MLB…The Sky Is Not Falling.

Sometimes I have a little too much time on my hands, and with the excess time, I will occasionally visit the team chatrooms of MLB clubs, just to read the various chatter coming from them. I have been doing this for a few seasons now, and every spring, the same thing just jumps off the pages at me. It is the proclamation of ‘The sky is falling! We are going to be terrible this year! We can’t pitch! The guys are not hitting! They raised the price of hot dogs! We’re DOOMED!’ Really?? Okay, let’s jump in the pool…
First off, we are two weeks into Spring Training! If teams are worried about winning these all-important exhibition games, perhaps they need to re-focus. Believe it or not, spring training is NOT about winning games! It is about getting things working again. It is about players getting into ‘game shape’. It is irrelevant how rigorous or passive a players’ offseason training regimen is, game tempo is different. Players need to adjust to that atmosphere.
Second of all, players are actually working on things such as timing and technique. It is during spring training that players and teams are working out their double-play sets. Players are working on skills such as bunting, stealing, hit-and-run, and many other things. Pitchers are focusing on things like pitch location and getting their ‘stuff’ working. Spring training is the time to work on the correct execution of skills and plays. Sometimes when you are simply working on things, there will be failures, and these failures will translate into losses. It doesn’t matter, because spring training games do not count in the regular season standings. I find it hilarious how people are getting crazy because their team is getting beat at this time of year. It-does-not-matter…
Next, the regular-season starters see only limited action in spring training. For example, a pitcher will not be pushed to 7 or 8 innings in the spring. He might go 2 or 3 innings, and as spring progresses, he will slowly be stretched to go longer. Nobody wants to get their regular season line-up hurt in a game that means nothing. It does happen, but it is hopefully kept to a minimum.
Lastly, we have the young prospects hoping to make a club. These guys are the ones who seem to give maximum effort all the time. Why? Because they have to! These players are hoping to catch the eye of the coaching staff and evaluators. This is why in a relatively large percentage of spring training games, the guys who are on highlight reels are players that you have never heard of. We have to remember that most of these guys are going to be sent down to AA or AAA ball in a few weeks, but the team wants to see what they have down on the farm. Spring training is the time to do that. Conversely, these are young players going up against other minor leaguers. Take from that what you will, but there are precious few AA hitters who are going to be taking Clayton Kershaw over the wall…
So, my friends, if your team is getting hammered in spring training games, try to keep it in perspective. A World Series was never won in a spring game in Vero Beach FL or Surprise, AZ, so relax. It is only spring training. The sky is not falling. The games that count are still a few weeks away.


MLB…More Arm Issues

I am starting to feel like I am a jinx, and that this is somehow my fault. Yesterday’s column ‘Arm Issues’ addressed the alarming frequency of arm injuries among major league pitchers during MLB Spring Training 2015. Almost as soon as I posted my article, I heard about a few more candidates for trips to the disabled list. This is kind of proving my point…
First of all, we have an update on Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies. It turns out that he may not require Tommy John surgery. His diagnosis is a torn flexor tendon, and he said that he would try to pitch through the injury, however the team is not optimistic, and they fear that Lee will need surgery, and that surgery may be career ending.
Now to the rest of the updates on the rash of arm injuries…Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) has a torn ACL and is gone for the season. Gavin Floyd (Cleveland Indians) has reinjured the elbow that had a stress fracture last season that put an early end to his 2014 campaign. Mike Minor (Atlanta Braves) has an inflamed rotator cuff. Jacob Turner (Chicago Cubs) has a mild flexor strain and a bone bruise.
Get better soon, guys!

MLB…Arm Issues.

If you have been paying attention to 2015 Spring Training, you will see that Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers is having a little bit of elbow discomfort. The injury that Darvish has is being described by the team is an elbow sprain. It seems that this term on many occasions morphs in to a UCL injury (ulnar collateral ligament), and very rarely does it have any other outcome than Tommy John surgery. The outlook for the Texas Rangers was not good to begin with, and now with their ace most assuredly gone for the season, it has become dismal. Anyway, I was thinking about the amount of pitchers that are succumbing to UCL injuries, and asked myself if the frequency of this particular injury is now higher than it was 10 or 20 years ago? It certainly seems that way. In the past few seasons we have seen this injury to Matt Harvey, Joel Hanrahan, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, and now Darvish along with several others. Why? Is it because today’s pitchers are bigger with different mechanics? Is it because they throw harder with what is termed as ‘maximum effort’ on every pitch? Is it because most pitchers have been at it for a long time, from the time that they were kids thru the time that their arms simply just let go? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these factors…

My point of all of this is not to get into the weeds of the bio-mechanics of cause and effect. It is more the simple question of what, if anything, can be done to diminish the frequency of this plague-like injury? I am not a doctor ( and no, I do not play on on TV either…), so I really don’t have an answer. Would limiting a pitchers work in the off-season or spring training be helpful? Darvish had done only minimal work in spring training this season, and now he is gone. I do not think that overwork is the issue here. Players have off-season conditioning programs which are generally effective, but in the case of these injured players, not so much.

In the case of the Texas Rangers, they will lose one pitcher, but he was their ace, and the one thing that they could have hung their hat on this season. We probably not see him again until mid-2016. That is going to be a long drought in Arlington Texas. What did the loss of Matt Harvey (Mets) and Jose Fernandez (Marlins) mean to their teams? In the long run, if MLB keeps losing it’s marquee players, they are going to want to do something to protect the product. The question again is ‘what’? I am hopeful that somehow it will get figured out. Players are having their careers dramatically altered, if not ended by UCL injuries. I would like to think that we have some of the best training methods and best sports doctors in the world. Surely they would have some input.

I wish the best for Yu Darvish, and going forward, any other player who suffers a UCL or any other injury. I understand all too well that it is part of the game. My hope is that there will be an answer to the question of injury reduction.

MLB…The Numbers Game

To all of you who thought that this article was going to be about player salaries, I am sorry to disappoint you, but it is not. This particular rant is about the retirement of uniform numbers in baseball. On the surface, it seems that this would be a fairly benign subject, but I wanted to examine it a little more closely.
Over the course of MLB history, there have been 179 players who have had their uniform numbers retired, and some of them by more than one team. I used several sources, including The Baseball Almanac and Wikipedia to source my data, so unless I got all cross-eyed during my count, I believe that it is accurate. The breakdown is that there have been 77 players in the American League, and 102 players in the National League to have been honored in this way. I have also included the numbers of managers and team executives, such is in the case of the then Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins) assigning #5 to team executive Carl Barger, and then retiring the number. As you have probably surmised, the New York Yankees lead everyone in this category with 16 retired numbers, while the St. Louis Cardinals lead the National League with 12. There 10 players/managers who have had their numbers retired by more than one team, and there is only one player (Jackie Robinson #42) that has had his number retired by the entirety of Major League Baseball.
I want to take a look at a few questions that I have, and that you may have as well about this business of retiring a uniform number. It is the highest honor that a team can bestow on a player. It says that ‘You were so great, that no one else can ever fill your shoes, so we are going to retire your number so that no one can ever wear it again.’ If no one can ever fill his shoes, why don’t they just retire his shoes? They could do a nice bronze job, and then display them in the Team Museum… All kidding aside, the retirement of uniform numbers does present an interesting dilemma, and it only multiplies with the retirement of more numbers. I am going to pick on the New York Yankees (I am a Red Sox fan, so it is my birthright…), because they best illustrate my point. When the Yankees retired the #2 uniform number of Derek Jeter after last season, the Yankees became the first team in the history of any professional sport to run out of single digit uniform numbers that could be issued to a player. The list goes #1-Billy Martin, #2-Derek Jeter, #3-Babe Ruth, #4-Lou Gehrig, #5-Joe DiMaggio,# 6- Joe Torre,# 7-Mickey Mantle, #8-Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey and,# 9-Roger Maris. I am also going to throw in the #10 of Phil Rizzuto. Are you still with me? Okay. The Yankees recently announced that they are set to retire the numbers of ‘the next generation of Yankee greats’, which includes Andy Pettitte (#46), Jorge Posada (#20), and Bernie Williams (#51). That will give the Yankees a total of 19 retired uniform numbers. That is a lot of retired numbers, isn’t it? I know that the Yankees want to be at the top of the world in everything, but does that also include this? At some point, you have to start asking yourself about when will the Yankees run out of uniform numbers below, say #30? This season, if all goes as planned, the Yankees will have retired 14 of the first 30 numbers that exist in the numerical alphabet. Now, the Yankees can do whatever they want to honor their players, and if they want to retire everybody’s number, it is their right to do so. I have to wonder what they will do when, after the next generation or two of ‘Yankee greats’ retire, they simply run out of uniform numbers 1-99. Will the Yankees become the first team in the history of any professional sport to issue the first three-digit uniform number? Look, Mr. Steinbrenner, another way to be first!
Let me throw this out there…I understand that the retiring of a uniform number is a singular honor, but I think that a better tribute is shown in a ‘Ring of Honor’ in a ballpark. Also, the Yankees have a great idea with Monument Park beyond the outfield wall. Almost all other MLB teams now have something like this, be it in a Stadium Club, or a team museum, or something along those lines. My thought is that many people don’t know from uniform numbers, but they do recognize names. Also, what about the baseball greats who played before uniforms had numbers on them? They can’t have their number retired, so what is a fitting tribute to them? These are my thoughts on the numbers game. I would like to hear some of your ideas on this, too.

MLB…Open Minded

MLB…Open Minded.
I will say this… Newly minted MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has come in to his new job with his ideas going off like fireworks. You may love his ideas, or you may hate his ideas, at least he is open-minded enough to consider options regarding the development of Major League Baseball in to a better, more fan-friendly product.
I have already shared my thoughts on his idea about shrinking the strike zone (Honey, I Shrunk the Strike Zone, February 20th, 2015). SPOILER ALERT: This is a bad idea… But Commissioner Manfred also has an idea about decreasing the number of regular-season games from the current 162, back down to the pre-1961 standard of 154 games. I know that people are screaming about what a bad idea this is, but let’s slow down and consider it for a minute. Is it really such a bad idea? On its’ face, it would seem that the reduction of 8 games per team/per season would hurt team revenue as far as gate receipts are concerned, and In the short term it might. There would be 8-less games of parking revenue, ticket sales, beer and food sales, team merchandise sales, and so on. But there would also be 8-less games of travel, meaning 8-less days of hotel rooms, decreased travel demands, and everything associated with the logistics of a traveling baseball team. I don’t believe that the loss of revenue would be as great as it sounds, and it may perhaps even be a wash. In the case of some teams, the loss of 8 games at the end of a season could even be looked at as kind of a ‘mercy killing’. When a team is out by 25 games with only 8 games left to play, it can be painful for the team as well as the fans to endure. For the very-out-of-the-race teams, it is 8-less games of keeping the lights on for games that nobody shows up to. The team would save on the salaries of hourly stadium workers, and all the costs associated with that. Factor in also the diminished risk of player injuries in games that don’t mean anything. There are probably a lot more things that I have not touched upon, but if you are getting the feeling that I might be in favor of a regular-season schedule with 8-less games on it, perhaps I am…
The trade-off is that we may not be playing a World Series in November, which I am TOTALLY in favor of. The playoffs could also see a change, as it has been suggested to eliminate the one-game Wild Card playoff, and make it into a short series. I really like that idea. Everything in baseball is about a series, and the playoffs should not be any different. He also offered that the number of playoff teams could be expanded, which also could be a good thing.
I like that Commissioner Manfred is approaching the game with an open mind. He is looking at everything, and not just simply eliminating ideas out-of-turn. He is listening. He is thinking. I like that..

MLB…Have We Opened Pandora’s Box?

The other day, the Boston Red Sox won the courtship of young Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox have signed Moncada for a staggering $31.5M dollars, which after the MLB penalty for going over their foreign player exception, will cost them $63M dollars. That is a princely sum of money for a kid who has never played one inning, even the minor league system, here in the United States…
I had asked a few weeks ago if the thaw in the frosty diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba might lead to the floodgates being flung open for Cuban prospects to be able to play in the United States? I can’t say for sure, but even though players have been trickling in for the past few years anyway, the answer is probably ‘yes’. Recently, players such as Yasiel Puig, Rusney Castillo, Yasmani Grandal, and several others have made their way on to the American baseball landscape, and I believe that there are many more to come. Historically, Cuban payers such as Minnie Minoso, Leo Cardenas, Sammy Sosa, and Luis Tiant come to mind…
According to Baseball, there have been 61 Major League baseball players born in Japan, 15 were from South Korea, while number of players born in Cuba total 186. While the amount of players from Japan really has not seen a dramatic influx, and an uptick in Korean ballplayers has not happened yet, there could be a veritable tidal wave of Cuban players coming to the United States, and I do not necessarily think that this is a bad thing. If we want to keep MLB as the premier baseball product on the world stage, then we need to have the best players playing here. This has become a larger issue over the past few years, as baseball is being forsaken by young athletes today for football and basketball. I am hopeful that MLB initiatives like ‘RBI” (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) will be successful in bringing the young athletes back into the baseball fold. Until then, we will need to recruit from the best talent pools in the world, and among the best is on the island of Cuba. Yes, Puerto Rico, Central America, Korea, and Japan also have vast talent, but for now we are sticking with Cuba.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of Yoan Moncada. I wish him the best, and I think it will be very intriguing to see what happens with a potential influx of Cuban baseball talent on American baseball fields.

MLB…Honey, I Shrunk the Strike Zone!

Here it is! The latest, greatest solution to the issue of diminished run production since, well…ever! The Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball now presents the new, improved shrinking strike zone! It sounds like a bad, late-night infomercial, right? When I first heard the news that MLB was considering this, I was a bit skeptical. But then I had a little time to reflect, and here are my thoughts on it. I am going to take the scenic route, so stay with me….
Over the last few years, we have watched strikes get called on pitches that, let’s just say are not even close. Since when does a sweeping curveball that misses the plate by six inches and is at a height somewhere between a batter’s kneecaps and the tops of his shoelaces constitute a called strike? That is not how I learned the game. This issue is a particular irritant to me because I was a catcher, and I actually started off my baseball life as a pitcher. Take from that what you will. I was either such a wonderful pitcher that they decided that I would be better off as a catcher, or I had an insight into pitching that would go on to serve me well as a catcher, and later as a coach. I will take the latter. My point is that I know what a strike looks like, and that ain’t it…
The MLB rule that constitutes what is a strike is defined as ‘… that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball’ (MLB Official Rule Book, 2014 Edition, Rule 2.00, Definition of Terms). The rule book even has a very nice picture of a left-handed batter getting ready to take his hacks. To some degree, this rule is not being followed by MLB umpires, and it gets more convoluted on a season-by-season basis. ESPN has ‘K-Zone’, and this tool illustrates my point quite nicely.
I understand the argument about the ‘human element’ of officiating. I even agree with the point about game officials in any sport having the right to use discretion (the ‘in the neighborhood rule’ as far as turning a double-play goes, the first down marker in football, and so on). The discretion of the game officials has been accepted since the game was born, and while there is room for it, when the rule is just episodically ignored, there is a problem…
And now to my point…This whole discussion is centered upon some perception of diminished run production. Let’s be real. The casual fan is certainly more interested in seeing a game with lots of offense and higher run totals, whereas most purists appreciate the value of good pitching and solid defense. The question is which one of these is more entertaining for the average fan? Is it more exciting to see a game with a 10-9 score, or a defensive gem that ends with a 2-1 final score? What makes for higher ticket revenues and better television viewership? What will bring back the fans that have abandoned baseball for something with more, for lack of a better term, excitement? The answer, in the opinion of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is RUNS! I had made a statement in an article a few weeks ago about nobody paying good money for a ticket to see David Ortiz hit an easy grounder to second base and get thrown out by a mile. The fans that paid for that ticket want to see David Ortiz smash the cover off a ball that lands somewhere in the Triangle of Fenway Park. And what is one way to generate a potential for more base-runners, and therefore a potential for more runs? Shrink the strike zone. I get it. But before MLB pulls the trigger on a rule change, why don’t they simply enforce the rule that is already in place? There is  technology available to help umpires get the calls right (K-Zone?).
To close, I am overwhelmingly against the shrinking of the strike zone. There is no need to change a rule that, when it is properly called, works perfectly well. To change this rule for the sake of higher run production is a slippery slope. If we change this basic rule, what is to prevent MLB from saying, for the sake of the run production, that batters will now get four strikes? Maybe only three balls will constitute a walk? Maybe they will lower the height of the pitcher’s mound again? It is simply a bad idea. Overall, umpires do a good job. When they enforce the rules that already exist, the strike zone issue, and the runs per game issue will solve itself.