The AL Central Is Hot

I recently wrote about the race between the Detroit TIgers and Cleveland Indians for the AL Central Pennant. Now I add the Kansas City Royals to that race. In the earlier articles, I mentioned that tension and focus would be important even mentioning that “playing with your hands around your throat” is difficult.  The Indians had just blown two games with the Twins at that time with costly errors.
This last week has seen the Indians win six in a row, the Tigers win four in a row, and the Kansas City Royals win seven in a row.
Clearly, the Indians have their goove back. I saw the Royals beat the Twins 7-2 last night and was impressed by this very balanced team. Furthermore, seven of the Royals are batting over  .260 and Eric Hosmer and David Lough are moving towards  .300. I have been very impressed by these two players for some time and have been waiting for them to emerge as stars.
The point here is that Detroit is still playing well, and Cleveland has removed the “hands of the throat” play of a week ago. The Royals have arrived as a contender and believe, if I can properly interpret the way the game was played last night, that they can also win. If Detroit falters, either the Indians or Royals can move up. Both of these teams are also in the Wild Card race, but it is a little early to focus on that and the new Wild Card playoff that occurs this year. Stay tuned, folks, this will be interesting.
The Boston/Tampa Bay race in the AL East is very tight. I will be watching that as well going forward, but the AL Central has the most potential for drama as the teams involved can either flourish or flounder in the next two months. Right now they are all flourishing.

The Los Angeles Angels and Free Agent Signing Errors

The Los Angeles Angels just traded their best relief pitcher, Scott Downs, for a minor league reliever. This is the sign of a team that has given up on 2013 and is looking forward to better days. The Angels plans are made more difficult by a signing error in 2011 when they signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year $240,000,000 contract that ends with escalating payments. They then signed Josh Hamilton to a 5 year $125,000,000 contract this year.

In March, I predicted that the Angels with Trout, Trumbo, Pujols and Hamilton would win the AL West. Today, they are 14 games behind Oakland and eight games under. 500. It is a disaster. My prediction failed as I over estimated the adequacy to the Angels’ pitchng and did not recognize the rapid decline in Pujols’ performance and Hamilton’s collapse. Hamilton is a psychological case.

Pujols decline is classic baseball decline and was predictable due to physical factors.  First, he hit his peak when he was 28 in 2008. It is shibboleth among baseball purests that a player peaks at 27. His decline in batting average has been 2008, .357,  .327, .312, .299, .285, and .258 this year. He has been troubled by plantar fasciatis this year as well. His OPS (slugigng plus on-base percentage), a statistic some think is indicative of true value,  has similary declined as follows,  2007, .997, 1.114, 1.101, 1.011, .906, .859, and .767 this year.  The numbers at age 27-28 are dramatic and rank with baseball’s great players, but that was then.

The undeniable fact that players performance declines after age 27-28 begs the question of why a team would sign a player to a multi-year, escalating payment contract for what must be declining performance. The Alex Rodriguez contract with the Yankees should have been instructive here, but it seems Angels’ owner, Artie Moreno, wanted to be like the Yankees by signing Pujols and then Hamilton. If he was looking there for guidance on how to run a team, he looked in the wrong direction, but then again his team had recently lost to the Yankees in the layoffs.

The proper place to look was a few hundred miles north to Oakland or to Tampa on Florida’s west coast.  Those two teams are in first place in their divisions with modest payrolls, but balanced, performing teams.  Moreno has become like the Yankees, who are in fourth place, as are the Angels, even though playing +.500 ball. The Angels winning percentage is 11th in the American League.  The real test in these signings is the reaction of the player’s former team to the player’s departure. The Cardinals seemed to be interested in re-signing Pujols, but dropped out of the bidding. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s best organizations, is 19 games over  .500 in first place in the NL Central and Hamilton’s former Rangers team is eight games over  .500, but trail the A’s for first.

This gets to the basic error in the Pujols signing. No one player makes a baseball team. A single player can only come to bat 11% of the time. Teams are a combination of pitching, fielding, and batting. Too much batting was expected from an aging star.

The rule that a team “shouldn’t get hit by a falling star” has slammed the Angels. I was overly impressed by the Angels offense last March, and have learned  a lesson. I imagine Artie Moreno has learned the same lesson.

MLB, “Where You Have to Give the Other Guy a Chance.”

Last night at dinner, a friend asked me about the Twins record this year and would they do better.  I told him that in the Major Leagues, every player was a league leader at some point in his career and all had the ability to do what was necessary to win a game from time to time. Last night in Seattle, this rule was proven in spades where the Twins won 3-2 in 13 innings.

The game was won by a fellow named Chris Colabello. This player played seven seasons of independent league baseball, was at AA before being called up to the Majors. He was batting  .132 when he entered this game in the 8th inning and promptly hit into a double play, later he stuck out. In the 13th, however, he hit Yoervis Medina’s first pitch for a two run homerun to win the game. Medina was probably trying a first pitch fastball to get an early strike, it was a mistake. Seattle starter, Felix Hernandez, had pitched 32 scoreless innings against the Twins until the ninth in a 1-0 game, when he threw a 0-2 fastball to Trevor Plouffe, a pinch hitter who was 0-9  in previous at-bats, who singled to center to score Pedro Florimon, who had singled and been bunted to second to lead off the inning. An 0-2 fastball is always a mistake if it is over the plate.  So two mistakes to two average to poor players resutled in a 3-2 extra-inning loss for Seattle. Such is life in the big leagues.

The difference between batters is stated in batting average percentages with the leading hitter in the AL, Miguel Cabrera, batting  .365. The average batter in the league is at about  .261. The difference is one hit in ten at-bats or one hit every two games.  Where that is significant, it also means that a player with few credentials, like Chris Colabello, can beat you with the one hit he gets each six
at bats.

Where the difference in batters is usually slight in actual number.  .300 to  .260, for example, when multiplied by the 162 game schedule or 500 at bats, the difference is winning or loosing that fifth game that readers of this blog are familiar with.  It also means that anyone with a bat can win the game and that is something Yoervis Medina and Felix Hernandez did not focus on last night.  They both threw fastballs over the plate to a Major League player and that was the problem.

As the legendary manager, Earl Weaver, said, in distinguishing baseball from other games, “we can’t just run out the clock or take a knee, we have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance.”  Such is the game of baseball.

Ryan Braun’s Plea Bargain

MLB allowed a plea bargain in the first of the Biogenesis cases. (see article on this blog for June 16, 2013) This was the result of two meetings between Braun and MLB. At these meetings, Braun did not offer testimony, he was simply presented with MLB’s evidence. He agreed to a 65 game, or rest-of-the-season suspension.
As described earlier here, the evidence was non-analytical positive evidence much like the evidence used in USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong.
This evidence is other than drug test evidence but is equally effective in determining use, hence, a violation of the MLB drug use rules.
The most curious part of this is that even with the evidence, MLB chose to bargain for what it could get and did not simply suspend Braun to the limits of the rule,  possibly 100 games.
The reason for this is that MLB has had a difficult time with arbitrators in such cases. The most notable is the Steve Howe case where an arbitrator denied efforts to suspend for life a player whose drug use was epidemic on the basis of a failure to provide counseling instead. Last year, Braun was accused of positive drug test violations and the arbitrator dismissed the case based on a chain of custody error.
To avoid such an outcome again, MLB is bargaining over suspensions. Braun will lose $3.25 million in salary this year, but retains the more than $100,000,000 left on his contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. The question I want answered is whether the Brewers are planning to attack his contract itself, claiming breach on the theory his drug use was a violation of that contract.
The plea bargain process is underway with the approximately two dozen other players named in Biogenesis. Foremost among these is Yankee player Alex Rodriguez. Here the topic is a possible lifetime ban, but the player will negotiate something much shorter, unless MLB decides to suspend and go to arbitration in this case. At some point it has to do this.
The Yankees have the right to challenge the Rodriguez  contract as well and it is through breach of contract actions that MLB and its teams will realize real clout in the drug use cases.

MLB Trade Deadline Decisions

The MLB non-waiver trade deadline is nine days awaý. A team’s decision making process depends on its position now. If a team is well below  .500, any trade that helps the team long term must be made. That means a  good player must be traded for a collection of players that will help next year and the years that follow. A team has an obligation to do this and that means, if the right trade is offered, for example, the Twins must trade Justin Morneau, but only if they get the right players, hopefully pitchers, in return.
If a team is realistically in a position to win the division, it must make a deal that aids that pursuit. For example, the Tigers are a closer from assuring it wins the AL Central and must give up the player or players to get that closer.
Ultimately, the decision is based on scouting reports and that is the ultimate test of an organization. A team’s scouts are the most important asset it has and the trades that occurr now are based on those reports.
This is a very tense time for teams and the decisions made are of maximum importance. I look forward to reading the news and watching the results. 

Indians Choking Again, Maybe the Tigers, too.

Major League Baseball pennant races are a psychological as well as physical test. For the last two days I have written about the race to the pennant and the pressures felt by the division leaders. I have focused on the Tigers and Indians and how it is hard to play with your hands on your throat. On Friday, the Indians gave away a game to Minnesota by errors that lead to two unearned runs and a tainted run that could have, had the players Chisenhall and Swisher caught baseballs, resulted in an Indian’s victory. Last night the Indians lost by the same 3-2 score and gave that one away as well.

In the top of the sixth, Jason Kipnis, the Indians best hitter, homered to give them a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the sixth, however, the Indians gave it back. After Mauer had singled and moved to third on a Morneau single, a grounder to Chisenhall at third was fielded cleanly, but Chisenhall, trying to put Mauer out at home, threw the ball into the Twins’s first base dugout. Now think about this play. With no one out and Morneau on first, Mauer, not a fast runner, was running to avoid a double play by forcing Chisenhall to throw home rather than to second to start the double play. Mauer’s hope was that by sacrificing himself, the Twins would have two runners on and only one out rather than one on and two out.  Chisenhall, who booted the ball Friday night, threw the ball past the catcher.

How hard is it for a major league player to throw a ball ninety feet so errantly so as to fly past the catcher and end up in the dugout? Well, it may happen once a season for some and never in a career for most. These are the plays that are made a thousand times in practice and games by those who make it to the major leagues. It seldom happens in highschool because the throw has to be horrible and the recipient of the throw has demonstrated ability to catch everything, even moderately errant tosses. The “hands on the throat” factor is why this happened and it infects the entire team.

This infection got to  second baseman Jason Kipnis, who, after the score was tied on a bloop to right, dropped a double play ball and only made one out as the winning run scored. Hand on his throat, I think so!

The Twins played perfect defense, by the way, with right fielder Ryan Doumit making a spectaclular play to throw Asdrubal Cabrera out at second. Cabrera represented the tying run.

In Kansas CIty the Tigers lost 6-5 as Justin Verlander lost to KC for the first time since 2009. A little tense, Justin, maybe?

The results of Friday’s and Saturday’s games, is that the 1 1/2 game Tiger lead is still there, but KC is now 6 behind. Almost close enough.

Keep watching this race, as nerves are already taking a toll and either team may collapse. For the Indians, they have Justin Masterson pitching today and he is their best. If he wins, they may get their groove back. In Kansas City, James Shields is pitching for KC; they may be five behind after today. 

By the way, Aviles is playing 3rd for the Indians today as Terry Francona is keeping Chisenhall on the bench for his, Francona’s, benefit.

For further reading see “Fifth Game Theory” in the archives for June 19, 2013 and “Kansas City Royals Emerge” in the archives for June 18, 2013.

Detroit v. Cleveland for the AL Central TItle

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the American League pennant race that focused on the Tigers and Indians, last night was very interesting. In the post, I mentioned that in September, when both teams will be playing sub  .500 teams, they will be “playing with their hands around their throats.” 

Well, it seems that may have started early.

Last  night the Indians gave up two unearned runs and one tainted run in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota, who played like a team that wanted to beat a contender. Indian 3b Chisenhall booted one ball that lead to two runs and 1b Swisher simply dropped a thrown ball that happen to “hit him in the glove.” In  baseball lore, it is well known that it is “hard to catch the ball with your free hand around your neck.”  That quote is attributed to Gary Gaetti who said it after screwing up a play in Cleveland in September 1984 that may have cost the Twins a chance at the division lead.

What made the game all that important was that Cleveland was watching the scoreboard that showed KC beating Detroit 1-0, the final score as it turns out. Of course, in KC, Detroit was watching the Twins and Cleveland tied at 2 until Swisher dropped that ball and Mauer singled in the winning run in the 8th.

This going to be a very interesting last two months. Stay tuned.