Monthly archives: April 2004
Cubs at Cards
All series are important, but this weekend features the first games of the year where the Cubs are facing another division favorite. The Cubs shoot into St. Louis, and are hoping to find a Cardinals team that is pooped from playing a 13-inning game on Thursday.
So I ran into a few difficulties trying to scoreboard watch while at the Yankee-A's game last night:
a) The Cubs game didn't start until 9:30 East Coast-time, so my departure from a quick-paced game at Yankee Stadium coincided with the bottom of the first in Arizona. Hard to follow a game that isn't being played.
I subwayed home just in time to catch the last out of the Cubs game; a mildly alarming fly ball off the bat of Luis Gonzalez. No harm done, though, as the Cubs salvaged the last game of the series. Christian has some notes below on the game, though I'll add that I find Maddux's 8 home runs allowed in only 28 and 2/3 innings to be not so hot.
While at the Yankee game, I witnessed one of my least-favorite player tics: Derek Jeter's "talk to the hand" salute before each pitch. Now I'm not just piling on poor Jetes -- the Bronx Booers already gave him a frustrated earful with each hitless at-bat in the game (he's now oh-fer 32) -- but this little thing he does at the plate annoys the heck out of me. While the pitcher looks in for the sign, Jeter steps in, looks down at his feet, and raises his right hand -- palm facing out -- at the umpire. It's a brief, suspended moment before each pitch, as if Jeter is saying, one sec... okay, go ahead. And while I'm sure it is a completely unconscious motion, it bugs me. If were a catcher or an umpire, I'd be sorely tempted to reach up and slap his hand out of the way.
I was trying to think of tics and signature habits of Cub players that bother me, but I came up short. On last year's team, sure: Alfonseca's intolerable fist-pump after a "successful" inning comes to mind. I remember one game in which he gave up two runs, left a couple runners on base, and still had the nerve to jiggle his load with a raucous choo-choo of the fist after getting the final out in the inning.
Sosa is a guy who probably irritates a lot of people, as he features a hobbyist's collection of mannerisms and gesticulations. His homer hops, right field wind-sprint dash, and kissyface camera routine all have the potential to grow tiresome, but I'm not irked. In fact, as opposed to Jeter's little motion, I really like Sosa's pre at-bat ritual. While digging in the dirt with his right foot, Sosa taps the edges of the plate, almost a quick motion of prayer. Now I cross the plate with bat - I pray the pitcher's pitch is fat. And with litany done, he's all business at the plate.
Are there any Cubs quirks, from past or present, that bug you? Or habits of players from other teams around baseball?
Creamed Spinach, Two Orders
Chad #@!^@! Tracy and the rest of the D'back crew struck again last night, blowing out the Cubs for the second night in a row. Final score, 10-1. Tracy made another sweet defensive play in the first, hit the first bomb of his major league career, and has worn out his welcome with this Cubbie fan.
Heading to a Yanks-A's game in the Bronx tonight with a large group of NYC-based bloggers, including Yankee boosters Alex Belth, Jay Jaffe, and Cliff Corcoran. I'm no fan of the home team, so am bracing myself for an evening filled with things obnoxious, objectionable, and odious, and will do little to hide the smirk on my face when Mulder shuts down the Bombers. Oh, and I'll be scoreboard watching once again.
Guess Who's Number One
A new edition of All-Baseball.com's "The List" is up, and this week sees the Cubs on top of the majors. The rankings were tabulated before last night's whipping, which would have knocked the Cubbies down a few pegs. Check it out.
Well, there goes that streak. The Cubs were demolished last night, shut out at the plate and beat up on the mound, giving up more runs in a four-inning stretch last night than they had in the previous six games. The only solace: at least the loss was against Randy Johnson, the Cubs' very own K2 mountain, a dangerous, unconquerable peak. The Big Unit is now 12-0 lifetime against the Cubbies in 13 career starts.
I missed almost all of the game, napping through the first half (dude was wiped out), waking up to groggily see a bloop 2-run hit take out Zambrano in the fifth, and flipping over to watch the making of Iron Chef America after Sexson's monster shot. Richie's 503-foot blast was loud enough to take the usually Cubphyllic crowd in Arizona out of the match. Dusty commented after the game, "I'm just glad he's not in Milwaukee anymore." Yeah, no kidding.
I'm sad to see that Big Z had a rough time of it, though as I mentioned I didn't actually get to see much of him pitching. Was his control off? Was he elevating the ball? Or was he just getting a bit unlucky? From looking at the game log, it looks like Zambrano gave up some hard hit balls in the third, and then was subject to an unexpected dose of Big Unit-at-the-plate in the fourth, with an intentional walk backfiring when Johnson singled in a run.
Sergio Mitre takes on Brandon Webb tonight, in what should be another tough contest for the Cubs. Webb's been wilder than a Halle Berry marriage so far this year; let's see if the Cubs can take advantage.
Cubs at D'backs
The Cubs hope to continue mercilessly walloping their opponents this week, beginning with a series down in Arizona. The first game matchup looks to be a doozie, with a great young star-old star matchup in Z and the Big Unit. Look for lots of grounders in the series, with Zambrano, Mitre, Webb, and Maddux all prone to worm-killin'.
"His upside is just tremendous. He's still learning how to pitch and he's still learning how to control a couple of other pitches, but he has a dynamite moving fastball, which is the best pitch in baseball."
"It was mechanics. I wasn't falling off to the side today too much and my momentum was going to the plate."
"He wanted to know if I was out of gas and I said, 'I'm never out of gas,' which isn't always the truth. When a manager gives you that pat on the back and lets you stay in when he's ready to take you out, it almost gives you a new life. I can't let him down for letting me stay in there to pitch."
Capulets vs. Montagues
"Frank got hurt and there was no 'Frank Thomas Watch.' Frank Thomas is way better than Prior, and he has done a lot more than Mark Prior. 'Prior Watch'? Wow. I mean, wow."
"It's hard enough for me to manage one team than to comment on another one. I've got enough stuff here. As much as I like Ozzie, I can't worry about what he says either. I find it strange that we don't say much about them, but they say things about us."
"You hear from everybody, 'Don't rush it, don't rush it.' The biggest thing has been no setbacks. I'll take it one bullpen, one session at a time. ...I'm still shocked at how good it feels."
"He took the boot off. That's a plus. We just kind of have to have a governor on him because he wants to be back like yesterday."
"Here right now I feel pretty good. The first few times out obviously everything was aching from just not doing it in awhile. Now I feel a little bit more like I normally do after I throw my normal sides, and hopefully everything is all right."
New Defensive Metrics
"I always take pride in how I play defense. Last year I made a lot of errors, but if you play every day you're going to make errors."
"Some guys are great defensive catchers, some are great offensively and some, like [Mike] Piazza are a combination of both."
Media How-To 101
"It's only 14 games and we've been playing good baseball. When you play good baseball it doesn't matter what you do, you have to feel good about yourself because you go out there and give 100% everyday, and sometimes you're going to win and sometimes you're going to lose, and you've got to deal with that."
"Is it true teammates have nicknamed you Mr. Bitterman?"
"I'm just trying to relax and be with the bullpen guys, who are kind of off in their own little world usually."
"I don't know anything about tipping, but if I did I still wouldn't tell you."
"Hopefully 299 to go."
It's the pitching, stupid
While we've all been awestruck by the unexpected (and historically great) Cubs Batting Massacre that Chicago has declared on its opponents in the month of April, the past week has seen a dizzying display of pitching from Cubbie hurlers. With Greg Maddux's first win of the young season on Friday, the pitching staff has now held opponents to a measly one run per game in four straight games. The starting pitcher's lines from those games:
For those of you unfamiliar with game scores, it's a quick and dirty formula for assigning a number to a pitching performance, with 50 being so-so and scores in the 60s being very good. Only five pitchers from last year averaged game scores of over 60:IP H R BB SO Pitches Game Score
Notice something? The Cubs' weeklong run of great pitching has come without Kerry Wood or Mark Prior starting a game, both of whom are among baseball's elite. Wood goes tomorrow, Prior may possibly return in a few weeks, and National League hitters are biting their nails.Schmidt 64.9
Mets at Cubs
The Mets come to Wrigley to begin a weekend series. The first game features a couple of struggling starters trying to get straightened out. Talk about uncharacteristic: Maddux has as many walks (9) as strikeouts (9).
And sometimes you get exactly what you wish for.
A couple days ago I declared that I was tired of the one-run nail biters (mostly because the Cubs had lost two of 'em in a row) and was hoping for a "7-0 romp." Since those words were written, the Cubs have defeated the Reds 8-1 and the Pirates 9-1. Do you think it would be pushing it for me to declare, "I'm sick of these 8-run wins, I want the Cubs to pitch no-hitters and score 14 runs"?
I "watched" yesterday's game from seats up behind home plate at Shea Stadium in New York, soaking up a Mets-Expos extravaganza. I enjoy scoreboard watching, and it is a good way to gauge my own personal fears and desires about the Cubs. To wit:
Cubs batting, top of the first:
Pirates batting, bottom of the third:
Pirates batting, bottom of the sixth:
Cubs batting, top of the eighth:
Pirates batting, bottom of the eighth:
Pirates batting, bottom of the ninth:
So there you go. When getting minimal information about a Cubs game, it seems I jump to two conclusions: 1) Sosa is somehow responsible for every run the Cubs score, and 2) Baker will leave every Cubs pitcher in about 45 pitches too many. Chalk it up to a neuroses bred from Sosa-centric offenses of years past and Woodish abuses inflicted just days ago. Turns out this time around I was happily wrong on both counts.
Series Preview: Cubs at Pirates
The Cubs begin a 3-game series in Pittsburgh tonight. The games:
11th on the list
Check out All-Baseball.com's "The List", a weekly ranking of the teams in baseball. The Cubs check in at number 11 this week, but the whole list of rankings is worth a gander, and will usually appear on the A-B homepage every Monday or Tuesday.
He Said, She Said
"Progress is that I at least had a release point where I had an idea of where the ball is going and the long toss felt pretty good. My arm strength is getting closer to where I would like it. Obviously, I'm not at a point where I can throw in a game, but I think I can get on the mound and start moving in the right direction."
"The more research they did and the tests, they found that it's more around the ankle versus the Achilles. There was inflammation in the Achilles but I think it was referred from some of the bone, which we found from the bone scan. It's more of a bio-mechanical injury versus a soft tissue injury."
"He's got a mechanical issue with his ankle as well and we're dealing with that. We feel that's related to his Achilles. (The ankle) is a joint and it's a mechanical type issue as opposed to a muscle or tissue type thing."
"[He] felt great. No pain, either in his Achilles' tendon or his arm."
"Do we miss him? Heck, yeah. But it is what it is. We have no choice. Can we win without him over the course of the year? The answer is yes, you can."
"Manager Dusty Baker speculated for the first time about the possibility of Prior missing the entire season because of pain in his right Achilles' tendon and in his right elbow."
"Hey, man, that's a lie. I don't know who's putting that out. Some people said I said it. I'm tired of people putting words in my mouth that I didn't say. Prior's not out for the season."
"I told people I heard Ryno say more in one night than I did in eight years."
"Ernie Banks is always going to be here forever. He's Mr. Cub and that's the way it'll stay. I want to keep it like that. I have total respect for Ernie."
"[Aramis Ramirez is] only 25 years old, and he could end up being one of the best in the league. He could be the acquisition of the century, especially with how they've been here at third base and three decades since [Ron] Santo."
My Fish Was This Big
"When I start every game, I expect to finish it. If I have 125 going into the eighth or ninth, obviously I'm not going to finish the game. If I'm at 100, 110 (pitches) going into the ninth then I feel like I should physically be able to finish the game."
"Woody was throwing the ball good. This is his third start, he's stretched out. It's Woody's game. He was still throwing 95, 96 (mph) at the end."
"Woody's approaching the threshhold of the great pitchers who don't really need a closer in the ninth. ... That's a situation where you're trying to have Woody get to another point in his career where he can close his own games. He was still throwing 97, 98 miles an hour."
The Other Stuff
"You certainly don't wish injuries on anybody. When you come over to the National League, you figure you're going to get some at-bats. You don't think you're going to rot on the bench."
"This is a dream come true. I remember as a kid watching WGN and watching Cubs games, and now being a part of this and being here is a tremendous honor. I don't feel I deserve to be here."
"How fair is that? My (career) batting average dropped probably from .035 to .030 and I didn't even get to swing. It's all Dusty's fault."
Cubs play for split
After losing two squeakers in a row over the weekend, the Cubs try to take the last game of the Reds-Cubs wraparound series Monday.
Saturday's game featured a great performance by Kerry Wood in a game Wood ended up losing in the ninth, 3-2. Perhaps predictably, Dusty Baker stayed with Wood an inning too long. And perhaps predictably, Wood rewarded Dusty's starting-pitcher-machismo-fetish by giving up some runs. If you only read the Chicago media reports, you'd think that the Cubs lost because of a phooey call on a 3-2 count to Adam Dunn. I dunno. I saw the pitches in question, and I thought the ump's calls were fine. What's remarkable, though, is that none of the papers seem to care that Baker sent Wood out to throw 131 pitches in his third start of the year. Not only did a fading Wood cost the Cubs the game on Saturday, but I'm expecting a tired Wood to be ineffective in his next start -- a pattern we saw several times last year.
Sunday's game was an offensive see-saw battle. The wind was blowing out, both pitching staffs gave up a lot of bombs, and the Cubs lost after another shaky Joe Borowski performance in the 10th inning. The bright side: Sosa looks freakin' awesome right now, scorching the ball all over the ballpark. Despite having been stuck on one homerun for a while, he had been hitting the ball hard (entering the weekend among the league leaguers in doubles), and now his doubles are turning into homeruns. Sosa's usually a slow starter, so his early season exploits are especially encouraging.
What's not encouraging, though, are Greg Maddux's first few outings. While I'm still not overly concerned about Maddux, he's having issues: his control (9 walks in 15 2/3 innings) has abandoned him and he's not getting grounders. His groundball/flyball ratio currently sits at 1.21, well below his career average of 2.44, and he's getting hurt because of it. Those extra flyballs have already contributed to five homeruns allowed. For comparison's sake, in 1994 Maddux allowed four homeruns... in 202 innings.
Now, I think Maddux can and will still get it all together this season, and I look at the second and third innings of today's game for a bit of encouragement. In the second frame, Maddux retired Jason LaRue, Wily Mo Pena, and Paul Wilson on a total of five pitches: two pop outs and a three-pitch strikeout. Similarly in the third, Maddux got three outs on five pitches, with a harmless Ken Griffey, Jr. single thrown in. These are the types of Maddux innings I'm expecting more of in the future. But Maddux needs to start keeping the ball in the park and on the ground, or the Cubs' big winter signing is going to go all Jose Guzman bad.
Christian and I stay in regular contact despite living about twenty states apart. Throughout the season we'll occasional ask each other some questions about recent goings on in Cub-land, among other topics.
Alex: 1) Why did Dusty Baker take out Francis Beltran with a five-run lead, runner on second, and two outs in the ninth, no matter how poorly he had been pitching that inning?
Ruz: Man, I have no idea. Since I wasn't watching the game, I don't know how Beltran was looking, but if I'm giving Dusty the benefit of the doubt, I'd say because Beltran didn't look good & Dusty didn't want to set him up for utter failure. A less charitable view would be that Dusty is showing his impatience with young players.
Alex: 2) Does the Mark Prior paranoia irk you?
Ruz: Yes. I mean, I'm as concerned about Prior & when he'll return as anyone, but the "my brother saw his MRI" and "Dusty's telling his buddies Prior's toast" crap is really wearying.
Alex: 3) Is Michael Barrett for real?
Ruz: No, and I'll send the Small Sample Size Police after you if you're not careful. 333/393/833 with 3 homers and 9 RBI sounds pretty good, I'll admit, but so does 360/500/840 with 3 homers and 7 RBI. That's Henry Blanco's line so far this year.
Alex: 4) What do you look like?
The first one is old, and in the second one you can't see my face. So that ought to give you no idea of what I actually look like.
OK, questions for you:
1. If Prior misses more than two months of the season, do you think the Cubs can still win the division?
Alex: Sure, though it will be very difficult. Of course, I think the Cubs had a tough task before the Prior injury. I'm hoping for the Astros and Cards to hit some speed bumps -- if both teams play to their potential, the Cubs are in trouble.
Alex: Not really, but he will. However, I don't necessarily think it has to be one or the other: if Walker is smashing the ball all over the place and getting on base, I think Dusty will still find ways to get him in the lineup once Grudz returns, whether that be in left, at first, or by shifting Grudz to short on occasion.
Ruz: 3. The Cubs are in the middle of a ten-game stretch against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. How many of these 10 games do they have to win in order to feel good about themselves?
Alex: I think the Cubs will feel fine about themselves if they are 6-4, though I'm sure they'd like to go 7-3 or better. Unless they just have a tragic run, though, I'm not going to get too bent out of shape if they only win four games or so during this stretch. It's a long season.
Ugh. The Cubs just had a real ugly inning: Wuertz just gave up two 2-run bombs, and Wellemeyer just walked in a run with the bases loaded. Is that the third or fourth time already that the Cubs 'pen has walked in a run? Control is a big issue early with the Cubs relief corp -- hopefully they can start to turn things around with the balls and strikes. And can someone please move Wendell Kim off his third base coach gig?
Series Preview: Cubs vs. Reds
The Reds come to Wrigley today for a four-game series. Here are the matchups as currently lined up:
Baseball America has a nice (free!) article on the big five anchoring the pitching staff at the Cubs' AA club:
"We've got a good mix," [pitching coach Alan] Dunn said. "We've got power guys like Brownlie and Blasko, although they are different types of pitchers. But they will both light up radar guns for you. Then you've got Nolasco, who's more of a Mitre type. When he's effective, he's not going to blow you away with power stuff, but he's got a good fastball when he keeps it down in the zone. He's also got a put-away pitch in his overhand curveball."
The other two guys in the starting rotation are Carmen Pignatello and Renyel Pinto.
Prior on Mound
For all the chicken littles out there, it is good to note that Mark Prior threw off a mound today for the first time in a while. Prior threw only 10 pitches, but felt things went well:
"Progress is that I at least had a release point where I had an idea of where the ball is going and the long toss felt pretty good. My arm strength is getting closer to where I would like it."Prior is also weary of the constant speculation about the health of his arm:
"It'd be nice if everyone concentrated on physically what am I doing, am I out there throwing, not am I in New Jersey ringing a bell and then flying there and back, and getting Tommy John and throwing today. If that was the case it'd be the first in medical history."Will Carroll feels similarly, but his thoughts are part of BP Premium, so you're going to have to subscribe to read 'em.
I had read reports earlier in the week saying that he was first scheduled to throw off a mound this coming weekend, so I consider this early mound work good news.
Maddux Comes Home
Greg Maddux returns to Wrigley as a Cub today: game time, 1:10pm CT.
Maddux takes on Kris Benson and the Pirates. Chat available over to the right, next to our emails.
Injuries and Velocities
"They said it was like shin splints as far as an injury. They didn't have any more specific answers except that it was inflammation around the bone. We didn't know if it was pain getting referred over there and it was pain where I was having discomfort and stiffness and achiness."
"If I don't feel I'm ready I'm not going to push it because I don't want to have to take another two weeks off after I try to make a comeback. When I do start, I want to be ready to take it through the end of the season and the playoffs."
"I watched (the operation) a little bit, asked some questions and then I fell asleep. When I woke up I asked them how long was the surgery and they said '15 minutes.' I asked, 'Did you break a record?'"
"Three miles an hour lower? Geez. This is the first spring I haven't had to make the team. You're going out there without any adrenaline. You're just trying to get ready for the season. You're not going out there with the intensity of the season. Adrenaline counts a lot for me. I didn't know this was such a big issue. I could see if it was an issue if I was throwing 80 miles an hour. Three miles difference? That's a ... joke."
"It didn't jinx Michael Jordan and he was on it quite a bit. I'm not comparing myself to Michael Jordan by any means. My jinx was my elbow after I was on (the cover) the first time (in 1998). It wasn't by choice."
"I feel like I should be throwing 125 to 130 pitches a game. If everything is going well and I get through nine, hopefully I'll be around 120. But there are days I'm up for the eighth inning and I've got something left in the tank and I'm already at 120 or 122, and I want to go back out there. I feel like I can throw 130 pitches, and I should be able to do that. I should be in good enough shape."
"It's a power grip as opposed to the grip I had before. Before, it was more of a finesse grip and I couldn't throw it as a finesse pitch. So I just switched the grip to make it easier as far as the mindset was concerned of throwing it where I don't have to slow it down and make it move and do all that stuff. I can throw it and the grip will give me the movement."
"To tell you the truth, I haven't been swinging at strikes lately. They haven't made mistakes yet. I have to continue to stay there and be patient. Somebody is going to make a mistake."
"I'm hitting 40 and people are saying 2001 was the last time I hit 50. People were mad because I was hitting 40? I wish I could hit 40 the rest of my life."
"I don't want to say he's my grandfather. He's more like an older brother."
"I know this is going to sound strange, but Dusty Baker didn't want to see that."
"Walks are a necessary part of the game, especially if they're low-percentage pitches to hit. People put a lot of importance on walks. The part I really dislike are the strikeouts more than anything; then you don't have a chance to do anything. It's not the strikeouts, but when you strike out."
"We have an explosive offense. Sometimes it doesn't explode."
The Other Stuff
"The sun will come up tomorrow, if it doesn't rain."
Some notes about the Cubs games this weekend:
Position Report: Matt Clement
Christian: In opposition to how I feel about Zambrano, I have a good feeling about Clement, his spring and first start notwithstanding. Clem is older, and has shown for five years now that he can handle a full-season workload. Also, he didn't start pitching in the minors until around his 20th birthday, and didn't break 150 innings until he was 23.
Last year, his walks were under 4 per 9 innings for the second straight year, and while his K-rate dropped from the gaudy 9.44 per 9 innings that he had in '02, his rate of 7.63 per 9 innings was the second best of his career. He still walks a lot of guys, but he no longer leads the league, and his list of similar pitchers through his current age has almost as many hits (Jason Schmidt, Dick Ruthven, Mike Norris) as misses (Steve Trachsel, Todd Stottlemyre, Dustin Hermanson, Art Mahaffey). And, truth be told, those misses aren't *that* bad. He's never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Wood and Prior, but he has the potential to be a solid 3-4 guy for years to come. Chances are those years aren't going to be with the Cubs, but after a few frustrating early years (ask a Padres fan, or a Marlins fan who knew who the Marlins were before last June), it's nice that his most productive seasons have come in a Cubs uniform.
Alex: I'm with Christian on this one, and think Clement will be fine. Now don't we look silly: Clement struggles in spring training and has a foul first outing, while Zambrano goes out and looks unstoppable. But when I say I'm more worried about Big Z than Clement -- and I think Christian would agree with me here -- I'm not saying that I think Clement is the better pitcher. Mattie's a great number three or four starter, but Zambrano can be a co-(co-)ace alongside Wood and Prior.
Clement was terrible this spring, but this is why I'm not all tied up in knots about it:
2003 SPRING TRAINING
And this year:
2004 SPRING TRAINING
I've never understood what scouts are talking about when referring to a pitcher's "bad body language", but whatever it is, I'm guessing Clement is a good example. When things go ill in a game, he can mope a bit around the mound. He looks dejected, like the unwanted kid watching his older brother and friends shoot some hoops, knowing he'll never be invited to the on-court party. Chin up, Matt! The goatee-pasted fans in the stands don't expect perfection, just some consistency, along with some swing-and-miss sliders and sharp grounders to the shortstop.
PECOTA: 12-11, 3.85, 160 K, 80 BB, 190 IP
Minor League Pitchers Hot-Hot-Hot
To follow up on Christian's report below: Just looking through my daily Baseball America Prospect Report email, I'm pleased to see that several of the Cubs' top pitching prospects had excellent outings yesterday:
TM PITCHERS IP H R ER BB K ERA
I think Brownlie is often overlooked a bit in the Cubs system. While health has been a concern to this point in his Cubs career, I could see him taking off and challenging Angel Guzman's status as "can't miss callup".
Reds 5, Cubs 3
The Reds beat Matt Clement and the Cubs 5-3 to take two of three at the GAP. To be honest, Clement didn't look good at all, and the Cubs were lucky to be within fighting distance near the end of the game.
While Clement's poor outing will get the most attention, the Cubs' hackfest at the plate was also a great contributer to the loss. 14 of the Cubs' 27 outs were made with the batter having seen fewer than four pitches in the at-bat, with a whopping seven first-pitch outs:
CUBS BATTING OUTS MADE ON PITCH NUMBER:
At least Dusty is happy, watching his team do its best to avoid free passes. The Cubs had no walks today, and only once in the entire game did a Cub hitter get to ball three in a count. Do you know who that was (and surprisingly, it didn't happen in that eleven-pitch at-bat)?
Not to be all negative, though: Sosa looked awesome today, smashing balls the other way and pulling a nice homer to bring the Cubs closer.
Cubs at Reds: 4/7/04
Greg Maddux is back, and Cub nation will be watching. Game Time: 6:10 Central Time.
Maddux faces Paul Wilson. Think Mad Dog, like Farnsworth, could take Wilson, too?
During the game, feel free to chat it up: Christian's set up a free chat available over on the right column, next to the "email Christian/Alex" links.
Position Report: Kerry Wood
Christian: Sometimes, when you follow one team very closely, you can get too close to the players on it. Kerry Wood burst onto the scene, fully-formed like Athena from the skull of Zeus, in 1998. His 20-strikeout game against the Astros was a thing of beauty, and something I will never forget. Unfortunately, one of the reasons he was so major league-ready at such a young age was because of the amount of work he'd already put in. The Cubs were actually reasonably careful with him in the minors; he had thrown only 7 1/3 innings in '95, followed by 114 1/3 in '96, 151 2/3 in '97, and one five-inning tuneup in Iowa before he made his major-league debut.
But even before he was signed, there had been discussion of the possibility of overuse at Grand Prairie high school, so it was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, when he went on the shelf with an arm injury. I was in the crowd for his return against Atlanta in the playoffs, hoping against hope that he would be able to re-appear and stave off what felt like inevitable elimination by the Braves. Alas, despite five gritty innings from Kerry, the Cubs fell.
It wasn't until May, 2000 that Kerry would throw another pitch as a Cub, and though his return was cause for optimism it was evident throughout the 2000 season that Kerry wasn't 100% yet. He finished the year with a 4.80 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1.5. By the next year, though, he was showing signs of what everyone thought he could be -- by mid-June he was 7-4, and had struck out 10 or more six times. Of course, he had walked 3 or more eleven times, too, and spent some time on the DL. But overall, he showed plenty for us to be optimistic about. And yet, the entire time, I had this nagging voice in the back of my head. "He's never going to fulfill his potential." "Follow the Rickey Plan and trade him now while his upside is highest." "Don't pay him too much or you'll be saddled with his contract -- what if he never gets over his control problems?"
After the surgery, then-Cubs-GM Ed Lynch said, "he's got a new arm. It's almost literally like having a new arm. And now he's got to learn how to pitch again with a new arm. It's going to take time." It apparently took nearly three years -- 2001 and 2002 were good, but 2003 was a revelation: 11 games with 10 or more K's, a K/BB ratio of 2.66, and a career-high 14 wins. He was rewarded with a shiny, new contract and, for a little while at least, my inner doubting voice was silenced. Let's hope 2004 is the year I can actually get rid of it for good.
Alex: With rotation mate Prior out in the early going, Wood finds himself, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, to be one of the preseason favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award. At least that's what those smartypants at that all-baseball.com website would have you believe. Wood can still be a bit maddeningly inconsistent from time to time, but last year he demonstrated -- especially in the playoffs -- that he's arrived as one of the best pitchers in the game. His awesome spring training did nothing to lessen the feeling that this year is going to be something special.
You know what was encouraging about Wood's opening day start? That Baker limited him to fewer than 100 pitches. I may be one of the few people who's not unbelievably worried about Prior's injury, so I guess I can say this with a straightish face: if there is some good to have come from Mark's early season woes, it may be that the situation has put a bit of fear into Baker, and that seed of doubt -- along with a Chicago media that is more willing to question Baker's methods this year -- may reduce the staff's workloads a wee bit. I'm not for pitch counts just for pitch counts' sake, but Kerry looked tired in the 5th, and it was wise to make that his last inning. But I'll go out on a limb and suggest that, if not for the Blinking Warning Sign known as Prior's Achilles, Baker would have run Wood right back out there in the sixth.
Now, I'm probably wrong about all of this, and will be proven so in Wood's next start, when Kerry will throw 162 pitches, the last of which will cross the plate alongside his freshly detached forearm. (jinx!)
Wood had an okay game, and he wasn't as bad as the line looked. Not much was hard hit against him, and the Reds runners that crossed home plate had each reached base by:
a) a wild pitch strikeout
So, this was all-in-all your typical Wood game -- Kerry plays his special version of Russian Roulette, seeing if his walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches will bite him in the butt. He didn't fare especially well in round one, but his luck will even out over the season. I expect great things.
PECOTA 15-10, 3.38, 241 K, 86 BB, 210 IP
Position Report: Bench
2003: Ramon Martinez, Paul Bako, Troy O'Leary, Tom Goodwin, Mark Bellhorn, Lenny Harris, Hee Seop Choi, Jose Hernandez, Doug Glanville, Tony Womack
Christian: Simply put, last year's bench sucked. Dusty Baker came in and attempted to install the same sort of bench he was used to using in San Francisco -- old guys who know how to play the game right but can't find their way to first base with a compass. In retrospect I'm actually surprised Shawon Dunston never found his way into a Cubs game. Let's look at the OPSs of the guys who got the most time off the bench:
Choi started very strong but faded after his injury, Martinez had another decent year as a super-sub (though he lost some of his power), and Bellhorn was shipped out in mid-June. Beyond that, only Tom Goodwin had what might be considered an acceptable season off the bench. It was really bad. Remember that, for the most part, these guys were used as pinch-hitters, either to gain a platoon advantage late in the game, or to bat in place of the pitcher and prevent the #9 spot from being an automatic out. Speaking of pitchers, here are the OPSs of the Cubs' five starters:
Yes, you're reading that right. Three of our starters out-hit Lenny Harris, and Carlos Zambrano had better offensive numbers than Troy O'Leary. Small sample size, sure, but the point is that the whole point of having hitters on the bench, to allow late-inning substitutions to prevent an automatic out, was completely lost on the 2003 Cubs.
This year things look to be better. Here are the 2003 OPSs of the three new additions to the Cubs bench:
I just watched the Sesame Street 35th Anniversary Special over the weekend, so that's probably the reason why the song "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other" is going through my head. Still, as bad as Jose Macias looks to be, he was better than a bunch of guys on last year's bench. Every at-bat that goes to Walker instead of Lenny, or Hollandsworth instead of O'Leary, or even Macias instead of Womack, is an at-bat that gives the Cubs a better chance to win than they had last year.
Alex: Christian's pretty much got this one covered. The Cubs' bench was crap last year, and it is improved this year, though still not a world-beater. It would be nice to have a little more OBP on the bench, but hey, that's true of the starting lineup as well, and why would you covet something that just "clogs up the bases" anyway.
I'll be interested to see how the Cubs' bench changes throughout the season. While Macias starts the year on the DL, the Cubs arguably have two better options stashed away in the minors:
2004 PECOTA PROJECTIONS
Unfortunately, the above lines speak more to Macias' ugly bat than to any great skills possessed by Jackson or Gil. Christian does have a point, though: even Macias' putrid projection beats the offense generated by last year's woeful foursome of Jo-Hern, Womack, Glanville, and Harris.
Other than Macias, there isn't too much to criticize. Hollandsworth is a fine fourth outfielder, and the Cubs have two outfielders in AAA in Kelton and DuBois who could step in at any time with Hollandsworthish at-bats. I'll leave you with these crazy-spooky fortune cookies:
2004 PECOTA PROJECTIONS
Cubs Opening Day 2004: Cubs at Reds
Game time: 1:10pm Central -- a time zone, by the way, that neither Christian nor I inhabit. I'm taping the game at home, bummed that I won't be able to watch it live.
Kerry Wood is taking on Cory Lidle. Should be a fun season, Cubs fans.
Szuminski to the Padres
It looks like Rule 5 pick Jason Szuminski is going to stick with the Padres, having made the San Diego squad out of spring training. Szuminski was in the Cubs' system last year, but was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Royals and subsequently traded to the Padres. I'm horrible with all the transaction rules involving things like the Rule 5 draft, but I believe Jason has to stay on San Diego's roster all season or be offered back to the Cubs for a small price.
Jason's become more well known for being an MIT graduate than for any work he's done on the pitcher's mound, but that might change this year -- his sinker and improved command served notice in the Arizona Fall League last year.
Position Report: Center Field
2003: Corey Patterson (82 G), Kenny Lofton (55 G), Tom Goodwin (27 G), Doug Glanville (15 G), Others (6 G)
Christian: Corey Patterson's injury on July 6th brought a promising season to a premature end. Patterson was hitting 298/329/511, had 13 homers, and had stolen 16 bases in 21 attempts. He'd taken a few more walks (15 in 347 AB, as compared to 19 in 628 PA the year before), and the general consensus was that he was finally capitalizing on the talent that had made him the Cubs' #1 minor league prospect two years running.
I don't want to overstate how well Patterson was playing -- it wasn't like he was going to lead the league in anything -- but he was playing well. After his struggles the previous two years, it was heartening to see him get his OBP over .300, for example.
Then he tore his ACL and was lost for the season. The Cubs ended up casting around a bit before acquiring Kenny Lofton, who had a very good 56-game stint with the Cubs (327/381/471) which helped propel them into the playoffs.
General Managers are usually judged on what they do, but in this case I think Jim Hendry deserves credit for what he didn't do. Even with Patterson's health unclear (it seems pretty clear at this point that he's OK, but we didn't know that over the winter), Hendry wisely chose not to bring Lofton back. Although he played well for the Cubs, his trends have been pretty clearly downward over the past 5 years. Perhaps Hendry realized he had caught lightning in a bottle, and decided to thank Kenny, wish him well, and let him move on to be someone else's problem.
Going into this year, then, the center field job is all Patterson's. Of all the questions surrounding the Cubs offense and defense, the most revolve around Corey and his knee. Will it affect his swing, will it make him more tentative on the bases? Will he have lost a step in center? Given who's flanking him in the outfield, that last question might be the most important, but spring results make it seem as if he is 100% healed. We all wait anxiously to see if he'll build on his newfound plate discipline (relatively speaking, of course) or whether he'll revert to his hacktastic ways.
Alex: I was thrilled to see Corey's improvement last year, and it came as a surprise. Not that I didn't think he had the potential to be an offensive force (au contraire!), I just didn't expect to see that part of his game come so quickly.
On the surface, it appears that Patterson dramatically improved in two offensive areas last year: power and hitting for average. I think his high average was a bit of a fluke. Patterson was extremely hit-lucky last year (36% of the balls he hit fell for base hits, much higher than average, especially for a low-contact guy like Corey), and any lost speed from his knee injury will lessen the number of infield hits he can leg out. I'm going to guess Patterson hits closer to .270 than .300 this season.
But I think the power boost is here to stay. I know, I know, it's only spring training, but you have to like that Patterson has slugged 13 of his 16 spring hits for extra-bases, leading to a slugging percentage over .600. Corey's going to miss hitting in Arizona, though, since his home park doesn't do him any favors: Wrigley greatly reduces home run production from left-handers, and also impedes doubles and triples -- both of which are a significant part of Patterson's power game.
A final note. I happen to think Patterson's a sweet fielder. I know most Cubs fans and Cubs announcers would agree, but his showing in traditional defensive stats like Range Factor isn't so hot. However, Gary Huckabay of Baseball Prospectus had a great bit on Patterson last January (comparing his defense to Marlon Byrd's) in which he showed how the Cubs' k-machine staff hurts Corey in these kinds of metrics:
Range Factor is pretty much just the number of balls turned into outs per nine innings. For outfielders, it's largely just (Assists/Innings) * 9. If there's some reason that Byrd is getting more opportunities for fly balls than Patterson, that could [show the two being more equal]. Is he?
Patterson simply doesn't have the opportunity to field as many balls as other center fielders in the league, a trend that will likely continue this year, especially with groundball specialist Maddux replacing Estes.
update: Reader "Tom" in the comments made a great point regarding my line above about Patterson and his contact rate affecting balls in play. These two things are actually distinct. What I should have said was that Patterson's average seemed high to me last year for two different reasons: 1) he had a high "hit percentage", and 2) he is a low-contact hitter, and they *usually* have a bit lower batting averages. See, this is why I need an editor! Thanks, Tom.
Patterson: PECOTA 272/321/441, ZIPS 284/319/458
Baked and Toasted, Part II
Yesterday I posted a letter I wrote to ESPN's Jim Baker regarding the 2004 Yankees' 3-4-5 trio of Rodriguez, Giambi, and Sheffield. Baker wondered aloud whether this was the best in history, while I thought, "probably not".
At any rate, there was some good discussion in the comments on my post, mostly centering around my use of Baseball Prospectus's MLVr stat -- a stat used to measure the rate of production for an individual hitter. Wondering whether I had misused the stat in figuring out the value at the core of different lineups, I emailed Keith Woolner, BP's resident expert on MLVr, to see if I had indeed mucked this up. His response:
Adding up MLVr for players, as long as you're not concerned about how much each one plays, should be OK for your purposes.
So far, so good. But while Woolner didn't find fault in using combined MLVrs to measure a lineup's production, he did have problems with my use of PECOTA's weighted mean projections to compare the Yankees' threesome to the Bonds and Sosa lineups:
What I'd be more concerned about is using projections to compare against extreme historical stats. Projections are, by definition, an average or expectation of the future. If you take 5 guys, each of whom project to hit .300, there's a real good chance at least one of them will hit .320. You just don't known which one. But if you say that last year's batting champ hit .320, and no one is individually projected to hit .320 this year -- that this year's batting champ will hit below .320 -- you're taking a bigger risk than you realize.
I didn't immediately understand what Keith was getting at, so I prodded for further info:
Ciepley: Doesn't having a good system like PECOTA make the mean projections a "best guess" scenario? It would seem odd to me to use a 75th to 90th percentile for all of them, unless just to say, "Hey! Here's the upside!"
So now I think I get it. Basically, for both the 2001 Cubs and the 2001 Giants, there was (at least) one player who was playing well above his established level; a player who was playing at his 75th or 90th percentile. I had a case of the apples-and-oranges: It's not really fair to compare a superb trio like the '01 Cubs, where you have several players (Sosa, White) performing at their extreme upside, to the expected "average" performance of Rodriguez, Giambi, and Sheffield.
Perhaps the better question, then, is: What is a plausible upside for the '03 Yanks? If they each performed notably above what is expected on average, how historically great would they be? Would they be better than the '01 Giants? Here's a look at the Yankee threesome, using their 75% PECOTA projections:
2004 75th Percentile MLVr
This is a very impressive number, but still wouldn't be particularly close to being one of the all-time great totals (The Aurilia/Bonds/Kent 2-4 batting trio scored a 1.629). Maybe looking at 90th percentile, or what PECOTA thinks will happen 1 in 1000 seasons, will do the trick:
2004 90th Percentile MLVr
Now we're cooking. Still not the best ever, but this would indeed be a notably awesome year of production. The Yankee threesome have their work cut out for them to become one of the most productive middle lineups in history, but it is a possibility. And despite my not being a fan of the Yanks, they'll certainly be a fun team to watch.
One final note from Keith. Here's a partial list of some of the great, old-time middle-order combos in baseball history. Turns out it isn't Sosa's crew who was the most productive Cubs lineup; a group led by a crotchety Cubs second bagger turned out a better performance:
BTW, it's not strictly 3-4-5, but some of the top 3
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com