tag, a fielder must show voluntary release of the ball in completing the catch or tag. On the blown squeeze play tonight, Jason Varitek made the tag on Reggie Willits at third, but the ball came loose when his elbow hit the ground. He clearly did not release the ball voluntarily, and there is no question that the third-base umpire couldn't possibly have seen it this way.

I'm surprised that Mike Scioscia didn't know this, because if he had, it would have been a no-brainer for him to ask the umpire to get help in interpreting the rule. Additionally, based on Major League Baseball's relatively new philosophy of making sure to get the call right, I can't understand why the crew chief didn't automatically call for a conference on this one.

I'm now waiting for someone to point out the mistake. It's been 14 years since I went to umpire school, and I still remember this, so I'm completely flabbergasted that it seems I'm the only one who knows the correct interpretation of this rule. The fact that no one else seems to know has me questioning whether or not I'm mistaken, but I don't think I am.

Updated 10/7/08 @ 12:36AM: Apparently, MLB's Director of Umpires says that the ruling was correct because Varitek had the ball firmly in his glove when applying the tag. Rule 2.00 defines a tag as "...the action of a fielder in...touching a runner with the ball, or with his hand or glove holding the ball, while holding the ball securely and firmly in his hand or glove."

In the same section of the rules, the definition of a catch has the added stipulation that "In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional."

So, maybe I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the accepted interpretation (the baseball equivalent of case law) is the same principle applies to the tag as to the catch. However, that opinion does not seem to be reinforced by the Director of Umpires or the wording of the rule book. I'm still not convinced, but maybe I'll back off on my statement that this is the most blatant blown call in an important game that I've ever seen. For now, that is. Stay tuned on this one.

Updated 10/7/08 @ 7:13PM: On "Mike and Mike in the Morning" today, Dave Campbell, about six minutes into an interview that you can listen to on ESPN.com, states "...there's a rule book, and then there's the case book. It's very difficult to get a hold of the case book." Well, I have a copy of the case book, or at least the Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School's version of it, which is titled "Rules of Professional Baseball: A Comprehensive Re-Organization and Clarification", Fourth Edition. My copy of this edition is last updated in 1992, so unless the interpretation has changed since, here's what it says:

"Catch" and "tag" are similar concepts. A tag occurs when the ball is live and a fielder has the ball in his hand or glove (or both) and:

(a) a base is touched by his person or

(b) a runner is touched by any part of the glove/ball or hand/ball combination.

Such fielder must show complete control of the ball during and after the touch, and show this control by voluntarily releasing the ball. If, during or after the touch and before voluntary release has been shown, the ball is bobbled or dropped, it is not a tag.

I'm assuming that, if you've read this far, you saw the game and the play last night. That being the case, I'm sure you can decide for yourself. Did Varitek voluntarily release the ball when his elbow hit the ground?

I guess the real question here is what interpretation of the rule is correct? I honestly thought that the case book I possess contains the accepted interpretations of what is a very vague rule book. But, I really don't know. All I know is, whatever the answer, it has no bearing on the outcome of last night's game. However, I still want to know the answer to the question of does the principle of voluntary release apply to a tag play? The answer to this question would make it abundantly clear whether or not last night's ruling was, in fact, the correct one.

O Canada

This is dedicated to a friend from the old neighborhood who is now a resident of the Great White North, and who recently complained about hearing "Turn Me Loose" on the radio, twice in the same day. My top ten favorite musical artists from Canada:
  1. Neil Young - I'm guessing this comes as no surprise to anyone.
  2. Rush - For most of my teenage years, this was my favorite band. Then, I took a few years off from idolizing Canadians before Neil Young became my most revered.
  3. Joni Mitchell - The fairer sex can certainly hold their own north of the border.
  4. Wolf Parade - based on my current level of interest, these indie-rockers from Montreal would probably rank second on the list, but I had to give some credit for historical significance.
  5. The Band - Four Canadians and an Arkansan (Levon Helm) who met up in Toronto in the late-50s/early-60s. There's no Canadian band that does Americana better than these guys.
  6. The New Pornographers - This Vancouver super-group consists of Zumpano's A.C. Newman, Destroyer's Dan Bejar, and the oft-considered hottest woman in indie-rock, Neko Case.
  7. Kathleen Edwards - Even if Neko is the hottest woman in indie-rock, Kathleen is still the hottest woman on this list, in my opinion.
  8. Sunset Rubdown - Excellent Wolf Parade side project. Or, is Wolf Parade a side project of Sunset Rubdown?
  9. Triumph - They're no Rush, but the other power trio from Toronto is still worthy of top ten honors.
  10. Arcade Fire - I thought Funeral was a bit over-rated, but I really liked Neon Bible, and it was either them, the Cowboy Junkies (the most boring live act I've ever paid to see) or one of the following...
Nostalgic Honorable Mentions:
  • Bryan Adams - I have to admit that I saw him live, on the Reckless tour, in 1985.
  • Corey Hart - I wasn't a big fan of his music, but for several years, I wore my black Wayfarers at night and my hair with his trademark spikey wet look.
  • Aldo Nova - Aldo Caporuscio, as he's known in his native Montreal, can count Mike Stanton and, at one time me, among his biggest fans.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

AL Cy Young

At first glance, the AL Cy Young seems like a no-brainer. Cliff Lee led the league in ERA, at 2.54, and wins, going 22-3 for a .500 ball club. But, as a friend pointed out to me--the same guy (some call him Smitty) who made the argument for Pedroia I referenced in my last article--Roy Halladay is not to be overlooked.

Halladay led the league in innings pitched (246, to Lee's 223 1/3), complete games (9, to Lee's 4), strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.28, to Lee's 5.00), WHIP (1.05, to Lee's 1.11), and OPS against (.621, to Lee's .633). Halladay's 2.78 ERA placed him second in the league, and he has the edge over Lee in strikeouts (206-170), but at 20-11, Halladay's winning percentage (.645) is considerably lower than Lee's mark of .880. Considering Halladay's Blue Jays (86-76) won five more games than Lee's Indians (81-81), this would seem to be a major edge for Lee. But, despite the fact that Cleveland averaged 4.96 runs per game for the season, they scored an average of 6.13 when Lee was on the mound. Halladay received an average run support of 4.72, more than Toronto's overall 4.41 average, but still 1.4 runs less than Lee. Run support is, of course, not the only team-related factor that would affect a pitcher's winning percentage--team fielding and bullpen being the others--but this shows that just comparing a pitcher's percentage to his team's is not enough.

Other candidates among AL starting pitchers--Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3, 2.90 ERA, .645 OPS) and Mike Mussina (20-9, 3.37 ERA, 4.84 K/BB)--fall short of Lee and Halladay. Francisco Rodriguez's record-setting season (62 Saves, 2-3, 2.24 ERA, 77 K in 68 1/3 IP) places him as the top candidate among relief pitchers. However, three other closers--Joakim Soria, Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan--all were much more dominant, as evidenced by finishing considerably better than Rodriguez in OPS against, K/BB ratio, WHIP and ERA.

So, it comes down to Lee vs. Halladay. Despite the fact that his team's performance enters into it, it's hard to overlook Lee's 22-3 record and .880 winning percentage. Halladay's 9 complete games are impressive, but that and his marginal innings pitched and strikeout edges are really all he has of significance on Lee. Leading the league in two of the three pitching triple crown categories, and a winning percentage that ranks third all-time among 20-game winners, has to count for something. Count my vote for Cliff Lee.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

National League MVP

Despite a bit of a slump during the season's stretch run, I'm sticking with my choice of Justin Morneau for AL MVP. Quoting something said to me by a friend of mine, who's a Red Sox fan, in an email conversation after having read "Making the Case for Morneau":

"...remember Ortiz, Youkilis, Lowell, and Drew have (all) been hurt at some point this year."

I contend that the fact that's even an issue backs up my point. That's how loaded this team is that they could afford to lose any one of those guys at any given time with minimal effect. This includes Pedroia. If he went down, the rest of those guys, and Jason Bay/Manny Ramirez (29 HR, 105 RBI, 105 R combined), would pick up the slack. Every one of those guys is better than anyone in the Twins' lineup, except Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Well, maybe Jason Kubel is about as good as Mike Lowell, but you get my point.

Enough said about that. It's time to move on to the other awards, starting with the National League MVP. This is a difficult one to pick, but the way I see it, it comes down to Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols. CC Sabathia's candidacy makes for an interesting debate, but I wouldn't give the MVP to a player who missed a half season due to injury, and for the same reason, I won't give the award to someone traded to his team at mid-season.

Ryan Howard had a great second-half, with 28 HR and 78 RBI in the season's final three months, and one could certainly argue that he carried his team in their run to catch the Mets in the NL East. So, I'm not going to worry about his low batting average (.251) and relatively low OPS (.882).

Albert Pujols' Cardinals ended the season four games out of the wild card spot, but they really didn't come quite that close, as there were two other teams between them and the Brewers. But, they remained a contender for much longer than anyone expected, and in my opinion, that leaves him in the mix of potential candidates. Pujols led the league in slugging, OPS, total bases, and the SABRmetric categories Adjusted OPS+, Runs Created, Adjusted Batting Runs, and Batting Wins, leading the last three categories by wide margins. I explained Adjusted OPS+ and Adjusted Batting Runs in the Morneau article, so I'll try to briefly describe the other two statistics here.

Runs Created is a runs estimator, similar to Adjusted Batting Runs, that assigns a positive value to outcomes like hits, walks, steals, home runs, etc. and negative values for outs, caught stealing and GIDP. Batting Wins attempts to measure the number of wins a player added relative to the league average hitter.

I'm going to go with Pujols here, based on his sheer statistical dominance and consistency, and the fact that he carried a team that most prognosticators didn't give a chance, especially after their staff ace, Chris Carpenter, went down with an injury that limited him to 15 1/3 IP for the year. They remained in contention for most of the season, and although they did slip a little near the end, they were a contender, and Pujols was inarguably the biggest reason for that. Based on these factors, he is my National League Most Valuable Player.