Monthly archives: May 2006
Nothing Weird Happened at Wrigley...Except for the Cubs Winning
You wouldn't expect it from a team counting on major contributions from Neifi Perez, Jerry Hairston, Tony Womack, and Jacque Jones, but the Cubs looked good today against the Reds. They hit with runners in scoring position, they hit with two out, their manager made an against-the-book decision to bring the closer in early and the move paid off. Todd Walker made two dicey plays at first -- either could have been called an error, but neither was -- but he also homered. On one of the plays Walker got eaten up by a bad-hop grounder which appeared to hit him right in the throat and the game paused for some time. From my seat I figured it was just another one of those bizarre moments of Cub misfortune that I always seem to witness. I asked my mother, with whom I attended the game, whether she thought Kerry Wood (2 for 2 with an RBI) could play first base. But Walker recovered, and the only other "Twilight Zone" moment came in the ninth when all four umpires somehow missed seeing a Ryan Freel homer bounce out of the left-field basket at Wrigley. Only a double for my fantasy team, then.
I've been busy traveling the past few days and have had scant time to closely examine what's going with the Rockies, so I should probably tell you folks that J.D. Closser and Ryan Spilborghs are now up from Colorado Springs, replacing Danny Ardoin and Luis Gonzalez who are DL-ing it. I had high hopes for Closser last year and have suggested before that even if he never delivers on his potential, he's still probably better than Ardoin. So far, so good. We've seen a bit of Spilborghs here and there and while there's nothing specifically objectionable about him as a player, the Rockies farm system has a really peculiarly high number of these tweener outfielder types. You know, guys who don't quite hit good enough to be cornermen but don't glove quite good enough to be centerfielders, either. If you play three at once, do they cancel each other out? Seriously, if the Rockies played Jorge Piedra, Jeff Salazar, and Spilborghs all at once, would the fact that all of them can sort of play center allow the ones in right and left to cover for the sort of-ness of whichever one's in center? I don't know, I think about these things sometimes.
Cincinnati only needed to trade one of their hulking first baseman/"outfielder" types for a pitcher for something like four seasons now, so I don't know how much credit we should give to new GM Wayne Krivsky for finally making the deal everyone in baseball (except, evidently, the old Reds regime) knew obviously had to be made. But this Reds team is better with the swap of Wily Mo Peña for Bronson Arroyo and the addition of Brandon Phillips. Were I Krivsky, there is one more move I would make. Send Austin Kearns out somewhere for another starter. Freel deserves to play every day and the current outfield of Adam Dunn, Kearns, and Junior Griffey is pretty dicey defensively. I know with a player of Griffey's stature it's not just as easy as asking him nicely to change positions, but in an ideal world the Reds would field Dunn in left, Griffey in right, and Freel in center. Kearns and Dunn are both more natural first basemen than anything else, but there Cincinnati already has Scott Hatteberg, a former catcher...plus ex-shortstop Rich Aurilia is playing third...did Phillips used to play shortstop too? Can't any of these people pick a position and stick with it?
Speaking of dudes who have changed positions, I was way super wrong about Alfonso Soriano, the outfield, and Washington. He's been good. I was filling out my first All-Star ballot of the year today and I felt so bad about predicting disaster for Soriano that I went ahead and picked him as one of my NL outfielders. The All-Star ballots are always a little bit out of date since they seemingly print the things in January, but there are some glaring omissions on this one. Toronto's Alex Rios isn't listed among the AL outfielders, and that seems like a huge oversight. In my book, as of right now, Rios should be starting. You should all write him in as I did. Anyway, according to the LA Times Soriano might be a trade target for the Dodgers, which would be an excellent transaction in advance of J.D. Drew's annual injury.
Rockies Win; Nothing Else Significant Happens in Game
I usually link to the ESPN.com game recaps out of force of habit more than anything else; I don't think they're inherently better or worse than any other baseball wrapups you can read on the Internet. (Except for the ones by the MLB.com beat writers, which are usually pretty bad.) This one however you should take special care to read. Why? Because there's absolutely nothing about the game in the "recap." It's all about Barry Bonds and his non-record-breaking home run. The only Colorado player mentioned is Byung-Hyun Kim, along with some nonsense about BK's ancient history. Do you think Byung-Hyun Kim cares about giving up Barry Bonds' 715th home run? Well, did he win the game? Why, yes, he did. Colorado jumped out to a six-run lead and mostly kept it. BK had an RBI, even. You can feel however you like about Bonds' "accomplishment," but I'm concerned primarily with the Rockies getting out of their long boring losing streak, and that's just what happened. Hooray for us.
I'm going to Wrigley Field tomorrow and Tuesday, and as a fan of bad baseball teams, my timing is impeccable. This Cubs game on Sunday -- did you see this? How can you possibly allow eight homers, hit none, and lose in extra innings? Oh, and have a ball bounce off your third baseman's head. I don't know how they're possibly going to top that game, but they're the Cubs, and every time I see the Cubs in person, something insane happens. I catch a home run, or Brad Hawpe pegs Mark Prior in the elbow with a comebacker, or the game goes into extra innings after a three-hour rain delay, or Sammy Sosa gets ejected for corking his bat, or Mark Bellhorn hits homers from opposite sides of the plate in the same inning. I wasn't at the Steve Bartman game (although I was at Game One of that series), but besides that, if it's freaky and happened to the Cubs the last several years, I was probably there. It's no wonder I can't work up the enthusiasm to actively root for Chicago anymore -- just leaving one of their games without sustaining physical harm to my own person is a miracle.
So, yeah, we'll see how these next two go.
Not Missing Much
No, I haven't gone into hiding until the Rockies win again. Although perhaps I should have. It's been a busy week with my band finishing our record and going on a brief road trip. Now I'm in Chicago for a high school friend's wedding. I am not a big wedding guy, but I will have the chance to go to two Cubs games this week and that at least will make the trip worthwhile.
If I think of something interesting to say about Colorado's free fall down the division standings while I'm in Illinois, I'll let you know about it, presumably.
There's nothing like airplane travel to allow you to catch up on one's reading. I finished Jeff Pearlman's Barry Bonds book yesterday and I'm nearly done with The Mind of Bill James. I don't whether I've become more critical since I do so much baseball writing myself or now or the market is just overwhelmed with subpar material, but it seems like it's been ages since I read a really good baseball book. Rob Neyer's new book on blunders seems short of content compared to his last several works, which were primo bathroom reading. I've been unable to get into to Leigh Montville's Babe Ruth book although I do still have a whole flight home with which to contend. David Maraniss's Clemente biography got off to a promising start and then kind of trailed off, concluding with an intense three-chapter investigation into Roberto's plane crash, which seemed kind of beside the point to me. Also, as I mentioned before, these old-school baseball biographers need to familiarize themselves with the new statistics that are available. It looks silly to write about how many MVP awards Clemente was robbed of or how Bonds was a "better" player when he stole bases when you can simply look to a column in Total Baseball and disprove claims like this.
People keep talking about how good the Mets would look if only they'd kept Scott Kazmir, but how about all of the pitchers the Cubs have sent to Florida over the past several years? The Marlins have the majority of a workable rotation thanks to Chicago's largesse.
I can't say this comes as any to surprise to me, but here come all of the stories about how much improved the National League West is, right after the Rockies fall out of first place. Well, it makes sense. I can't really take a division that the Rockies are leading seriously either. These things don't change overnight.
Let's just move past the recent boring Rockies losses and on into a much more pressing question.
Just what exactly is the deal with the Detroit Tigers?
Detroit is 31-14, which is the best record in the big leagues at the moment. They're pretty much that good, too. They've scored 226 and allowed an ML-low 154. They lead the majors in staff ERA, and by a lot. Their offense is pretty good too, with a tied-for-seventh .811 OPS. Chris Shelton has slowed down a little bit, but there are some other weird names on their statistical tables past the guys you would expect to be good like Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordoñez. Brandon Inge is a nice utility player who is somehow slugging .504 as everyday third baseman. Curtis Granderson is hitting .268/.363/.482. Someone named Marcus Thames has six homers. Ivan Rodriguez isn't having a great year, but he's come a long way from the depths of 2005. He has seven walks already! Dmitri Young has really struggled, but with the emergence of all the young players, it hasn't mattered.
However I think most observers would have expected before the season began that Detroit could have an at least league-average offense with the players they had on hand. They were middle-of-the-pack last season even with a banged-up Ordoñez and Pudge's lost year. It's the pitching aspect of the 2006 Tigers that is completely bizarre. I'm not saying that it's impossible for young starters to get better. I'm not saying that teams can't win building around homegrown pitching. What I am saying is that the Tigers have a number of pitchers who have had more than enough time in the majors to prove whether they were any good or not, and on the whole, the evidence mounted before this season strongly indicated the latter (not good) option. Mike Maroth, before 2006: 40-58, 4.82 ERA. 2006: 5-2, 2.45. Old Nate Robertson: 20-29, 4.90. New Nate Robertson: 4-2, 3.02. Or Fernando Rodney: 4.52 career ERA through 2005, 1.37 so far in 2006. Justin Verlander barely had a major league career before this season, but geez, who knew he was this good? The one guy I always actually thought was good, Jeremy Bonderman, is the only guy who seemingly hasn't benefited this year from Jim Leyland's magical yelling powers. What's going on?
Well, Detroit's defense has been amazing. Their defensive efficiency score is 0.739, which is the second-best figure in the majors. This is a little weird because they more or less have the same guys they had last year when they were 15th, but Granderson is playing more and has a phenomenal defensive reputation in center field, so there's that. Defense alone can't account for how the Tigers' pitchers are faring so well while striking so few guys out. Verlander's K rate is 5.10 per nine. Kenny Rogers, 4.43. Maroth, 4.15. Robertson, 6.04. Bonderman is at 8.04, but his ERA is 4.66 -- go figure. They walk guys like crazy, too. Rodney, Joel Zumaya, Jordan Tata, and Jason Grilli all have BB/9 rates over 4. Robertson's is 3.69, which is pretty high for a starter. The sudden dominance of Detroit's pitching staff is like the Chewbacca Defense. It does not make sense. It can't last. Can it?
Here's why I think Tigers pitching is due for a second-half letdown: batting average on balls in play. There are some kooky figures on the Detroit staff for this stat, which is one of the most luck-influenced numbers in the game. Rodney's is .133. Verlander, .247. Robertson, .272. Maroth, .283. Rogers, .262. Zumaya, .233. Only two guys on the whole staff are over .300, and no matter how good their defense may or may not be, that's weird. (As a point of comparison, the BABIP number for Brandon Webb, one of the few guys in the majors about whom you might make the claim that he can actually control what happens after one of his pitches is hit, is .305.)
Is Detroit a good team? Yes. Bonderman and Verlander are good pitchers. Kenny Rogers has certainly proved enduringly effective over his long career. Maroth and Robertson are certainly not the Cy Young contenders that their current stats would indicate, but they may well be better than their records from the Tigers' last several awful seasons would suggest. However, both the offense and defense seem to be performing well above reasonable expectations, and a correction has to be due. They've won so many games already that their chances to make the playoffs are going to be pretty good, but I think in "truth" they're more of a 85-88 win team than a 90+ kind of club. That said, 85 wins is way better than I expected the Tigers to be before the season began and I owe them an apology for that much. Best team in baseball? Uh-uh.
You Know What's Better than Losing? Winning
I really like what I'm seeing on the field from the Rockies in this series against Toronto. I remain unconvinced, still, that Colorado is actually good, but that unpleasant, fatiguing feeling that my favorite team shouldn't have bothered with the season at all from the last...several years is mostly gone.
The Blue Jays aren't a great team either (after the Rockies win last night, only a half game separates the two, with Colorado 24-19 to Toronto's 23-19) but they are a legit, over-.500 ballclub the type of which the Rockies have lost to prolifically over the run of the interleague era. When you win more than you lose, you don't have to apologize for an offense that could be a little more relentless and a pitching staff that is relying to a spooky degree on outfield assists. Neither do you have to dwell on the mitigating factor that neither of the Blue Jay pitchers the Rockies defeated have defeated so far this weekend is exactly going into the pantheon along with Dave Stieb, Pat Hentgen, and Roger Clemens.
The fact is that the Rockies are keeping their heads well above water in a division that doesn't have a single team under .500 at the moment, and series wins count against any team regardless of how ugly their logo is. The rest of May will be consumed by a long road trip to play all of the California teams of the NL West. The first series, against the Dodgers, has the feel of a good one, with Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook set to go for Colorado and Los Angeles finally beginning to play as they're capable.
You know what we need to start talking about? Getting multiple Rockies into the All-Star Game. Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe have very strong cases. Hawpe should start in the NL outfield, really. How about they both start? Pitchingwise, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook are among the league leaders in starters' ERA although both might need to notch a few more wins to strengthen their cases. Brian Fuentes (9 saves, 1.62 ERA) ought to be a shoo-in assuming he can keep producing saves. Garrett Atkins is fifth in the NL in VORP from a third baseman -- ahead of Chipper Jones, natch -- but the guys ahead of him are hardly low-profile. Miguel Cabrera is certain to be Florida's lone All-Star, Morgan Ensberg is a key guy on the defending NL pennant winners, and then there's the Great Wright Hope in New York.
It's way too early for serious fans to be voting for the All-Star rosters, not that this fact prevents MLB from polling for them anyway. It is however a good time to start doing your part to raise the profile of some of the Rockies' more dark-horsey candidates. If you're not already greeting people at your workplace with "A happy good morning to you, and how about Jose Mesa and his 16th-in-the-National-League WXRL figure?" now is a good time to begin.
Oh, I almost forgot. Jamey Carroll hit a home run the other night, his first in 663 at-bats. Insert your own Jason Kendall joke here.
So...Toronto. Yeah. The Rockies are one of those teams that lacks an obvious interleague rival (indeed, they don't have an obvious intraleague enemy, either), so here's...Toronto. Deprived of their "classic" all-Canada series, which continued ghostlike into last season as they played the Nationals home-and-home, the Blue Jays are now just another American League team that stands to gain little from interleague play besides at-bats for their pitchers. For Colorado baseball fans, it does mean a chance to see some of the more underrated hitting talents of the American League at Coors Field, guys like Veron Wells, Alex Rios, Frank Catalanotto. The Blue Jays are in their accustomed third-place position in the AL East, as the money they spent this offseason has yet to slingshot them into the class of the Yankees and Red Sox. A.J. Burnett has made only two starts all year. However, some of their other big additions have paid dividends. B.J. Ryan has 9 saves and an ERA under 1.00. Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay are hitting as you would expect. I still think the Jays lack That One Guy in their offense, although Wells and Rios are making strong early-season cases. The Rockies deeply need to get their winning groove on at home, and luckily, they won't have Roy Halladay to contend with in this three-game series. It'll be Aaron Cook and 1-7 Josh Towers tonight, Jeff Francis and rookie Ty Taubenheim (John Sickels: "Hardly stands out as a guy to count on") on Saturday, and Josh Fogg and Ted Lilly Sunday.
The Blue Jays have a fine offense, with a lot of line drive hitters who ought to enjoy their first visits to Coors Field. Established Rockies-killers Overbay and Glaus should be game as well. If Colorado is going to win the series, they need not only continued good work from their starters but also some more extra-base hits coming with guys on base and a return to early-season form from the recently vincible bullpen.
Well, I'd like to write more but I really want to go watch the Cubs-White Sox game. I can hear the national anthem coming from the other room, so I gots to go.
Rockies 5, Dodgers 1
See, what'd I tell you about Byung-Hyun Kim? He had 'em all the way. Brad Hawpe good (three-run homer and an RBI single), Matt Holliday great (4 for 4). And the bullpen is back, for a day at least.
Today it's a day game concluding the series with the Dodgers, Jason Jennings facing Brad Penny. Jennings needs to regain some confidence after his ugly sixth inning in Houston the last time out. Los Angeles has a few minor injuries to contend with (and personally, I decided not to go to this game because Jeff Kent probably won't play). Should be another low-scoring game, which will further ridiculous talk about the humidor. Words to the wise: It's not the humidor. It's the pitchers.
What Happened to First Place?
I seldom if ever take a few days off from the page, but my band was recording this weekend, and I thought what I would do was wait until the Rockies won themselves a big slump-breaking victory, which they haven't done yet. I do so enjoy writing about wins more than losses. But it's not like I don't have plenty of experience explaining why the Rockies aren't winning games.
As for the loss Sunday, that one doesn't scald particularly badly, nor is there much to say about it. Jeff Francis pitched well, Andy Pettite pitched better. You have to crawl before you can walk, and the Rockies are something like four-and-a-million in Houston since the new park opened up, so we'll have to be satisfied with one nice win (Aaron Cook's duel against Roy Oswalt on Saturday), one loss there's nothing you much could have done about (the Pettite gem), and one loss that we can call a learning experience. Jason Jennings struck out Morgan Ensberg in the sixth inning Friday night. The box score doesn't reflect that, but you and I know it. Honestly, I was less concerned with the bad call (they happen, and you can't argue the balls and strikes) then Jennings' meltdown afterwards, which was violent and dramatic. So dramatic that it seemingly spooked the bullpen as well. They were shaky last night against the Dodgers, with Ramon Ramirez's nice little scoreless innings streak being broken and the Rockies losing another late-inning game of the sort they have mostly been winning this year.
So you look up and the Rockies have lost 5 of 6, although mostly on the road against very good teams. San Diego now holds sole possession of first place thanks to the largesse of the Chicago Cubs, against whom they recently went 7 for 7. Wait, didn't the Padres do this last year? Make a division title out of a mediocre year thanks to a ridiculously hot May against subpar competition? Why, yes, they did. I don't see any reason why this Padres team can't win 82 games again, but another team in the West ought to win more than that, as San Diego is surely not the best team in the division. I think that might be these very Dodgers, who are at least beginning to see production from the veteran guys who aren't hurt.
So what's ailing the Rockies? Well, not a great deal. Obviously the bullpen hasn't been as good as we've grown to expect, but even the diehards have to assume that that's a natural correction a little long in arriving. Guys are still hitting for power, the starting pitching (which is what I worry about most) has remained solid, and Clint Hurdle is doing, really, a marvelous job getting the guys in slumps (Clint Barmes, Luis Gonzalez) opportunities to hit out of them while continuing to ride the hot hands (Jamey Carroll). The Rockies were down 5-2 in the game last night and got homers from Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday to get within a run. Next time, the homers will come with runners on base. Right? Sure, I believe that.
Anyway, Eli Marrero did start at catcher in the Houston game on Sunday, and as it turned out, this had no bearing on the team's offensive performance. Marrero was 0 for 3, and Pettite was nigh untouchable anyway. I still think that it's a good sign that Hurdle was able to coax Marrero, a full-time outfielder most of the past three years, back behind the plate. Veteran players are more likely to make personal sacrifices for their club if they think the team actually has a chance at winning some games. It's interesting too that Hurdle planned for weeks to have Marrero make his first appearance catching in a Jeff Francis start. Francis doesn't throw sharp sinkers like Cook and Jennings, and his arm angle is far more traditional than Byung-Hyun Kim's. The choice then was between young Jeff Francis and veteran Josh Fogg, and I thought Hurdle's reasoning, as communicated by the Rockies' TV broadcasters, was fascinating. Apparently Francis calls his own game for the most part. Yet another reason Jeff Francis is like, so awesome.
I'm not panicking yet, even though the Rockies have now fallen behind Arizona into third place. I still think the team is fundamentally sounder than they have been in years, and what's more, I think the Rockies themselves know that. They're not a veteran club, but I think even the second-year guys can tell the difference between this year and last year. They hadn't had a single prolonged losing streak until now and thanks to the rotation, that trend should continue. As soon as they snap out of the current one. Derek Lowe is pitching for Los Angeles tonight, which is a tough matchup, but the Rockies got the better of Roy Oswalt last weekend and I have every confidence in Byung-Hyun Kim. Hmm, I'll bet it's been a long time since that last phrase was written.
All Hail Ramon Ramirez
If you'd asked before the season I would have told you there'd be no way the Rockies would field a Rookie of the Year candidate, having used virtually every warm body in AAA and AA on the major league team at some point or another last year. So enter Ramon Ramirez, who nobody had any idea about. I mean, he was a Yankees prospect. But he's a bona fide rookie, and here he has 15 1/3 scoreless innings to begin his career. That's pretty good.
OK, I want to watch this game, so I won't write long here. But the Rockies have Eli Marrero playing catcher today, their one network television game of the week and the night after a big win. Marrero apparently hasn't started at catcher for three years.
This is very interesting for a number of reasons.
Series Preview: Houston
Human beings in general and sports fans in particular have a tendency to overvalue the significance of the freshest thing in their memories. The NBA Playoffs is built for this, with its game-day off-game-day off-day off-game pattern. After the first two games of the Miami-Chicago series, Miami was going to sweep. After game three, they were toast. Through most of the Detroit-Milwaukee series, the Pistons were on an unstoppable championship run, until the Bucks won one game, and then they had serious flaws. No single person illustrates this principle more than Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal is either finished, soon to retire, or an unstoppable primal basketball force. Could the truth be that he is somewhere in the middle?
I think many of us, including myself, watched the Astros struggle to score a single run during the 2005 World Series and figured that they were due for a huge letdown in 2006. Which is fine, except while they had real offensive issues against the White Sox, it discounts the fact that they, you know, got to the World Series in the first place. Which is hard. Likewise, the loss of Roger Clemens (assuming he's really gone) hurts the team, but the story during last year's regular season wasn't how many games the Rocket was winning for Houston, it was how few runs the Astros were scoring for him. Yes, losing the most dominant pitcher of his generation is never a good thing. But, you know, on the bright side, Houston wasn't winning very many of Roger's starts anyway.
You certainly can't say that the Astros wouldn't now be better off without Clemens and a healthy Jeff Bagwell on the active roster, but until a recent Rockies-induced speed bump, Houston's landing was far softer than any of us expected. Even after a brutal 1-6 road trip against the mighty NL West (yes, that's right, I said the mighty NL West) the Astros enter this three-game series at Minute Maid Park with a 20-15 record, identical to Colorado's current mark. That only places them third in the NL Central in comparison to the Rockies' first-place position, though. (Oh, man, how not tired of saying that am I? So not tired.) The Astros are having a really interesting season. I "scouted" them by watching their game against the Dodgers yesterday and it's really surprising where they're getting their production. Andy Pettite has been wild and vulnerable, Brad Lidge has been a complete disaster. Wandy Rodriguez, of all people, has been the ace of the staff. Dave Borkowski and Russ Springer have been the most reliable guys in the bullpen rather than the more familiar trio of Lidge, Mike Gallo, and Dan Wheeler. Some things make sense. Roy Oswalt is his usual consistent self, and Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg are mashing. Offensively, though, it's weird to see names like Mike Lamb and Brad Ausmus listed ahead of Craig Biggio, Preston Wilson, and Adam Everett on the team OPS table. Wilson has struck out a lot, as you may have heard. It's not so much the strikeouts as the fact that he isn't doing much of anything else -- .260/.301/.409.
So the Astros are playing a little worse than their record, although maybe not as well as their roster suggests they should. Biggio and Pettite aren't the kind of guys you just write off. Wilson seems like he should be tailor-made for that short porch in right at Minute Maid (indeed, four of his five home runs have come at home, although his overall average in Houston is .200, which ought to improve). As for Brad Lidge, I'm not sure what's going on there. He had to be pulled out of an easy save situation in Los Angeles yesterday after walking the bases loaded. Lidge is one of my favorite ballplayers -- I have a #54 Houston road grey jersey in my closet -- and I'd hate to see him go the way of Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel. Well, there's a whole profession now called "sports psychologist," right? My advice to Lidge would be as follows: Hey, man, don't worry, Albert Pujols hits colossal home runs off of everybody. I mean, just this week, he took Jose Mesa deep. The Jose Mesa. If it could happen to Mesa, it could happen to anybody.
Your pitching matchups: Jennings-Nieve (Friday), Cook-Oswalt (Saturday), Francis-Pettite (Sunday). This would be a very nice one to win after a tough series loss in St. Louis, but I'm not sure how certain I am of that happening. The Rockies ought to get the best of Fernando Nieve tonight but the Astros should be revenge-minded after last week's Coors sweep, and they have two very good pitchers going in the weekend games. First things first, let's win the game tonight.
New Things That Are the New Old Things
Purple is the new black. "Veronica Mars" is the new "Buffy." Albert Pujols is the new Barry Bonds. Don't pitch to him. I mean, seriously, don't pitch to him.
Losing two of three to the Cardinals at New Busch isn't the worst fate in the world, I suppose. At least the Rockies looked like they belonged on the field with the other team, which wasn't the case in many series last year. I'm not very happy with nine strikeouts and zero walks from Colorado's hitters, but their pitchers struck out eight and walked one, which is good. Ramon Ramirez is really making me regret all the mean things I wrote about him in the immediate aftermath of the Shawn Chacon trade last year. Ooh, plus, the only Rockies player to sacrifice bunt in this game was Byung-Hyun Kim, the pitcher. I sense progress.
Next up, the Astros. We swept 'em at our place, now we go to theirs. Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, and Jeff Francis are set to go for the Rockies, which sets up some nice matchups. After Jennings and Fernando Nieve tomorrow, it'll be Cook and Roy Oswalt on Saturday, and Jeff Francis and Andy Pettite on Sunday. Yesterday ended a stretch of 20 games in 20 days for Colorado; the Rockies went 12-8.
I did do that interview for Sportsbloggers Live. The show will appear on their website later this afternoon. Listen in, and also e-mail them and encourage them to continue covering the Rockies. I did a lot of radio in high school, and I quite fancy becoming an on-air personality. The only thing that separates me from most of the baseball talking heads on the air is I don't begin every sentence by saying "Well, when you talk about [name of team or player you are talking about]...."
Cardinals 4, Rockies 2
It's never fun to blow a lead in the eighth inning, but in a way, last night's loss came as a bit of a relief. Jose Mesa was pitching too well. Albert Pujols should hit huge homers off of guys like Mesa. It's a return to the natural order of things. Besides, there were too many encouraging signs for the Rockies in this one to come away completely devastated. (It's waaay to early to be scoreboard-watching, but Arizona and San Diego lost, too.) Josh Fogg pitching Chris Carpenter to a standstill? (Fogg and the reigning Cy Young winner each posted game scores of 63.) Another homer, a road homer, natch, for Matt Holliday? Another walk for Jamey Carroll? A double for slumping Clint Barmes? This is all good stuff, and Colorado still has a very good chance to claim this series with Byung-Hyun Kim facing Jeff Suppan today in the rubber game.
Todd Helton was on the Dan Patrick show yesterday talking about how he keeps footage of his every major-league at-bat in his video iPod. Jeez, Todd, I'd hate to tell you what I keep in my video iPod.
I don't know how many of you are "Veronica Mars" fans -- I know Will Carroll is -- but the finale last night was the emotional equivalent of the 2003 NLCS, only with more murder. Unlike last season, I had no clue what was coming, but when the big reveal came down (and if you watched it, you know it was brilliantly handled, with a single prop close-up telling Veronica and the audience everything they needed to know) I was kicking myself for not picking up the obvious clues like I was able to with the big mystery in the first season. Apparently the show's future is safe despite despicable ratings because UPN and the WB are merging and desperately need a few shows with good critical reputations (and not completely dying -- the "Gilmore Girls" finale was on last night too, and let me tell you, the sharks are circling, and Lorelai is on waterskis in a full wedding dress) so I needn't appeal to you for my own personal benefit. Watch "Veronica Mars". The cast is mostly very good (and from the finale it looks like they've written out most of the weak links), the lighting is amazing (really, I never paid attention to this sort of thing before, but every scene in this show is highly stylized and cool-looking), and Kristin Bell is a major babe. (Not to mention Charisma Carpenter. Ye gods. I'm as enlightened a feminist as they come, but Carpenter's bikini scene in the second-season premiere was a watershed moment in TiVo history. Keep until I delete, please.) I'm a sucker for serialized storytelling, and unlike "Lost," which has been crushing it in the ratings, the "Veronica Mars" showrunner actually has a plan for where things are going instead of making things up as he goes along. The second season was a little bumpy and lost traction at a few points, not helped along by the weird logic of network TV schedulemaking, but it's going to play beautifully on DVD. I need more people to watch this show because my head is buzzing about the season payoff last night and I want my peeps buzzing along with me.
Yeah, that's all I got. I didn't actually watch any baseball last night because I had band practice and then, you know, I had to watch my soaps.
The Notes Column: Last Refuge of the Lazy
Why are the Cardinals America's team? Because they have an old Busch and a new Busch.
If there's one thing I learned from reading Sports Illustrated cover to cover every week in my youth, it's that you can't write an article about an early-season surprise team without focusing on that team's Young Breakout Star. But who is that star for the Rockies? Jim Armstrong: Cory Sullivan. If you look quickly, SI.com has Matt Holliday on their MLB front page (and the Rockies 9th in their power rankings). For MLB.com, Clint Hurdle and his love affair with deliberately creating outs is the story. Somehow they managed to get through the story without quoting Phil Garner.
I watched the entirety of the Devil Rays-Mariners game last night, a real East-West bottom feeder summit. How do you like your bad teams, all pitching, no hitting, or vice versa? Tampa Bay has some guys who can hit, including Jonny Gomes and my old TTO fave from Milwaukee, Russell Branyan, currently masquerading as a right fielder. I have not one but two new favorite Rays after the contest last night. First of all, Casey Fossum. I have an established thing for lefties without fastballs, but Fossum takes things beyond logical extremes. Casey's out pitch, which he has modestly dubbed the "Fossum flip," is a marvel that travels slower than fifty miles an hour and yet breaks like a batting cage curveball. I don't know how it's physically possible to throw the thing. Anyway, Fossum outpitched Gil Meche last night but was hung out to dry by Chad Orvella and the Tampa Bay bullpen. My other new favorite guy is Damon Hollins, because he bats right, throws left. I love guys who bat right, throw left. The Mariners broadcasters went on for a whole half-inning talking about how it's rare for outfielders to to demonstrate the Rickey split because it exposes their throwing arm to being hit by pitches. Not once did it come up that there are scads of guys, including outfielders, who throw right, hit left. In fact, three of the four outfielders on the Seattle roster throw right, hit left. (Ichiro, Raul Ibañez, and Matt Lawton.) The level of common sense being demonstrated by our baseball TV broadcasters could well be at an all-time low.
Seattle's pitching has been very good of late, although it's been Jor-El Pineiro and not Felix Hernandez who's been leading the way. However, the Mariners' lineup is, well, crappy. Kenji Johjima has been as advertised, Ibañez has been solid, and they've gotten a surprising amount of offense from team RBI leader Jose Lopez, but after that, yuck. Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, and Richie Sexson are producing very little for a lot of money. Willie Bloomquist and Yuniesky Betancourt are non-hitters. Mike Hargrove seems to have given up on Jeremy Reed. Combine a weak hitting attack with end-of-the-bullpen issues and you've got a recipe for a long season. As of last night, J.J. Putz is in and Eddie Guardado is out as closer, but Seattle's core problems go beyond what depth chart shuffles can repair. They've got a lot of untradeable contracts, the farm system is Yankees-dry, and with that very game last night, they set a record low for atttendance at Safeco. On the other hand, those dark blue-green jerseys they wear are really nice-looking.
The Cubs' collapse is proceeding ahead of schedule this year. Apparently they've got yet another plan for second base now, rookie Ryan Theriot, continuing one of the strangest ongoing position battle stories in MLB. Why won't the Cubs play Todd Walker, a good-hitting, lefty-swinging second baseman, at second base? I realize Walker is now starting at first in Derrek Lee's absence, but Chicago really ought to be able to find an immobile slugging first baseman somewhere in organized baseball. I would suggest they make a deal for Ryan Shealy, but I don't think the Cubs have anything the Rockies want, and also, what would they do with him after Lee comes back? Well, I'm sure there are teams besides the Rockies who have a good-hitting, positionally blocked first baseman in AAA. Rotating through an endless cycle of no-hit second basemen isn't really helping matters. Ah, confusing motion for progress -- must be springtime in Wrigleyville.
I'm not sure what to make of the Dodgers' current struggles. On one hand, I'm mad at the franchise for unjustly firing Paul DePodesta after an injury plague of biblical proportions scuttled L.A.'s 2005 campaign. Is it poetic justice that the same fate is now befalling Ned Colletti? However the season ends up for the Dodgers, I think Colletti did a pretty good job this offseason given the illogical and often contradictory orders imposed upon him by HQ. Rafael Furcal's awfulness defies explanation. The trade for Danys Baez looks smarter now that Eric Gagne has gone down again. I ridiculed the Dodgers for starting Aaron Sele yesterday, but in the long run, it makes sense for them not to needlessly rush their blue-chip arms. Things look worse than they actually are now, but the franchise is still structurally sound. Other than the crazy owner, I mean. As I noted in my preseason previews, most of the veterans the Dodgers have under contract have very reasonable, very movable deals. If the Rockies run away with the NL West (sorry, couldn't help myself), Los Angeles could improve their future prospects even further by selling high on some guys who aren't in the long-term plans. There's already discussion of pawning Odalis Perez off to the Mets.
Carpenter and Fogg tonight in St. Louis, which doesn't bode well for the Rockies' winning streak. That's OK, so long as a Rockies loss doesn't start a streak in the other direction.
Local Blogger Celebrates Hot Streak with Stats and Confusing References
OK, how awesome is Jeff Francis? So awesome.
Blogs are all about instant history, reacting so immediately to the day's news that perspective and caution never arrive to drag down to the party. Will the Rockies' fourth consecutive win against a recent NL pennant winner go down as the moment a surprisingly hot start turned into something substantial? Are baseball fans nationwide canceling their orders for Chris Shelton jerseys and sizing Brad Hawpe shirts instead? One of the reasons that baseball is, at last count, something like a million billion times better than football is we don't get to sit around and talk about how great our team is for a week after a win like Monday night's. The Rockies have to go out and play again tomorrow, and the next day. As it so happens, tomorrow Colorado's worst starter faces off against St. Louis's best guy. If they lose, well, then they go out and they try and win the next one. If the Rockies' heads are still above water at the All-Star Break, perhaps then we consider taking a few days to gloat. Between the tedium of the NFL Draft and the NBA Playoffs (how broken is this league when maybe three of the alleged sixteen best teams in the world play any defense whatsoever even in playoff games), it's ever so relieving to have baseball, where the weight of statistics collected over a 162-game season seldom lie. It's May, so it's fun to pretend that the shouting prowess of Jim Leyland can turn a fair Detroit Tigers team into contenders, but usually by September these things work themselves out. Then, of course, we have the postseason, which brilliantly produces the kind of sample size oddities that keep the sports publishing industry indefinitely humming. (I'm still reading that Clemente book, so the first one I think of is of course the 1960 World Series, won in seven games by a Pittsburgh team that was outscored by the Yankees by something like 500 runs.)
So what do the stats say? ("Tell your statistics to shut up.") Well, by run differential, Colorado (+13) isn't even the best team in the NL West. That would be Arizona at +32. The Dodgers (+12) are underperforming slightly. San Francisco (-31) is crummy. The Padres, after a very poor start, have rocketed back into the discussion with a nine-game winning streak, completing their already-reported sweep of the Cubs today. They are all even, 134 scored, 134 allowed. I'll go on record right now as saying that this will be the high-water mark of the season for San Diego. They had a hot May last season, and we all know how that turned out. Their win streak has come at the expense of the wounded Dodgers, lousy Giants, and self-pitying Cubs. (If you'll excuse me on a wild tangent for a moment, one possible upside of Clint Hurdle's mania for sacrifice bunts and its illusory correlation to the Rockies' improved performance this season is that Hurdle will almost certainly be around for 2007. This means that Colorado is safe from the terrifying prospect of a Dusty Baker hire after Dusty gets run out of Chicago on a rail this fall. Sure, the Monforts are a little too penurious to be considered serious suitors for a manager of Baker's "stature," but it's less far-fetched than you think. Remember, somehow both the Rockies and Cubs organizations felt that Don Baylor was of suitable managerial timber.)
Let's cruise over to one of my favorite links on the whole durned InterWeb, the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report. BP's projections, which go significantly beyond the simple RS-RA derivation of Bill James' Pythagorean Formula, consider the Rockies to be a slight favorite in the NL West chase. That might simply be because they hold the lead at the moment, but if you'd told me before the season started that Colorado had a 44.6% chance of making the playoffs, I would have been one happy fellow. What's even more interesting about the results of BP's system, which simulates the rest of the schedule 1,000,000 times with the teams' performance based on their 2006 stats to this point, is the average number of wins for the NL West winner. They have it at 94.2. That's a lot more than 82. It's 12.2 more, in fact. The last place team in the NL West, by contrast, finishes at 69.3 wins on average. That's the highest among the last-place teams in the six divisions. In all the discussion about the fine races shaping up at the tops of some of the more well-regarded divisions, it's gone somewhat unnoticed that only the NL West lacks a complete dog. The AL East has Tampa Bay, the AL Central the Royals, the AL West the Mariners, the NL East the Marlins, and the NL Central the Pirates. San Francisco is not a good team this year, but they're an order of magnitude better than any of that group. Plus, the entire ESPN empire is not cutting live into Royals games every time their leftfielder comes up to bat. (Although perhaps they should. You never know what Emil Brown is going to do next.)
OK, I'm getting a migraine from alt-tabbing between all of these tables and the little calculator application. (Hey, whoever it was that came up with the idea of putting a button for the calculator program on my keyboard, you are awesome. The next model should have a "disguise porn folder" button too.) What do we know about the Rockies that makes us feel good about the next 129 games? (OK, had to use the calculator one more time there.) I think two things stand out more than any other, and both have to do with pitching. Which is still crazy. The Rockies! And pitching! OK, don't freak out on me now. First, Colorado has rotation depth. The front four is as good as we thought it could be and might be on its way to being, um, better than that. Josh Fogg is fine for the time being. If Fogg pumpkins, or one of the Jennings/Cook/Francis/Kim group gets sidelined by injury, Miguel Asencio and Sun-Woo Kim have demonstrated in their careers as Rockies that they can get major league hitters out at an acceptably average clip. This is great news. Jamey Wright and Joe Kennedy were lousy last year but stayed in the rotation far longer than they should have for lack of any more appealing options. Plus, well, I don't know how much I believe in baseball karma but Shawn Chacon just couldn't win a game to save his life for Colorado last year. If he allowed two runs, the Rockies would score one. This year's squad has proved quite adept at bailing out starters in need thus far. It'd be really great if Colorado's starters didn't have a 7.91 ERA in the first inning, but I feel fairly confident that Bob Apodaca is working on that.
The second thing we've got that makes me feel like a postseason berth is more than a fever dream is the scourge of Chase Utley's existence, T-Rex himself, new dad Brian Fuentes. I could quote you voluminous amounts of extremely well-researched material explaining that the "closer" label is a myth and leverage this and marginal return that, but on the other hand: being punched in the gut is no fun. Losing a game that you led going into the ninth inning is like being punched in the gut, poked in the eye, and then finding out your boyfriend has been consorting with vampire hookers behind your back. Brian Fuentes is not going to do us like that. He's death on lefties, he keeps the ball in the park, and his motion is tremendous fun to try and repeat at parties when you're a little tipsy.
I don't want to slight the gains that the Colorado offense has made from last year. Cory, Brad, Garrett, Matt, you know I love you guys. But after all of the many hours I spent as a kid throwing a tennis ball into a strike zone marked out with duct tape on my parent's garage, I remain convinced that good pitching beats good hitting.
Arizona starters: Brandon Webb, Orlando Hernandez, Miguel Batista, Claudio Vargas, Juan Cruz. Closer: Jose Valverde.
Los Angeles starters: Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Brett Tomko, Jae Seo, Aaron Sele. Closer: Danys Baez.
San Diego starters: Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Woody Williams, Chan Ho Park, Clay Hensley. Closer: Trevor Hoffman.
San Francisco starters: Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Matt Cain, Jamey Wright(!), Brad Hennessey. Closer: Armando Benitez.
Colorado starters: Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Byung-Hyun Kim, Josh Fogg. Closer: Brian Fuentes.
Dude, Aaron Sele?
It's Almost Like a Real Division
I'm becoming paranoid. I think I have "we don't get no respect" syndrome, and I hate people who insist that their favorite team is being conspired against by the media, or the officiating, or FEMA, or whomever. Honestly, I feel like I watched every highlight show and listened to the radio updates all night last night and I never once heard "the Rockies sweep the Astros," merely "Colorado 5, Houston 3." I heard that the Cardinals swept Florida. C'mon, everybody sweeps Florida. I heard that Philadelphia swept the Giants, but only after two or three minutes of fulminating about some dude about to pass a number that isn't a record. I even heard that the Padres swept the Cubs, which is weird because they still have one more game to play today. It's not news that the Rockies -- the Colorado Rockies -- swept a three-game set against a team that was in the Series last year. The World Series. Colorado was 1-6 against the Astros and the White Sox last year. I don't know how significant a stat that is, but it least looking it up was fairly easy.
For what it's worth at this particular moment in time the NL West is looking less patsy-like than usual, with Colorado (7-3 in their last ten), Arizona (7-3), and San Diego (8-2) all having records resembling those of legitimate first, second, and third-place teams. I don't know for how long these salad days will roll, because the Padres in particular look like they're doing it with mirrors, but at the very least the division winner should have a final win total of something like 87 or 88 instead of last year's embarrassing 82. They might not even have the "worst" team in the playoffs this year, unless things pick up in the AL West.
One thing I did hear on the radio last night was Chase Utley being interviewed for the Sunday Night Baseball pregame show. If I'd had to guess beforehand, I would have bet that Utley would be an old-school Bad Interview, and I would have been right. Apparently the man has no hobbies, listens to no music, and has nothing he would change about baseball besides possibly moving in more of the right-field fences. The one interesting thing Utley had to say was that his least favorite pitcher to face in the game right now is Brian Fuentes, and he'd reckon that there's more than a few other lefties in the National League who'd tell you the same. If your bandwagon can't be big, the least it can do is win some influential converts. How about the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers? He likes the Rockies' chances this year, as an informant in Chicago (my dad) passed on to me yesterday. (Meanwhile, in San Francisco it's still the "NL Woebegone Division," although Bruce Jenkins says, quote, "Many observers say it's time to stop belittling the Rockies, who are very close to being for real." That's...sort of...a compliment. I guess.)
Highlights from a 4-1 homestand: Well, it's nice to have Todd Helton back. Real nice, and it looks like he's skipping the prolonged recovery slump. Jason Jennings was marvelous on Saturday night, Aaron Cook very nearly gave the Rockies back-to-back complete games yesterday, and let's not forget that Byung-Hyun Kim struck out nine in a no-decision on Friday. Colorado ranks sixth in the National League in overall ERA, and you don't need to have been a fan of this team long to know that that's extraordinary. They're even eighth in regular unadjusted home ERA, and that borders on crazy. (It also reflects the tenor of the times. Four teams ranked below the Rockies overall have ridiculous bandbox ballparks of their own: Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Houston, and Arizona. Ray King was on Jim Armstrong's radio show the other day and insisted he'd much rather pitch at Coors than at Citizen's Bank or the Great American Ballpark. Ray King, by the way, is a way better interview than Chase Utley.) It's also time for me to admit I was wrong about Jamey Carroll. In Helton's absence, Carroll has been playing pretty much every day and he's a big reason the Rockies went 8-6 during that stretch. Carroll doesn't have any power to speak of but he does play sparkling defense at second and he does something that few other Rockies besides Helton and Brad Hawpe are inclined to do, which is walk. Carroll is tied for fourth on the team with ten walks (including the game-winner Friday) and the guys immediately ahead of him, Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, have twice as many at-bats. Carroll has an OPS of .810 despite slugging .368, and I've always heard that the OBP component of the OPS formula is the more important half. Consarn it, I just like guys who walk, perhaps because that's the only way I could get on base on little league. Well, the only way after the competition grew old enough to field bunts reliably.
Which leads me nicely to my dark cloud in the first place sky. The Rockies are bunting way too much. Way, way, way too much. They lead the majors in sacrifice hits (an oxymoronic stat name, by the way) with 23. It certainly looks good when Colorado gets a leadoff double, moves the man on to third, and knocks him in as they have been doing with a scout-pleasing frequency lately. It looks too good. Clint Hurdle is going to start getting ideas. What's more, out-of-town managers (oh geez, we just had Phil Garner in and La Russa is coming up next) are going to start talking in the papers about how those young Rockies are getting it done by Playing the Game the Way It Should Be Played and the next thing you know everyone in the lineup save Helton will be squaring off like it's an extra-inning playoff game. Memo to Clint: The Rockies are not winning because they bunt immoderately. They're winning because Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe are suddenly clubbing the ball full-time instead of only at Coors and the pitching staff is the best the franchise has ever had. This has the makings of an epidemic. They could start bunting against Cincinnati pitching. They could start bunting against San Francisco's amazing all-AARP outfield. My god, Jose Lima is back in the National League. It's a madhouse I tells you. A maaadhouse.
You know, speaking of the few pesky ideas in Clint Hurdle's head, here's another thing Clint has led the way in that bugs me. Why is everybody in the NL still walking Barry Bonds? A hitter has to be going out of his mind to make the automatic intentional pass a good play, and Bonds has obviously sunk beneath that point with his various health complaints. Yeah, he's going to hit a homer every now and then, but that's true of a lot of guys, and you don't see Adam Dunn or Nick Swisher or Morgan Ensberg or Jonny Gomes getting the knee-jerk four fingers. OK, random examples, but all of those guys are slugging higher than Bonds. Every manager in the NL seems afraid to be the first guy to call for an end to the insanity and get burned. You know what, there's no shame in being beaten by Barry Bonds. If you walk Bonds and get beaten by Lance Niekro or Mark Sweeney, now that is shameful. Of course there's also the conspiracy theory that says all the time Bonds is having to spend standing around at first base is further deteriorating his knees and driving him ever closer to retirement. I think Occam's Razor applies. Do we think the field generals of the NL are a) participating in a silent and quixotic plot to protect the non-record of a dead guy or b) all deeply afraid of trying something contrary to conventional wisdom and looking foolish for it? There is no more powerful force in baseball than Fear of Change. In fact I believe Joe Morgan has a motto to that effect tattooed on his ass.
Off to St. Louis, where the Cardinals are playing a tad bit diffidently despite a 20-12 record. Who can blame them, as the Mets have basically clinched the NL East with about the same record while the Cardinals are caught in a three-way dogfight with the resilient Astros and the surprising Reds. Has their window closed already? Well, the National League seems better overall. It's hard to call any team that often fields an Aaron Miles-David Eckstein middle infield offensively threatening, despite the ethereal Albert Pujols. The Rockies draw Jason Marquis, Chris Carpenter, and Jeff Suppan. More on that series later, assuming I feel like it.
Rockies 5, Astros 4
I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with this team, but so far, so good. Brad Lidge may be following the Byung-Hyun Kim career path (Kim was tonight's starter for Colorado, incidentally, and struck out nine) in that a single high-profile postseason failure has set back his psyche and career for years. Funny, considering the Astros won that series against Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, and Kim's Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series against the Yankees. I guess that's baseball for you, though. Teams win, players lose.
Good team win for the Rockies tonight, anyway. Todd Helton was 1 for 4 in his first game back from the disabled list and his presence had an immediate effect. It was Helton waiting on deck when Dan Wheeler walked Jamey Carroll to force in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Bad Houston defense contributed to two of Colorado's scoring innings. Someone needs to tell Clint Hurdle to can it with the parade of sacrifices, however. Hell, I'll do it. Clint: can it with the sacrifices. Your guys can hit. Except for Danny Ardoin.
The Rockies really needed a win tonight, because here comes Arizona, winners of six in a row. If the NL West ends up this year as a neck-and-neck race between two up-and-coming teams with a lot of underappreciated young talent, will national writers still savage it as the Worst Division Ever? Well, both the D-Backs and the Rockies can make some inroads towards respect city this weekend as they match up with Cincinnati and Houston. They're both off to a good start.
Man, I wish I had been at the ballpark tonight. I don't talk about my job very often, because, well, what do you people care, but I write entertainment reviews for a couple of suburban Denver papers and for the most part my weekend nights belong to to the community theater circuit. Instead of watching BK and Helton make their triumphant Coors returns, I was suffering through fourth-rate Sondheim. I only wish I had taken a flashlight to the theater so I could have read my other current review project, David Maraniss's new Roberto Clemente book. It's quite good so far. Maraniss is a good writer and Clemente is pretty much a can't-miss topic. It's funny how the stathead revolution has changed how I read baseball biographies, though. Maraniss spends a lot of time making a case that Clemente was jobbed for the NL MVP in 1960, which he very clearly wasn't. The voting went like this:
1. Dick Groat, PIT (25 win shares)
Thanks, Total Baseball. Obviously Mays should have won it but it's not as if Clemente didn't have some seriously good other performers with him on the pennant-winning Pirates. Of course, it may well be true that writers in Pittsburgh hyped Groat and Hoak over Clemente for racial reasons as Maraniss contends, but whatever the case may be, Roberto wasn't the one who wuz robbed.
The Francis Channel
Sweet win for Colorado tonight. Despite not scoring the number of runs you'd like to see at Coors Field against a Reds starter, the guy the Rockies most needed to get hot (that'd be Matt Holliday) did so, Jeff Francis was lights out for seven innings, and Purple-Glove and T-Rex took care of the rest. Holliday had three hits, two runs batted in, and a steal, a nice little package for his fantasy owners. (An 0 for 4 night for my guy Ryan Freel, however.) Danny Ardoin managed to break out of his slump slightly with a single for his first RBI of the season.
This game belonged to Francis, who pitched seven innings allowing four hits and one walk and striking out five. Fox Sports Rocky Mountain is channel 26 on my cable system, which is also Jeff Francis's jersey number. Hence, the Francis Channel. It started out as just my nickname for the TV network, but the more I think about it the more I believe I can turn it around and apply it to the player as well. And here's why: Every now and then, not often but sometimes, I get mail from baseball fans who don't follow the Rockies particularly but have one Colorado player they really like for one reason or another. Francis leads the team in this category by a wide margin. (Garrett Atkins is second, but his followers have more prosaic rooting interests -- they're mostly devisers of elaborate home/road platoon systems involving Atkins that won them roto titles.) Jeff Francis hasn't (yet) put up the nice stats of an Aaron Cook or demonstrated the long-term resiliency of a Jason Jennings, but he's the most fun of the Rockies' starters to watch when he's going good and man, was he going good tonight. There's a grand tradition in baseball of junkballing lefty starters, but Francis is not in the Jamie Moyer mold. His fastball is his best pitch, but not because it blows up radar guns, but because he spots it brilliantly and he can effectively dial his velocity forward and back. This year, after a shaky spring training and first couple of starts, he's really gotten a handle on his secondary pitches and he's striking more guys out.
Two interesting stats about Francis from the broadcast tonight: One, he leads the league in stolen bases allowed. Three Reds swiped on him tonight. This is a little weird for a lefty but Francis has a long motion, a poor pickoff move, and a tendency to become locked in on the batter he's facing. You know what, if he only gives up one extra base hit a night, guys can steal all they want. The other category in which Jeff is a world-beater is a little more desirable. He paces the majors in batting average allowed to the hitter leading off an inning. That's pretty cool. According to the little run expectancy table which my friend Ali made and laminated for me and I carry around in my wallet, you're expected to score 0.9259 runs with a runner on first and no out, and 0.2866 runs with one out and nobody on. That's a lot of significant figures, but I'm pretty sure the latter number is better. Go, The Francis Channel.
Clint Barmes missed the game tonight due to a death in the family. He'll be back tomorrow or Friday at the latest. Todd Helton will be back Friday as well. The TV guys said Brian Fuentes will take two days off after his save tonight. They didn't get around to saying specifically why but they did say it was something good and involved his wife, so you figure it out.
Random observation: The Reds' home caps, red with black brims and a white "C", are among the nicest-looking in baseball. Their road caps, which are basically the reverse negative -- black with red brims, red "C" -- are hideous. Especially in the rain tonight. I don't know why this is. You wouldn't think the color of a "C" would make so much difference, but it really does. They have a third hat that's plain red, but the "C" has a drop shadow under it, unlike those worn by Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, et al back in the day. This bugs me for some reason. But I also paid twenty-five bucks to get a new Mets hat when they decided to change the color of the button on the top from blue to orange. I'm a sucker like that.
Interesting lineup for the Rockies tonight, in the midst of a 20-day stretch with no days off and the day after travelling from Atlanta after a night game. Jamey Carroll, Eli Marrero, Choo Freeman, and Ryan Spilborghs all got starts. The strategy seems to be working so far against the overperforming Cincinnati Reds, as the Rockies are out to a 3-0 lead with Jeff Francis pitching thus far effectively. We'll see if the bullpen can rebound from the rare loss it took yesterday.
This Reds team is 19-8 and I can't see how they're doing it. Then again Detroit is 19-9. Aren't these first few months great? Colorado hasn't collected any of the bandwagon national attention those two teams have, but time will tell. They definitely have the most winnable division. Does anybody remember how the Orioles and Nationals started last year? I imagine when everything shakes out it will be the usual suspects in both leagues, except for the Mets (they're for real) and Oakland (who seem to have begun digging themselves out of their customary April hole earlier than usual). Then there's whomever wins the NL West, of course, which won't be San Diego but won't be a very good team in any event.
Braves 2, Rockies 0
Tim Hudson answers the questions about the Atlanta bullpen by pitching a one-hit complete game. Well, that's one way around the problem. Jason Jennings gave up seven hits in seven innings, but really pitched nearly as well. The Braves' ground balls simply found the holes while the Rockies' didn't. Frankly, there was only one hard-hit ball out of the infield by either side the entire game, which was Brian McCann's single off the wall in right in the sixth. Brad Hawpe threw the ball on a line to get McCann out at second on that play, which provided pretty much the lone highlight of the game from a Colorado perspective.
The one hit, by the way, was a single by Jennings in the third.
The game took a crisp two hours, seven minutes.
It may be time to think about decreasing Danny Ardoin's playing time (further). The man simply cannot hit. It's a concern. I don't mean to pick on Danny on a day when not a single Rockies position player could muster a safety, but it's gotten to the point where opposing pitchers treat Ardoin as if he himself were a pitcher at the plate -- they throw mid-eighties fastballs down the middle and wait for Ardoin to get himself out. How is J.D. Closser hitting in AAA, you ask? Well, I'm glad you did, because I have the numbers right here. .286/.367/.414. Yorvit Torrealba has yet to even begin a rehab assignment for a right shoulder strain. Apparently as of Saturday he couldn't even throw for back-to-back days. Miguel Ojeda is off to a good start, but realistically he's a backup. Ardoin, on the other hand, was a career minor leaguer until last season for a reason. With the terrible, irrelevant '05 Rockies, he made for a good story. Now he might be costing them games that could matter later. And although Ardoin did nail Marcus Giles trying to steal today, his performance in that area has been way down -- he's now 3 for 13 on the season. At the very least, when Jason Jennings starts and Ardoin plays, Jennings should hit eighth.
Series Preview: Atlanta
The Rockies look to continue their sizzling road play against the Braves, who at 10-14 look like the rest of the NL East has finally caught up to them. Well, not the Nationals or the Marlins. But after a month of play, Atlanta is already six games behind the New York Mets, tied with Philadelphia for a distant second. The next biggest division lead in baseball is a game and a half, which is what separates the Rockies from San Francisco and the White Sox from Detroit. So, yeah, the Mets are in good shape. In fact, they have a better than 80% chance of making the playoffs according to the just-published Baseball Prospectus playoff odds report. Who else looks good according to the number-crunchers? Well, the Yankees lead the field at 84.2% (despite not leading their division) and the only other teams with better than even odds are the Mets, Milwaukee (63.5%), and Detroit (78.5%). That's pretty interesting. In five of the six divisions, the current leader isn't the statistical favorite. The NL West looks to be a four-team race with Colorado (23.5%), Arizona (31.9%), San Francisco (20.2%), and Los Angeles (29.7%) all having decent chances for a playoff berth. Last year's champs, the Padres, have likely already buried themselves (5.5%). For the record, the Royals' chance of making the playoffs is listed as slightly less than 0.02%. The Devil Rays and Pirates also make it fewer than 1 time in 100, although thanks to a run differential that's much better than their record indicates, the Marlins are at 2.2%.
The Braves' likelihood of continuing their remarkable division title streak is posted by BP at right around 13%. Do the numbers lie? Well, the Braves were lucky to win the division last year and the party's got to end some time. Many of the same problems that troubled Atlanta last season persist into 2006. Chipper Jones is still injury-prone, the bullpen is still a sore spot, and the offense is overly dependent on far too many unproven players. Andruw Jones (.281/.365/.607, 8 home runs) continues to carry the team. Edgar Renteria (.412 OBP) is having a nice little bounceback season after his bad-fit situation in Boston. Ryan Langerhans and Brian McCann represent the positive side of the Braves' youth movement. Unfortunately, too many other young guys -- Adam LaRoche, Wilson Betemit, Jeff Francoeur -- are struggling. (It doesn't help matters that Marcus Giles has started the season in a slump as well.) Like the Rockies, the Braves have already called up everyone in the high minors who was even remotely close to being ready for major league service, so they lack for Plan B's all around the diamond. By all rights last year should have seen the end of the Braves' run. It's remarkable, and a credit to Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, that they were able to wrest one more division title away from the Mets and Phillies. It's a sign of the overall health of this organization that they didn't spend too much money last offseason trying to stave off the inevitable. They're the Braves. They'll be good again fairly soon the way they draft, and for this franchise the term "lean years" is entirely relative. In fact, they could still win the division this year if a few of the old guys on the Mets go the way of all the old guys on the Dodgers.
One of the things they're obviously working on is developing some young arms to fill in their bullpen, which is presently anchored by 40-year-old Mike Remlinger. Chris Reitsma, whom they were never more than lukewarm on going into the season, remains the closer but they have high hopes for Joey Devine, who didn't get off to the best of starts (7 runs in two appearances before they mercifully sent him back to Richmond). They've got a pool of young guys playing pretty well at the moment, including Oscar Villareal, Chuck James, and Lance (Not Rheal) Cormier. Pretty much everybody still with the team has pitched better than Reitsma (5.59 ERA, 3.72 K/9, 1.66 WHIP). Overall they're 11th in the NL in bullpen ERA and 14th in relievers' strikeouts per nine. Do they miss Leo Mazzone that badly? It's still too early to tell, although the starters' ERA of 4.61 is an un-Braves-like 8th as well.
The starters are John Smoltz, Kyle Davies, Tim Hudson, Jorge Sosa, and John (No "P") Thomson. Not a bad group, but again, a little un-Braves-like. Hudson in particular hasn't been all they thought he could be since they acquired him from Oakland. Thomson on the other hand has been inhuman lately, having allowed only two earned runs in four starts thus far. Young turk Davies has some nice numbers (1.11 WHIP) and some scary ones (7 homers allowed in 30 2/3 innings). The Rockies will face Hudson and the 0-4 Sosa with Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook.
Are two-game series like doubleheaders? Do they nearly always result in splits? I don't have an answer for you. I suspect however that this series will end in a split.
Rockies 3, Marlins 1
Seriously, Kim's fabulous performance in Miami yesterday (6 2/3, nine strikeouts, 71 of 101 pitches thrown for strikes) is exactly the sign reluctant Rockies fans were waiting for that the club's early-season flirtation with relevance is something more than an April mirage. The Rockies haven't fielded a decent five-man rotation since 2000, and frankly, the current group of Kim, Aaron Cook, Josh Fogg, Jason Jennings, and Jeff Francis is vastly more likely to see sustained success than that year's crew of Pedro Astacio, Rolando Arrojo, Brian Bohanon, Kevin Jarvis, and Masato Yoshii. Vastly. What's more, the Rockies actually have rotation depth -- with Kim's recall, Miguel Asencio returns to Colorado Springs to keep sharp as a starter. Sun-Woo Kim pitched well in his last SkySox start too. If Josh Fogg craters -- and, well, he's Josh Fogg, it's a distinct possibility -- Colorado has two really nice fallback options. Go ahead and order those playoff tickets!
Rockies coaches are to be credited for the approach they took with BK's rehab, which placed an emphasis on the Korean sidearmer throwing strikes to the lower half of the zone. The Marlins' offense hardly provides for a neutral test case, but Kim has better stuff than any other Rockies starter and if he can consistently avoid walking batters, he'll improve upon his performance last year, which wasn't half bad. Wow, we have four good starters! I'm giddy. Not so Marlins skipper Joe Girardi, whose team lost three straight to Colorado despite being outscored in the series by only four runs. This Florida team is not as bad as their record -- their pitching, in particular, is surprisingly competent -- but with their complete lack of experience they face the possibility of a sustained death-spiral season if Girardi can't maintain order. With this many young, athletic players, their defense ought to be a lot better. They definitely can't afford to allow Miguel Cabrera's mind to wander off the game as the Rockies' TV announcers implied happened more than a few times during this series. George Frazier, in particular, was on a crusade against lackadaisical play this weekend, mentioning something he called the "5 P's," which stands for "Practice Preparation Prevents Poor Performance." You just don't get this kind of stuff from Jeff Huson.
Peculiar schedule this week, as the Rockies along with many other major league teams will play two two-game series. It's probably the fault of interleague play, which requires some odd scheduling contortions to be kept in the silly "pod" configuration MLB insists upon on. Personally, I don't see what would be so horrible about interleague series being evenly distributed throughout the season if we're going to have them at all. That would allow for the radical (read: "sensible") step of realigning so that the two leagues and all six divisions would have equal numbers of teams. In any event, Colorado has a tough haul the next two weeks, with two games in Atlanta, two at Coors against the hot Reds, their first trip to the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and home-and-home series against Houston. It'd be a good time for the offense to start scoring runs at home. (Wow, that sounds weird. But so does "first place on the first of May." Tingly.)
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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