Monthly archives: September 2004
The last two sentences of the AP report on today's Cubs game sum it up better than I ever could:
Padilla's win was his first in the majors. He entered with a 12.71 ERA.
Hard to win when you suck
In the midst of their most important games of the year, the Cubs have now lost 4 of 5 to two horrible teams, the Mets and the Reds. 3 of these 4 games were lost by one measly run. While it would be easy to look at these losses as a failure of the pitching staff (and specifically of Hawkins), the real problem over the past weeks has been that the Cubs are unable to hit. Hawkins is an easy target (and I'm not trying to give Mr. Two-Out, Two-Strike Choke a pass here, trust me), but the Cubs really shouldn't be entering the ninth up 3-0 or 2-1. They should be up 6-0 and 5-1.
Over the last seven games:
PLAYERS AVG OBP SLG
As a team, they've batted 208/316/343. This is like sending Ramon Martinez up to the plate for each at-bat. Not Ramon Martinez when he was a sorta-okay bench player last year, but Martinez this year, when he sucks. The pitching, however, has put up a 3.38 ERA in 64 innings, striking out a phenomenal 9.28 batters per nine innings.
Blame the pitching staff all you want; it's the offense that has let the Cubs down.
A Mixed Tape After A Crap Night
I'm given to weather metaphors and time-of-the-day references, so without further ado:
When the night has come
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
The sun'll come out tomorrow
Faith: you know you're gonna live thru the rain
I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove
Before I went to Friday night's game to kickoff my weekend-long lovefest with the Cubs at Shea stadium, I chatted briefly with Alex Belth about baseball and anxiety. Are you more nervous when you're at the game or when you're watching it on TV? I figured that watching this year's Cubs in person was going to be even worse for my ticker than the stresses of watching them at home, but Belth commented that he felt the opposite -- you're more Zen at a game because it's all out of your control.
Belth was right. I think my poor TV, already demolished once this season, would have been tossed halfway to Ohio if I'd have watched Saturday's game on TV. As it was, I was up in the nose-bleeders, and when Diaz hit the homer I calmly put my head down between my legs with the other thousands of Cubs fans in attendance. Sunday's game was less shocking, so it was only with a dull ache that I boarded the subway home.
The Cubs are obviously worn out from playing 235 straight road games, but they aren't the only ones in need of a break. I, as a fan, need a break: I need a day where I know I don't have to worry about the Cubs driving in the runner from third or getting out of a jam. I need a day where I can let my mind wander to the simpler things in life, like paying rent and taking out the garbage. I need a day with no baseball, but like the Cubs, I'll soldier on 'till the season's over.
Some game notes:
If you didn't understand what baseball can do to its fans, you might think Jessica was insane. Older than Maddux but younger than the Francos, as she put it, Jessica has lived in New York for years but still holds season tickets at Wrigley Field. Yeah, that's right, she spends her vacation days travelling to Chicago to catch home games.
I can be a weirdo while watching a game, but Jessica had me beat here. She can't stand watching while the Cubs are pitching, burying her head in reading material until the team is batting. She alternately read email printouts, a book I had stashed in my backpack, and Peter's morning paper while Rusch and the 'pen dazzled, only occasionally stealing nervous glances at the field between pitches, refusing comment until after the inning. I thought she was going to eat the newspaper when Farnsworth was on the mound, she was trying to avoid the action so diligently.
I say all of this in fun, of course; it was pure joy to watch the game with such devoted fans as Peter and Jessica. There were a ton of Cubs fans at the game that night, and Shea was rocking in the 10th to the chants of "Let's Go Cubs!"
We moved, and then moved again when we realized the 5-year old girl behind our new spot seemed to want to outdo the teenage screamers with her own shrill cheerings. Was I that annoying as a kid?
Finally, we settled down, near a group of 6 couples in Richie Rich gear who parked down in the third inning (and left before the ninth -- I thought only Dodger fans did that?). The guy right in front of us wore a pink checked shirt with a gray polo sweater draped around his shoulders. Sunglasses around the neck, floppy hair, and a striped belt tucked in completed the look. Maybe the group got lost on their way to the Hamptons, or maybe -- who knows? -- members of the Yacht club are Mets fans.
As you can see, I'm desperately avoiding discussing what happened on the field. You could replay that ninth inning 10 times, and nine times out of ten the Cubs would've gotten the victory. Heck, you could have Hawkins throw a 2-2 pitch 50 times, and 49 times out of 50 it wouldn't result in a homerun. It was a bummer of a game.
At least no Mets scored while I was inside the stadium. Wood looked good, so it must have been a crazy first inning indeed. It was also great to see a more patient Cubs team in the last couple games, getting good counts and drawing walks when they weren't seeing pitches to hit. It's just unfortunate that every time someone got in scoring position, there was a sudden stream of strikeouts and weak grounders. Sosa seemed to go 0-16 in the series with 16 strikeouts, every one 'em coming with the bases loaded. I'm not piling on on Sosa—I feel bad for him, not angry at him—but it sure would have been nice if he had come through with a couple hits this past weekend.
In the end, the two runs weren't enough, and the Cubs somehow lost two of three to the suckwad Mets. I at least could chuckle at how excited some of the Mets fans seemed to be -- c'mon guys, your team is horrible -- but it was pretty sad that the Cubs lost to such a squad of mediocrities.
A couple other observations from the games:
Somehow the Cubs are still in the Wild Card lead after a thoroughly disappointing weekend. It's still in the Cubs' hands. Can they stir their aching bones to have one last good week?
Cubs at Mets
The Cubs have the Wild Card lead, and have played very well on this road trip. They finish up with a trip to my home, New York; I'll be attending all three games. On paper, there are fewer teams I'd rather see the Cubs face right now. The Mets have spent the past few weeks being virtually worthless, they have a lame duck manager, about 50 people on the DL (though Reyes and possibly Matsui will be back this weekend), and generally aren't very good. But I'm insane, so expect the passageways of Shea stadium to be filled with the chewed-off remains of my nerve-bitten fingernails come Sunday evening.
Nine more wins
As both Adam and John noted in yesterday's comments, the Cubs now have a number that gets them to the playoffs: 9. If the Cubs win nine of their last eleven games, they are mathematically guaranteed a Wild Card berth. Because L.A. and San Francisco face each other six times in the waning days of the season, both the Dodgers and Giants also have numbers that guarantee them postseason spots: in both cases, 8 wins and they're in. It seems odd that three teams could have target win totals that would guarantee them one of two spots in the playoffs, but those are the quirks of the schedule. Explanation:
Of course, the Cubs now need to go out and win nine games; this is obviously neither an easy task nor a likely outcome. They can start today, however, with Maddux's fifteenth win. The matchup against Nelson Figueroa is a good one on paper, but we know how those scrubby pitchers sometimes handle the Cubs' lineup. Here's hoping Chicago treats Figueroa like Logan Kensing, and not like David Weathers.
Freaks and geeks
I went out last night to a cozy music spot in the West Village, a place with overpriced-but-good food and a stage so small the pianist (and backup vocalist) in the band had his back to his audience. I was there in large part to see a singer-songwriter I've followed off and on for a few years now, but as an added benefit it was a convenient excuse to not feel compelled to watch anxiously the Cubs on TV.
I'm an admitted freak right now. Actually, most of my friends would say I'm a freak all the time, but my freakiness is in its full-moon glory in these painful September days. Can the Cubs pull it out? Will Prior have two good starts in a row? Will the offense hit seven homeruns or be shut out? Will Alou hit a cutoff man, run the bases competently, or take a pitch against a wild tosser? (At least the Alou questions don't actually cause me any stress, since the answers are a self-evident "No", "No", and "No".)
When I got home from the show last night, I sat in front of my laptop for 20 minutes, doing everything I could to avoid seeing how the Cubs did. I browsed five different news networks homepages, trying to distract myself from baseball by immersing myself in political headlines. I wasn't really reading the headlines, though; it was just a diversion. "John Kerry today lashed... Did the Cubs win? Did the Giants and Astros somehow both win while playing each other? ...and Bush responded by claiming that... Did seven Cubs go down with injuries? Were the Cubs shut out by some 19 year old rookie, or an ancient scrub reliever?... and the Presidential race has taken yet another turn."
Having spent these 20 minutes freaking out and, in effect, preparing myself for the worst, it was with pleasure that I finally went to Cubs.com to see that Chicago had pulled out a win. An uglyish win, perhaps, but a win nonetheless.
In yesterday's comments, there was some discussion about who Cubs fans should be rooting for in the Giants-Astros series. While the main thing to root for, of course, is continued Cubs wins, scoreboard-watching is indeed a secondary task in the late season. I put out there that I'm rooting for the Giants, for two reasons:
"1) the Giants have a much tougher schedule the rest of the season, including a 6-game dogfight with L.A. They'll have a harder time keeping up their pace from here on out.
I'll stick with those reasons for now, even though the second one is really hogwash (I'll be pretty bummed if the Cubs lose to either team; I just have a particularly acute hatred of the Astros -- the only team other than the Yanks that I actively loathe). Rob G. actually outlined a pretty tasty scenario given the current series:
"If I could pick an ultimate scenario for the Cubs for this series it would be a sweep for the Giants over the Astros, a sweep for the Padres over the Dodgers, and we sweep the Pirates. The Dodgers/Giants would be tied going into their series, the Astros would be done, the Padres are already done, and then as long as we take at least 2 out of 3 from the Mets, we'll be in a playoff spot, no matter what happens with the Giants/Dodgers series this weekend."
I'd take that. Tough game today—think the Cubs can bash Oliver Perez two times in a row?
Three Monday Columns
END OF THE CUBS SUCKAGE ERA
For the first time in my life, the Cubs have had back-to-back winning seasons. In 1971 and 1972, the Cubs posted records of 84-78 and 85-70, the last two seasons in a string of six successive winning years under manager Leo Durocher. Who knew then that such middling seasons would prove to be so noteworthy? Who knew that future futility would make this, a 6-year span during which the Cubs averaged 86 wins, seem like the golden age of the past half-century?
During the thirty-year span from 1973-2002, the Cubs had a record of 2227-2500, which is a .471 winning percentage and translates to an average season record of 76-86. This is bad, of course, but this isn't *horrible*. It isn't Devil Rays bad, or post-Bonds Pirates bad, or even Brewers bad.
Interestingly, the Cubs had no season of 100 losses during this "streak". The closest they came was in 2000—Don Baylor's first year on the job—when the Cubs went 65-97.
The Cubs had 5 winnings seasons during this stretch. Not for nothing, three of these five winning seasons resulted in trips to the postseason.
I think we should call the years from 1973-2002 the Cubs Suckage Era (CSE). Despite the teams generally being hosed year in and year out, you can make a pretty great team from the parts. My CSE All-Stars (with stats from time spent on the Cubs during these thirty years):
C: Jody Davis (251/313/416, 122 HR)
RP: Lee Smith (644 innings, 180 saves, 2.92 ERA)
I'm tempted to put Andre Dawson in centerfield, but Monday was probably a bit better as a Cub than Dawson, and was a real centerfielder to boot. Yes, Durham was really a first baseman, but I need his underrated offense in the lineup, and Lord knows we don't want him playing first base. Bill Buckner, Keith Moreland, and Ron Cey probably make the bench, but aren't starters on this team. Finally, Steve Trachsel wins the "pitched a lot more than any of us knew" award, and finished this span with the fourth-most innings pitched (1146 IP). But he's Steve Trachsel, worthy of an "ewww" and a yawn, so he's not on my team.
Back-to-back winnings seasons. It's worthy of some champagne-popping. But how about back-to-back trips to the postseason? Would you believe this hasn't happened since—gasp—1908?
Joe Sheehan had an interesting article a couple weeks ago in which he posited that some bad teams appeared to give up towards the end of the year, while others played hard. He had just witnessed the Cubs sweep the Brewers, and was thinking Milwaukee manager Ned Yost and a few select others weren't good at motivating the troops in the dog days:
I can get myself into trouble this way, but I think that it's instructive, in evaluating managers, to look at how their teams approach the season when all hope is lost. I have a lot of problems with Lloyd McClendon's decision-making, but I can honestly say that I don't think the Pirates have mailed in many games under his stewardship. The Devil Rays and the Expos, postseason hopes long gone, always seem to play hard. On the other hand, teams like the White Sox, Diamondbacks, Mets and Rockies always seem like candidates to be blown out at any moment, and not just because the talent isn't there. There's an apathy that shows in their play, a lack of concern for the outcome of an at-bat, an inning or a game.
I've certainly had this feeling about the Brewers, Mets, and Reds, who always seem to be losing—rather easily—to teams in the playoff hunt, so I checked out the records that the following bad NL teams have posted against contenders since mid-Augustish. All of them have losing records, which is to be expected, but I still think you can glean something about the teams through their records.
Since last Saturday, the Giants, Cubs, and Astros have put up an awesome combined record of 20-4. Starting Tuesday, something's gotta give, as the Giants and Astros clash in what may be the most important series for either team yet this year. The Cubs need to take advantage of their simulaneous series with the Pirates while their two top challengers square off.
Over on the right-hand side, as part of the Wild Card standings, is a new column: Odds. These are the odds that the gurus over at Baseball Prospectus give each team for making the postseason. The Cubs have the best numbers among the contenders primarily due to their past performance (they still have the fourth-best "Third Order" run differential in all of baseball) and their upcoming games against some weaker teams. The Giants, while maintaining a 1/2 game lead in the race, have a much tougher road. After they finish their current series with the Brewers, San Fran finishes with fifteen straight games against Wild Card and Division contenders.
Unfortunately, it isn't this easy, and the Cubs still have to play the games. Today's matchup is a doozie. Oliver Perez is putting up the type of year we all expected from Mark Prior. Perez has been the second-toughest guy in the league to hit against (.202 Batting Average Against), has been arguably the game's best strikeout pitcher this season (an MLB-leading 11.18 K/9), and has a neat and tidy 3.01 ERA. He also has a wicked appearance. Cap pulled down low on his head, heavily angled features highlighted by his dark, manicured facial hair. Put another way, Oliver seems to be taking this Pirate thing to heart. He isn't a big guy, though. Perhaps we just expect our firestarter lefties to be lanky giants, but Perez looks shorter to me than his listed 6 feet.
The playoff odds may still swing in the Cubs favor (and despite the incessant roller coaster ride this team puts us through, it still clearly has the most talent of the other Wild Card contenders), but the chances for a sweep of the Pirates are less than a sure thing. Prior stepped it up a bit in his last start, but he may need to call on the ghosts of last season to match his mound opponent in this afternoon's game.
Who you callin' old and past his prime?
It's a busy week at work for me, but it's just business as usual for Greg Maddux. Check out these splits for the last three months:
Wow.RECORD IP BB K ERA
How you lose games
* 18 innings pitched, 5 errors
* 5 unearned runs allowed, though really 7 (due to mysterious non-error call on Patterson-Sosa dropped fly ball)
* 18 innings at the plate, 0 runs scored
* hit into 4 double plays, 2 of the lined-into variety
* 1 walk drawn
* 62 PA, only 225 pitches seen.
* 12 1st pitch outs (which actually accounted for 14 outs, due to two Garciaparra double plays)
When you drop balls, throw to the wrong base, make horrible baserunning mistakes, waste at-bats by refusing to look for a good pitch to hit, and generally look like the 2003 Tigers, you deserve to get booed out of the stadium.
Dusty Baker, when he took over the club, commented that when he was with the Giants you just waited for the Cubs to beat themselves. Dusty, it doesn't look like you and your coaching staff have done an awful lot to change that here, does it?
Marlins (72-63) at Cubs (74-62)
The Cubs and Marlins finally play each other starting today -- they are the only two teams in the same league who haven't yet faced each other this year. Also, I realized that, thanks to the hurricane, the Cubs faced the Expos six straight times -- I wonder if that's ever happened in the regular season before?
Hot 'n' Not:
Grieve vs. Perisho: 7-9, 778/818/2222, 4 HR
Grudzielanek vs. Burnett: 2-12, 167/231/417, 1 HR
Conine vs. Mercker: 7-9, 778/727/1111, 1 HR
Lowell vs. Rusch: 2-23, 087/083/217, 1 HR, 7 K
End of an era
It appears that next year Steve Stone's "Beloved Lugnuts", as he often refers to the Cubs' A-level Lansing club, will be no more. Reports are out that the Cubs will go back to a relationship with the Peoria Chiefs next year.
That's too bad. I thought the Lugnuts were one of the best-named of the minor league clubs.
1) Alex's TV
A painful one-run loss to witness last night. The wind giveth, and last night the Wrigley wind takethed away. Derrek Lee hit a bomb that would normally have ended the game but for a gale that kept the ball at the warning track; an inning later a series of dribblers, bunts, and sacrifice flies put Montreal up for good.
It's one of the drawbacks of having an offense heavily dependent on the home run -- when you're facing something that helps minimize that part of the game (be it a wind or a groundball pitcher), runs are a bit harder to come by. The Cubs were lucky to get six runs in last night's game, half of them due to a series of follies by the Expos in a comic fourth inning.
Greg Maddux goes tonight against former Cubbie prospect Scott Downs, who is 2-5 with a beautiful 7.22 ERA. Will the Cubs make another scrub look like Cy Young? Will the wind play nasty tricksies on game-winning home run balls? Will Alex throw Chinese food containers at the TV if the Astros pass the Cubs in the Wild Card race? Stay tuned...
The Cubs are still undefeated while I'm in Maine. Last time I was up north, the ivy was orange at Wrigley and the Cubs won three straight in the NLCS. This time, no losses but no wins either. No games.
I didn't really know any of this while away, since I had no access to the web and only occasionally check newspaper headlines. Baseball was still all around me, though. As background, I have a bit of the love-hate thing with Red Sox fans. I empathize with their all-too-familiar pain and devotion, but the crowds you see on TV at Fenway and some of the online voices of the Nation can rub me the wrong way. A bit mean, perhaps, for my tastes.
But not in Maine. This is baseball territory like I've never witnessed elsewhere. To say they're Red Sox fans seems a slight, like saying Mario Batali likes to dabble in the kitchen. It isn't that they are raving fanatics that scream and shout at the TV, though I did witness some of that during last year's playoffs. It's just that it seemed baseball was woven into their daily routine. Cook dinner, wash the pots, watch the Red Sox, go to sleep.
*** In the tiny town of Newcastle, I was staying in a bed & breakfast tucked away on a beautiful piece of farmland. The hostess was a big, older woman -- portly may be the word -- who showed me and my companion our room, made some tea, and then cozied up to a small TV in one corner of the house. On the tube, the Red Sox game. I asked her if she was a fan.
Oh yes, she said, startled that I would think otherwise. And you?
I told her I was a fan of the Cubs.
Oh dear, you must be heartbroken. And she turned back to her tea and the game.
*** Another night, another city, a small bar with great - but expensive - seafood on its menu. There were about five people lounging around, not counting the three women manning the tap. Our waitress casually took our order between glances at the TV set up on the counter. Manny was at the plate.
*** Sunday night dinner out in Portland. We splurged on fantastic courses of lamb, duck, and smoked seafood at one of the Northeast's top restaurants, Fore Street. The atmosphere is far from stuffy, with an open air kitchen and relaxed clientele. Still, this was fine dining, so it was with some amusement that the guy manning the wood-burning stove had a baseball cap on, brim backwards. A Sox hat, of course.
There was something about seeing these scenes in Maine that made me extremely happy. The Red Sox are performing wonderfully right now, but this wasn't a scene filled with the braggadocios and snippy bitterness I sometimes associate with the Nation. I felt a certain amount of contentment among the residents in just following their team. Grow up, go to college, watch the Red Sox, and pass away. My Cubs weren't playing, but witnessing the people's care for the game made for a nice substitute.
Guest Column: RJ Johnson (again)
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. RJ Johnson returns with a short note for Cubs fans.
A Public Service Reminder for Cub Fans
A gracious friend of mine, Alan, has become enamored of tournament poker. He was explaining to me some of the little intricacies of how to become the big winner at such things (No, I didn't play him to learn these lessons; like I said, he's gracious). One thing he mentioned is that even if the chip count is hideously skewed at the end of the tourney, if you are one of the last two players at the table you can still win.
"What the heck does this have to do with baseball, the Cubs, or public service for that matter?" Alex and Christian are asking themselves.
Lots of Cub fans are disappointed with this season. Not as disappointed as Astro fans, granted, but still. Injuries to the pitching staff, Todd Hollandsworth, and Aramis Ramirez have, along with the huge disparity in one-run victories between the Cubs and the Cardinals have resulted in the Cubs trailing St. Louis by 15 games as we hit September.
And it doesn't matter.
Thanks to the four-team playoff format, the Cubs are simply working to winnow the other wildcard contenders from the pool. To win the World Series --of baseball or poker-- you have to be one of the last two guys standing. It doesn't matter how you get to that point; simply have to be there.
For reference see last year's Florida Marlins.
So as we head into the final month of the regular season, I encourage Cub fans not to dwell upon the gap between first and second in the NL Central. If the Cubs make the playoffs, that goes away and we get a fresh stack of chips in a seven game series. Regular season records don't count. For reference, see the Oakland A's of the past several seasons and the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
So take a deep breath, realize that since the acquisition of Nomar, the Cubs are averaging 5.7 runs per game (which is pretty damn good), the Cardinals have managed to an annoying 24-14 in one-run games to the Cubs 13-23 record, and await for October and the real staredown to begin.
Guest Column: RJ Johnson
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. Today a column on the big guy in the dugout from RJ Johnson.
Dusty Baker: Manager of the Year
Dusty Baker hates on-base percentage, ignores pitch counts, and cannot figure out how to bring young talent along. Did I leave anything out?
Oh, right: he has an ungodly penchant for preferring Proven Veteran Leaders. Can't leave that one out of the mix.
Baker-bashing seems to have become the favorite hobby of many sabermetrically minded baseball fans. Giants can't win the World Series? Dusty went to his bullpen too soon. Cubs can't clinch the National League pennant? Dusty didn't go to his bullpen soon enough. Given enough time, I'm positive that these same folks will be able to blame Dusty for the Kennedy assassination, global warming, and New Coke.
The Assault on Mount Baker generally follows this progression:
* Dusty doesn't do things according to sabermetric Hoyle.
* Dusty must be some sort of antediluvian throwback doomed to failure.
The only problem with all of it is that Dusty's teams keep on winning.
As much as anyone, I want to grasp the Cubs success in words and theories before the fact. Reading Bill James and "Moneyball" makes me think I can understand successful baseball strategy from a statistical perspective. But our man Dusty seems to happily thumb his nose at folks who swear by sabermetric wisdom.
All while he and his teams keep... on... winning.
Looking at 2003 in hindsight, Dusty must have had some clue what he was doing. For instance, he kept putting the ball in the hands of the best starter. The better the starter the more innings he pitched:
Prior stays at the top because without the DL time, he would've been at around 230 IP.Starter ERA IP
Same thing with the bullpen. The better your ERA, the more appearances you got (although not quite so linear a progression as the starters):
While El Guapo seems close in appearances he also has the highest IP/Appearance number --1.11-- so guess who was being used as mop-up man?Reliever ERA App
Is Dusty trying to do the same thing in 2004? Sure looks like it.
Not quite as clean as '03, but chalk that up to the injuries to Wood and Prior.Starter ERA IP
The bullpen has been more musical chairs this year than last, with injuries to Borowski, Remlinger, and Mercker. This has left Hawkins and Farnsworth as the only two relievers who have been healthy full-time. And even Dusty's patience has worn thin with Farnsie, but only because his August has been execrable with a 16.20 ERA for the month. From May through July Farnsworth had a 2.63 ERA over 42 appearances, reason enough to use him. [NOTE: the preceding paragraph was written before Kyle blew up for 6 ER in the 7-15 loss to the Astros.]
So, Dusty apparently has the ability to know which pitchers to use even if he doesn't have a nifty theory to explain it all. What about his hitters?
Well, again Dusty seems to be going by the notion of the best guys get the most time, even down to bench deployment. Here are the top guys in plate appearances and their OPS, again note the nearly linear progression.
The two biggest anomalies here are Aramis Ramirez, who lost time due to his groin injury, and Corey Patterson, who was looking rather pedestrian for the first half of the season, bouncing around the lineup:Player PA OPS
Let's face it we all scratched our heads when Dusty named Patterson the Cubs' leadoff hitter in the wake of the Nomar acquisition. Yet here's his August to-date:April 820 OPS
Aug 1140 OPS !!!!!
This includes 12 multi-hit games, five of which took place in Chavez Ravine and Petco Park, neither of which is hitter friendly.
What did Dusty see in Patterson that made him think he might thrive in the leadoff spot? Damned if I know, but apparently Dusty had some inkling and was willing to back it.
Dusty uses the Lemons in a similar fashion. Last year, Tom Goodwin was a surprisingly good contributor off the pine getting 184 PA to generate a 691 OPS (not great but certainly better than Doug Glanville's utterly anemic 556). This year, Tom has dropped down to Glanville's neighborhood --565 OPS-- and so have his PAs (down to 91) which are fewer than Jose Macias and his *cough* robust 664 OPS (155 PAs). But wouldn't we like to see [fill in the blank] supersub instead? But the Cubs don't have him, and so Dusty has to make the best use of the pieces he has.
Did I hear someone say, "Rey Ordonez and Neifi Perez"? Yeah, they both suck offensively, no doubt about it. But consider the circumstances: Ramon Martinez is playing everyday and wearing out; the Cubs have been winning because of pitching more so than offense at that point, so Hendry gets Dusty the part he wants: a defensive shortstop. To Dusty's credit, Ordonez got all of only 67 PAs. Neifi is in Iowa in case Nomar's Achilles tendon or wrist goes bad and we are looking at more Martinez. Some folks --myself one of them-- often echo Davey Johnson's old quote, "Defense is for when you're ahead." But Dusty wants his pitchers to know the defense behind them can turn a double play at any time and remembering some of the more statue-like Cub infields of years past --think Cey and Bowa in 1985-- I won't fault him for his preference.
Especially as it seems to be working.
As of August 25th's 4-2 victory over the Brewers Dusty Baker now has a career .548 winning percentage; if this year's WP holds he would finish his first two years at 178-146. Dusty would be the first since Charlie Grimm in 1945 and 46 to have winning seasons in his first two years as Cubs manager and the first since Joe McCarthy in 1926 & 27 to have winning records in both years and to increase his win total in the second season.
Dusty's winning and it steams Stathead Nation because he's Not Doing It According To Plan. Dusty seems to be winning because he does have a plan--unknown and unknowable though it may be to outside observers before the fact-- because he has a better grasp of how to motivate and communicate with everyone on his team --contrast Dusty getting Sammy Sosa to drop down in the batting order with Don Baylor's inept declarations when he came to town of how Sammy was going to steal more bases-- and because he has a loyalty to his players that is neither foolish nor reflexive (again, compare Tom Goodwin '03 to '04). Maybe what Baker is doing doesn't show up in an abstract about OPS and Markov Chains, but it keeps showing up in the win column.
And that's good enough for me.
Guest Column: Brian Gunn
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. While we may peer up at Brian Gunn and Cardinal fans everywhere like they're the Evil Eye of Sauron, there's no disputing that Brian's work at Redbird Nation is some of the best in baseball blogging. TCR is more than happy to offer him some room for his thoughts.
Cubmania: An Outsider's Perspective
When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, I watched tons of Cubs games on WGN, just like a lot of kids around the country. I was aware of the longstanding rivalry between the Cubs and my hometown team, the Cardinals, but it was hard to hate the Northsiders in those days. Maybe it was Harry Caray's boozy drawl, or the way TribCo ran the franchise like a charming podunk outfit, or the parade of bumbling fools like Scot Thompson and Ivan DeJesus, or perhaps it was all those throwback daytime games—whatever it was, something about the club always struck me as clownish and congenial, like maybe one of your dorky uncles.
But the current team down at Wrigley Field isn't your uncle's Cubs, or your father's Cubs, or even your older brother's Cubs. They're neither clownish nor congenial. Instead, they're just plain mean.
Now, understand that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. You want your team to be dogged and gritty and ready to play. But that doesnít make them any less mean. Just in the past year alone we've had the following skirmishes:
Zambrano vs. Edmonds, Baker vs. La Russa, Barrett vs. Oswalt, Wood vs. Oswalt, Wood vs. Kent, Wood vs. Eric Cooper, Alfonseca vs. Justin Klemm, Zambrano vs. Craig Wilson, Baker vs. McClendon, Remlinger vs. Berkman, Barrett vs. Morris, Wood vs. Morris, Zambrano vs. Ward, Hawkins vs. Tschida, Baker vs. Garner, Farnsworth vs. a cooling fan, and Prior vs. Kline.
Like the Bill Laimbeer Pistons, the Cubs seem determined to piss off every team in the league. But it isn't just the mood on the field that's changed. The mood in the stands seems different, too. To my eyes anyway. I haven't been to a game at Wrigley in years, but last time I was there, in the mid-1990s, it was more of a party or, as Tom Pagnozzi once referred to the Cards-Cubs rivalry, "more of a beer-drinking series."
Not anymore. Every time I watch a game on WGN, the urgency-level seems to be on permanent orange alert. I first noticed it last September, when Kerry Wood buzzed a fastball at Matt Morris' ear and damn near half the place erupted in cheers. Again this past July, Carlos Zambrano knocked Jim Edmonds on his ass and the place went bananas.
But it's not just the dark stuff. The fans seem to hang on every pitch, ready to burst into paroxysms of joy. A few days ago the joint let out a deafening roar when a Cubs batter worked the count to 3-1 (although that may say more about the Cubs' ability to draw walks than anything else). And last Sunday the fans leapt to their feet in exultation at what turned out to be a loud foul from Moises Alou. The score was 10-3 at the time.
It doesn't really matter the situation or the score—whether it's booing Sosa after an off-week or two, or bringing down the house after another barrage of Cubby home runs—the impression you get is that this is the Cubs' historical moment, the year they see all their hopes and dreams vanish, or the year they finally release 90-some-odd years of pent-up longing. If nothing else it's good melodrama, the guys' version of daytime soaps.
Some have said this tightly-wound act is exactly what ails the Cubs. Just the other day a Cub fan friend of mine said, "They're a team with no even keel, no leader. Dusty Baker should be that guy, but he only makes things worse." Other people have claimed there's a relationship between the mood at Cubs games and their recent shoddy play in the field and on the basepaths, as if they're hyper-amped, trying to do too much too quickly. (A recent subhead on ESPN.com made this relationship explicit: "Cubs lose their cool and the game.")
But personally I don't think this is much of a problem for the Cubs. The team may be mean, even downright irritating to the opposition, but I think it's good for the franchise. They've transformed themselves from a bunch of Mondales and McGoverns into something less multilateral and more threatening. And besides, it's not like you can't win amid tension and acrimony—just look at the Mustache Gang A's, or the Bronx Zoo Yankees, or the '86 Mets. All mean, all winners.
In fact, I've even got a little secret: there are times I wish my hometown of St. Louis were less polite about things. Folks down at Busch Stadium pride themselves on being loyal and respectful—not all of them, of course, but most. It's the type of place where the crowd might give a standing O to an opponent who hits a tape-measure home run, as they did for Mo Vaughn last year. (Jesus, was Big Mo really hitting home runs as recently as last year?) Donít get me wrong—I love the fans at Busch; I even love their civility. But a bit of hooliganism isnít always a bad thing.
The really odd thing is that the roles of Cardinals fans and Cubs fans are the exact opposite of what I would have guessed before the season started. Last year most pundits picked the Cards to win yet another division title, and Cub fans got to laugh at all the wrongheaded predictions. This year it's the reverse—it's Cardinals fans demanding recognition. And for years and years Cubs fans accused Cardinals fans of arrogance, of lording their superiority over their neighbors to the North (Billy Corgan went on Chicago radio not too long ago and referred to all us St. Louisans as "fat arrogant Republicans," or something like that). But now whenever anyone badmouths the Cardinals—and I'm sure you've heard the gibes, if not started a few of 'em, about the Cards so-called weak starting pitching and so forth—then it's Cardinals fans who are quick to accuse the Cubby fans of unwarranted arrogance and swagger.
All in all it's a weird time for this rivalry—both sides peeved, pissed, cocky, wounded, hopeful, doubtful. I don't think one side will be able to claim ultimate victory, though, unless or until they Go All the Way. And I have a feeling that, come October, one team might have to go through the other to do it. Talk about melodrama...
Guest Column: The Hawk
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. His identity shrouded in secrecy, TCR reader "The Hawk" lugs his cannon arm in from right field to sing the praises of a fellow outfielder.
The day was August 1st, G.
Mad Dog going for 300? Check.
Nomar's first day on Clark? Check.
But that all ainít stink... ain't why we're here... one strike left... onto more important things...
Dim the lights... Music...
Corey Patt, SuperStar,
Hell yeah. I like that "C" on the Cubbiesí hats... Corey. August 1st it started, Corey.
The Patterson Express did 3 for 4 OBP, G. Leadoff Man. Okay, so my boy got hit by a pitch... He wasnít asking for it, those hurt. And still, 3 of 4, leadoff man. Auspicious this day was... harbinger, fooí. August 1st it started, and it didnít stop. Letís go to Colorado, shall we?
How about 7 for 16 OBP with 2 Dongs, blood? One jack looked like it was shot out a cannon... medieval, G. The folks in Denver cried "Mercy"... Clint Hurdle said, "Well, I was looking forward the them coming to town. Now Iím looking forward to them leaving." Clint, Corey will be back, and no bases are safe. And it didn't stop...
San Francisco's got the Golden Gate Bridge, Sourdough Bread, Alcatraz, The Wine Country, and McCovey Cove, where Barry Bonds casts his jacks on a regular basis. Most mortals don't make it the Cove... Barry does. Occasionally a mortal does do it, but not a whole lot who clock in at 5í9, 180lbs. Corey launched a ball to right center and sent it swimming with the fishes. Now thatís a jack, jack. Bare in mind, most "Splash Hits" at SBC Park, of which there are so few, go to dead right or down the line. Corey killed that ball, a good bit center of dead right. Only Barryís done the same. And it didn't stop...
Home sweet home followed, Wrigley Field. Well, not quite sweet... the Padres made us look bad. But not the Patterson Express. Try 10 for 15 OBP with a jack on for size. Then the Dodgers made us look bad. But not the Patterson Express. How about 5 for 13 OBP with a jack?
Oh, we're just gettin' started, dog. It didn't stop...
The cities of Milwaukee and Houston are crying, "Please, we can fly, rent a car, take a train, a boat... anything but the Patterson Express."
How about August 18, Miller Park. Our bullpen did its best to keep Clement's record below .500. Dude outduels Ben "Egyptian Cotton" Sheets just to watch it slip away. Meanwhile, Corey thinks, "Oh, Iíll do 2 for 5, stolen base" score two runs... before the 11th inning." Most of us have Car Insurance, dog. Well, the Cubs have "Core Insurance." Two Run Jack, fooí... game, set, match. On to Houston.
Minute Maid Orange Juice claims to help people with their cardiovascular well being... but when the Patterson Express comes to the Juice Box, the locals feel nothing but heartache. 7 for 15, man... 4 stolen bases, 4 runs, a jack, and 3 RBIís. Word. Now blood, you know it didn't stop...
Home again Home again... C-Diggity Patt. Oh, Milwaukee again? 7 of 14 OBP, the Cubs floss the brooms. Sweet. And we wonít soon forget, about a week back... "Youíre in good hands with C-Patt." Core Insurance. Bottom of the 9th, two outs... no sweat, General Patton's Battin'. Goodbye Milwaukee, see you next year.
As for Houston, dog, Iíd rather not talk about it. They got some revenge on us, foo'. All year, we displayed some mad disregard for their home turf. Plus, we won the season series. F Ďem. Back to my boy...
Let's review this month of August, G. Originally named for Augustus Caesar, Hail Corey, blood, it's been his month:
That's right, 1.018 OPS. 8 HRs, 18 RBIs, 12 SBs, 22 Runs.
Corey Patt, SuperStar...
Oh, and please donít forget... my boyís flashing all sorts of leather and gold. Catching anything in sight, running down everything, and throwing out suckers at home plate and elsewhere. This is the total package, G. 6 Tools.
Hey Baylor, Oddibe McWho? Try Don McFoo'. Peace.
Guest Column: Derek Smart
Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. Derek Smart, a man who lives up to his surname, has kindly taken time from his musings on The Big Red C to provide TCR readers with some thoughts. Ed: This column was written before yesterday's drubbing at the hands of Les Expos, but its thesis holds true.
Standards and Practices
That was pretty much my standard outing right there. I get myself in trouble and get out of it. Early in the season, I wasn't getting out of it.
Ah, how easily I'm transported to fits of picking nits. See, the quote above was one of those things I read and instantly thought of as a statement made by someone too close to the action, basing their conclusion on purely anecdotal evidence, or the bits and pieces of memory that float to the top. We all do this to some extent—from fairly innocuously deciding we don't like someone based on our first five seconds of interaction, to more dangerously voting for a political candidate due to the appeal of their television sound bites. The same sort of things happen in baseball.
"Player A hit a home run to win the game. Player A is clutch."
While not a big deal in the grand scheme, these sort of blanket statements nearly always rile the contrarian in me, and Prior's quote is no exception. In this case, there are three assertions I'm inclined to examine: 1) That Prior's "standard" outings are marked by an outsized and consistent ability to keep baserunners from scoring, 2) that he had particular issues with keeping runners from scoring early in the season, and 3) that he has recently begun to turn that trend around.
Point one would eventually require me to deal with proving or disproving the existence of a skill called clutch pitching, and I have neither the mathematical nor analytical skills to tackle that monster. If you want an image of what such an attempt would look like, think of Harry Caray circa 1996 having to call a double play that went from Garciaparra to Grudzielanek to Hollandsworth......backward. ("Arrapaicrag ot Kenaleizdurg, Kenaleizdurg ot Htrowsdnalloh! Elbuo...Elb...ahhh, screw it, Steve! Double Play!") Besides, my choices of made-up baseball quotes should tell you where I fall on that issue.
It just doesn't seem right to beg off the issue all together for so paltry a reason as gross incompetence. So despite my better judgment, let's play a little amateur detective and take a quick and dirty look at what Prior's done in his career. Just pretend like you're in the booth with Harry, and put on your poncho:
Well, for starters, Prior seems to be able to keep runners from scoring at a rate that's at least marginally better than the league, but there's not a lot of consistency to be found between seasons, and that's about all we can tell. Truth be told, he doesn't have a long enough career to properly get after this. I mean, there's small sample size, and then there's small sample size. I think we need a proxy.
Who to pick, though? He should be good. In fact, he should display a level of excellence that would make us assume he would show this ability, and he should come with a reputation to match. I don't know... how does Pedro Martinez sound?
I'll tell you what I see, then you can decide if I'm nuts.
Based on this extremely limited peek (perhaps all super-amateur, ultra-small sample size studies should be called "peeks" from now on), it appears that there is some evidence that pitchers can make it less likely that runners they let take a base will score by limiting the total number of runners they let reach (a self-evident idea, in the same way that hitting for a high average in general makes you more likely to hit for a high average with RISP), but that low Runners/9 doesn't guarantee you a low Scoring % (quickie example: in 2003, Greg Maddux only allowed 10.96 Runners/9, but saw them score 42.11% of the time!).
In other words, while he may be The Franchise, Prior doesn't appear to have a magical skill that keeps baserunners from scoring, beyond his ability to keep men off base in general - and even that's no assurance of a low Scoring %. This is far from conclusive, and not even worthy of the label "study," but what I've seen here implies that clutch pitching doesn't exist (which doesn't necessarily mean that its opposite doesn't, and yes, I'm looking at you, Kyle Farnsworth!).
But we still have two more questions to answer, and I think this breakdown of Prior's first fifteen games will go a long way toward getting us there:
Wow! Prior's first five games look pretty normal for him, but look at those middle five. Sure, allowing nearly thirteen Runners/9 isn't exactly the work of The Franchise, but having nearly 50% of your baserunners score is an ungodly kind of bad luck. For some perspective, no pitcher with at least 100 IP in 2003 had a Scoring % that high, and that includes guys like Colby Lewis who allowed nearly seventeen Runners/9 (Lewis gave up 16.87 Runners/9 and 43.70% scored)! The answer to the question of whether Prior went through a period where he had issues with excessive numbers of runners scoring looks to be an emphatic, "Yes."
So does the answer to the question of whether he's turned that around. In games 11-15, Prior allowed a whopping 16.20 Runners/9, but managed to keep the wolf from the door by allowing a paltry 27.45% of them to bring it on home. That's a truly remarkable performance, and he deserves a lot of credit for being able to prevent all those men who reached from hurting him, but even at that Scoring %, that many runners allowed means nearly four and a half runs per game, and that's not what we've come to expect from our young phenom.
It appears that Prior has been both a victim and beneficiary of luck this year. He had some stretches where an abnormally large number of runners scored, and some where the rate of homecoming was lower than you'd expect. But if there's one thing that's clear to me after this little stroll through the stats, it's that we've yet to see The Franchise that this franchise needs to get to the promised land.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com