Archive for August 2009

Brad Penny Reportedly Headed to San Francisco

August 31, 2009

Both SI.com and ESPN.com are reporting that pitcher Brad Penny, recently sent through waivers by the Red Sox, will sign with the Giants for the rest of 2009.  This looks like a great move for both Penny and the Giants.

The Giants weren’t able to get any consistency out of rookie starters Ryan Sadowski or Joe Martinez after Randy Johnson went down with a shoulder injury, and, of course, like most teams the Giants prefer seasoned vets for the stretch drive.  Penny gives the Giants a proven commodity, who is only two years away from his 16-4 year for the 2007 Dodgers.

The move should also help Penny.  Aside from finding himself back in the NL, he’s joining a team tied for the wildcard and playing in a much better pitchers’ park than Fenway in Boston.

There is little risk for the Giants.  They will reportedly pay Penny the major league minimum, and, possibly, any reported bonuses Penny gets based on season starts, innings pitched, etc. (Boston may still be required to pay these under MLB rules and/or the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association) .  In other words, he’ll cost the Giants almost nothing for a 5th starter they desparately need.

The key thing for the Giants now is to get Penny’s name signed to a contract and have him join the team before midnight tonight, so that the Giants can use Penny in the post-season, if they do make it.

The Rockies have more home games the rest of the way than the Giants do, so the Rox still have to be considered the favorites to win the wildcard.  Nonetheless, the Giants have to feel pretty good about their chances.  The key factor, I think, will be whether the Giants can play better in their last fifteen road games than they have so far this year.

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The Best Pitchers Usually Have a Mean Streak

August 31, 2009

I recently finished reading a baseball book that I have been meaning to get a copy of for years, Christy Mathewson’s Pitching In A Pinch.

For those of you who aren’t up on your baseball history, Big Six was one of the greatest pitchers ever.  His 373 wins, all but one for the old New York Giants, is tied with Glover Cleveland Alexander for third on the all-time list, behind only Cy Young and Walter Johnson.  Along with Babe Ruth, Johnson, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, Christy was part of the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame in 1936.

Mathewson was the “golden boy” of his time.  Aside from being the best player on the best team in what was then as today, baseball’s biggest market, New York City, Mathewson was tall, exceptionally handsome, and unlike most of the players of his era, he had been to college (Bucknell in central Pennsylvania).

Mathewson was a bright boy and fierce competitor.  Playing in New York, he regularly had by-lines in big New York newspapers, which ghost writers wrote, but Mathewson likely contributed at least somewhat to the content.  In short, Mathewson was a natural to write (or have a sportswriter write under his name) one of baseball’s first player autobiography/inside-baseball books.

Pitching In a Pinch was published in 1912, following the Giants’ six game loss in the 1911 World Series to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.  It really isn’t so much of an autobiography (although Mathewson, of course, largely talks about his own experiences and those of his Giants teams), but rather an attempt to convey how baseball is played at the highest level by the professionals of his day.

Mathewson was then at the peak of his stardom and a twelve year major league veteran.  As such, he (and his ghost writer) had a lot of things to say about how major league baseball was then played.

Mathewson devotes an entire chapter of his book to the ancient art of sign stealing.  I say “ancient” because as long as pitchers have been throwing more than just a fastball (since the 1870’s at least), pitchers and catchers have been sending signals back and forth, either to call pitches or to inform the catcher what is coming so he can stop it from getting past him.

As long as batteries have been exchanging signals, the other team has tried to steal those signs and in key moments of the game relay the anticipated pitch to the hitter.  As a side note, not all hitters like to know what’s coming.  However, the ones that do absolutely love knowing what’s coming so they can pound the crap out of the anticipated pitch.

Nowadays, and as Mathewson recounts from 1911, batteries routinely change their signals roughly every three innings in case the other team might be stealing signs, and even more often if they believe the other team is, in fact, stealing signs.

The classic change is to switch the signals for the fastball and the curve.  If a battery thinks signs are being stolen, this switch is made.  Then, in a key situation with a right-handed hitter batting if the pitcher is right-handed, or a left-handed hitter with a lefty on the mound, the battery exchanges the sign for what had been a curve ball and the pitcher instead throws a fastball up and in.

If the other team is stealing the signs and the batter is leaning out over the plate looking for the break of the curve, the consequences can be dire, especially in the days before batting helmets came into regular use (the 1950’s).  However, most hitters who got themselves caught up in this situation were extremely unwilling to take stolen signs in the future, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Here’s a recounting by Christy Matthewson of one instance of this bit of “inside baseball:”

“Joe Kelley, formerly manager of the Reds [and former star outfielder of the great mid-1890’s Baltimore Orioles], was coaching Cincinnati one day several years ago, and “Eagle Eye Jake” Beckley, the old first baseman and a chronic three hundred hitter, was at the bat.  I had been feeding him low drops and Kelley, on the third base line, thought he was getting the signals that Jack Warner, the Giant catcher … was giving.  I saw Kelley apparently pass some information to Beckley, and the lattter stepped almost across the plate ready for a curve.  He encountered a high, fast one, close in, and he encountered it with that part of him between his neck and hat band.  “Eagle Eye” was unconscious for two days after and in the hospital several weeks.  When he got back into the game he said to me one day:

“Why didn’t you throw me that curve, Matty, that Joe tipped me to?”

“Were you tipped off?” I asked.  “Then it was Joe’s error, not mine.”

“Say,” he answered, “if I ever take another sign from a coacher I hope the ball kills me.”

“It probably will,” I replied.  “That one nearly did.”

If this incident actually happened in the way it’s recorded in the book, it likely happened in 1902 or 1903, Beckley’s last two seasons with the Reds.  Beckley, by the way, retired with 2,930 major league hits and was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s committee in 1971.

Accurate or not, the story effectively captures the major league ethos regarding sign stealing.  If a batter takes one to the noggin because he’s trying to steal signs, he’s got no one to blame but himself, and a pitcher serious about winning won’t hesitate to throw fastballs up and in to discourage the practice.

P.S.  Pitching in a Pinch was originally published in 1912, but has been reprinted in 1977 and again in 1994, so copies are out there.  I got my paperback copy over the internet from American Book Exchange (ABE) for $12 or $15 plus shipping.  It turns out the title page of my copy is signed by current Orioles manager Dave Trembley, a former owner of my new copy.  The book seller obviously wasn’t a real baseball fan, because he had Trembley listed as a former scout of the Cubs and was apparently unaware of Trembley’s rise to major league manager.

Giants Inch Closer

August 29, 2009

I watched the Giants game against the Rockies on TV last night.  Here are my thoughts.

The Giants just don’t look like a playoff team.  Yes, they won, but playing at home with the best pitcher in the NL starting.  The problem is that the Giants have no offense, and they don’t play fundamentally sound baseball to maximize the offense they do have.  In two separate innings last night the Giants had a man on third with no outs and failed to score a run.  That just doesn’t cut it when you play the good teams.

The Giants won yesterday on the backs of their best players: Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval and Brian Wilson.

Sandoval’s homerun in the 5th inning was another reminder of what an incredible talent Sandoval is.  The count was one ball and two strikes, and it seemed as if Sandoval was sitting on the fastball for the first three pitches.  I thought, “Now is a good time [for Ubaldo Jimenez] to throw Sandoval a breaking pitch.

Jimenez threw Sandoval a slider, and it arguably got too much of the plate for a 1-2 pitch.  However, the breaking ball was right at the knees.  Sandoval’s stride was out ahead of the pitch, but he kept his hands back, and he then unloaded, hitting the ball the opposite way to left-center (Sandoval was batting from the left-side against the right-handed Jimenez) for a homerun.

In my mind, it was the right pitch at the right time, and Sandoval still crushed it.  It was simply another reminder of just how good Sandoval is.

It also means that Sandoval is going to have to become better at letting the pitchers walk him.  When a hitter shows that he can beat you even when you make the right pitch, you start to pitch around him whenever you can.

Not much to say about Lincecum that hasn’t already been said.  He’s just a great, great pitcher.

I am seriously concerned that his will be a flame that burns twice as bright half as long. In short, Good Ol’ Boch is working him hard.  Lincecum has now thrown between 115 and 127 pitches in seven of his last nine starts.  That’s a lot to ask of any pitcher, especially one who weighs only 170 lbs.

Lincecum led all National League pitchers in pitches thrown last year, and he’s leading all National League pitchers in pitches thrown again this year.  Not a good sign for the long term.

The heavy workload may not show any effects in the next year or so.  However, I have a strong feeling that whoever gives Lincecum his enormous free agent contract a few years from now is going to be Barry Zito-Mike Hampton disappointed.

Finally, aside from the obvious fact that the Giants won last night, the best thing about the game was the Giants won’t have to face Ubaldo Jimenez again in this series.  He’s a terrific young pitcher, who throws seeds without looking like it takes anything more out of him than having a catch with his sister.  He really looks like a pitcher: long, strong and lean.  He should be causing heart-ache throughout the rest of the NL West for the next few years at least.

Angels Acquire Scott Kazmir

August 28, 2009

Reports have it that the Angels and Rays are on the verge of finalizing a deal that would send pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Angels in exchange for two 21 year old prospects, pitcher Alexander Torres and 3Bman Matthew Sweeney.  Reports also claim that no money will be changing hands, meaning that the Angels will be absorbing the more than $20 million still owed to Kazmir on his current contract running through the 2011 season.

If the terms listed above are correct, I like this deal a lot more for the Rays than the Angels.  The Rays dump a lot of salary and get two prospects with a lot of up-side for Kazmir, obviously a very talented young pitcher, but who has some major risks associated with him going forward.

There’s no doubt that Kazmir was a terrific pitcher from 2005 through 2008, but he has been brutal this year, posting a 5.92 ERA in 111 IP.  He has 91 Ks this year, which is a good sign, but he’s missed a good deal of time the last two seasons with injuries.

Looking at his numbers the last two years, I have to wonder whether the great year he had in 2007 at age 23, when he pitched 206.2 innings and threw a whole lot of pitches (89 walks and 239 K’s) took too much out of his arm at too tender an age.

At the very least there’s definitely some real risk to the Angels on Kazmir’s remaining contract obligations.

Assuming that the Angels really are taking on all of Kazmir’s remaining contract, they gave the Rays too much in the way of prospects.  Both Torres and Sweeney have their own risks, but they definitely have real talent.

Torres has spent most of 2009 pitching in the very hitter-friendly A+ California League, and he pitched extremely well there.  He posted a 2.74 ERA with 124 K’s and 63 walks in 121.1 IP.  He’s since been promoted to AA, where he’s got a 4.20 ERA after three starts.

Torres’ control needs a lot of improvement, but he’s far along in his professional career for age 21, and he appears to have the stuff you look for in a legitimate prospect.

The main concern with Sweeney is that he had a major ankle injury requiring surgery, which cost him all of the 2008 season and the first half of 2009.  Since coming back this year, however, he’s hitting .299 with an .896 OPS in 58 games in the California League.  That’s awfully good for his age and all the time he missed to the ankle injury.

The question with him is obviously his ankle.  If it’s now right, he’s a legitimate prospect.  If it’s not, he could be the next Dallas McPherson, a great talent whose career has been completely derailed by injuries.

It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good, Or Some Players Have All the Luck

August 28, 2009

I just read on mlbtraderumors.com that if the Rockies make the playoffs this year, starter Jason Marquis’ teams will have made the playoffs in each of his first ten seasons as a major leaguer.

Now, Marquis is a good pitcher, but he’s not that good (career 4.42 ERA, as I write this).  In short, there’s a lot to be said about being in the right place at the right time.  To put it another way, it’s better to be lucky than good.

Now, we are all aware of all the great players who never played on winners.  Particularly famous examples are:  Ernie Banks, who never played in the post-season; Ryne Sandberg, who never played in the World Series; and Barry Bonds, who never won a World Series.  There are countless other such stars, but I’ve made my point.

It’s all just a reminder that one player, no matter how great, only does so much to help a major league team win.  Making the post-season at all requires a team effort, and the good all-around teams, not those with a really great player or two, are the teams that make the playoffs.  Keep that in mind when your team blows the bank on some great-looking free agent.

Waiver Claim Machinations

August 28, 2009

The Giants recently made a waiver claim on Trevor Hoffman, whom the Brewers floated to gage interest or, more likely, hoping to squeak him through without claim so they could then try to trade him to anyone willing to pay top dollar for a one month rental.  The Giants did so in part because they had some interest in Hoffman, but also to make sure that the Dodgers or Rockies couldn’t get him.  The Brewers have apparently pulled him back and won’t consider a deal with the Giants.

Kind of strange that the Brewers would even place Hoffman on waivers this late in the season.  Hoffman projects as a Class A free agent, so if the Brewers offer him arbitration and he signs elsewhere, the Brewers get two draft picks.

Of course, if Hoffman accepts the offer of arbitration, he will get a nice chunk of change out of the Brewers for 2010, given the fine come-back year he had for the Brewers this season.  Actually, that isn’t a terrible outcome for the Brewers either, because at his age, Hoffman is only worth one year at a time, and I’m not aware of the Brewers having anyone better to close their games in 2010.

The Brewers were reportedly able to pass through waivers Jason Kendall, Craig Counsell, Mike Cameron and Braden Looper, so several of them may be traded prior to August 31, the deadline for newly acquired players to play in the post-season for their new teams.

Of more interest outside the San Francisco Bay Area and the State of Wisconsin, ESPN’s Buster Olney reports the Yankees  put in a waiver claim on Chris Carter, the minor leaguer who was the main player the Red Sox intended to trade to the Mets for Billy Wagner.

Because Carter is on the Red Sox 40-man roster, they have to pass him through waivers before trading him.  The Yankees apparently claimed him solely to force the Red Sox to keep Carter on their 40-man roster through the end of the season in order to limit the Red Sox roster flexibility for the rest of 2009.

According to Olney, the Sox did pull Carter back from waivers and will keep him on their roster until the end of the season, at which point they’ll send him to the Mets.  Carter was designated a player to be named later, so the Red Sox can hold onto him for some time before sending him on the Mets.

In my mind, it’s always good to see a few GMs thinking ahead and putting the kibosh on other teams’ deals that might hurt their club.

Should the Cubs Cut Milton Bradley?

August 28, 2009

Should the Cubs cut Milton Bradley and eat the remaining $21 million owed on the three-year contract he signed before the 2009 season began?

Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers thinks so.  The final straw for Rogers was Miltie’s recent statement that he hopes Cubs’ games only run nine innings so he can get home sooner.

The Cubs are now nine games back (seven back in the loss column) in the NL Central and 7.5 games back (six back in the loss column) for the wildcard behind four other teams.  It will take a miracle for the Cubs to make the post-season this year, so the Cubs don’t really need to make a decision either way until the end of the season.

My feeling is that the Cubs should hold their noses and hold onto Miltie until the end of the season.  Then, they should try to trade him, even if they have to assume almost all of his remaining contract and they get little more than a box of crackerjack in return.

2009 is pretty much a lost cause, so there is no reason not to hold onto Miltie long enough to see if they can get anything more for him than they’d get by releasing him and hoping another team signs him for the major league minimum.

I’ll say this much, however.  No matter what, the Cubs are making a huge mistake if Miltie is still with the Cubs come the opening of Spring Training next year.  If they can’t get anything for him by March 1, 2010, dump his sorry ass and move on.