Saturday, April 10, 2004

Strange Days Indeed

OK, what the hell is going on? The Devil Rays, Tigers, Reds, and Dodgers are in first place. The Mariners are winless. The closer one looks, the weirder the first week of baseball has been. Griffey is healthy. Hollandsworth ripped Smoltz's spacesuit. Monkeys are flying out of our collective baseball ass.

Where will all this madness lead? I see it like this: bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the world series with the game tied. Ugie's sweating bullets on the mound and Mac gets a funny hunch. Brazenly he signals for Randall Simon, sweating bullets on third base, to steal home. Simon takes off, only to be beat by 30 feet by Ugie's 92 MPH heater. Pudge stands up to block the plate for the tag and Simon knows what he has to do. Randall lowers his shoulder and checks Pudge out of his cleats, disloding the ball and icing a Bucco championship. Pirates 12, Tigers 11. Jack Wilson lifts Randall up onto his shoulders, mobbed in a sea of jubilant black and gold. Hundreds of miles away, Phil Luckett chokes on a hot wing. Hey, it could happen...

Or not, but hey the Bucs don't look as bad as most projected. Wells and Vogelsong got on the good foot, as have Kendall, C. Wilson, and Redman. Mesa's been perfect! Too bad we play the AL West this year, I'd love to see Mesa buzz Vizquel's tower for old times' sake. Hmmm, how about a Bucs-Injuns World Series?

Charging the mound

Just caught Joe Gennaro's glorious Pirate round. Highly recommended. Here's a slug:
The Bucs, deciding that last year’s retreads weren’t cutting it, brought in three head cases to intimidate batters, if not actually pitch to them. Mesa has never shied away from pitching inside and by his own admonition will gun for players he doesn’t care for. Mike Johnston has Tourette’s syndrome and describes throwing at a batter’s head as “buzzing the tower.” Not colorful enough? How about Jason Boyd who smashed a beer bottle in a guy’s face last year (at a bar, not a game). It’s like the Pirates signed the Penguins 4th line to pitch in the late innings. I’m seriously wondering whether to take an over/under on how many times a batter’s going to charge the mound against one of these guys.
Gotta love that Johnston quote. When I read about Johnston's Tourette's, I wondered what effect some occasional rapid eye blinking might have on hitters.

We'll keep a running count of the mound chargings. That should be a fantasy category: number of times your player charges the mound and/or gets charged.

More on taking pitches

Go read Bryan's answer (scroll down) to my question about taking pitches. He's persuasive. Obviously he knows what he's talking about. He plays ball at the California JuCo level and works for the Brewers organization.

He often mentions how much starting with an 0-1 count works against the hitter. I wondered about starting with a 1-0 count but he addresses that when he concedes it might make sense to go up with an automatic take in mind if a pitcher isn't getting the ball over the plate.

I'm no fan of automatic takes so maybe I'm too easily persuaded. It smacks of losing to win - of out-"smarting" yourself.

When Brady Clark comments on the Brewers taking more pitches this year and being patient, he could be telling the public what he's learned they want to hear. To some extent most interview comments fall into the "we're going to give 110%" category. We could know more about what big-league players honestly think of various sabermetric principles.

Bucs grumble Josh grumble Fogg grumble

Ugh, grrr, and grumble. How many mulligans do you give Josh Fogg? We already know he's a 30-tater starter. At some point his early-season irregularity looks a lot like his subpar 2003 season.

Paul Meyer caught Mac comparing Fogg to Greg Maddux:

"Josh is a finesse guy. Location is very important for him. But I don't see why he can't improve. His stuff is plenty good enough. He's an intelligent guy. He's learning the league."

McClendon likened Fogg's first season with the Pirates to Greg Maddux because of his need to be a location pitcher.

"Obviously, he's not on [Maddux's] level, but he's starting to get there," McClendon said. "He's the same type pitcher [because of] his competitive spirit. He really believes he'll go out there and get the job done. That can go a long way."

Does this make any sense? Fogg's first season with the Bucs should be ancient history. What has he done for us lately?

In other news, Mac is concerned about Stynes' slow start. Should the Pirates give Stynes more time, start Mackowiak five nights a week, or convert Castillo to third?

Friday, April 09, 2004

Beimel the Screeching Weasel

Repoz of Primer fame tipped us to this series of posts on Joe Beimel.

Beimel's release was not necessarily just about money, though that's one way to interpret his release. I saw it another way. What is unequivocal and unambiguous, though, is this: after Beimel pitched great for the first half of 2003, he was pretty ineffective in the second half of 2003. Sauerbeck left and he had a chance to show what he could do as the primary lefty in the pen and he didn't do well by all reasonable measures (half his inherited runners scored, opponents put up a huge BA against him, he blew all his save opps).

So, why did the Bucs re-sign Beimel to a one-year deal in December 2003 and then release him in March 2004? The argument that the release was purely about money can't be reconciled with the re-signing unless you're willing to believe that Littlefield is out of his mind or that the financial situation of the Bucs changed dramatically in those three months. Either way, the interpretation leans on the existence of an unlikely and uncertain condition. Why would Littlefield sign Beimel for big money in December and release him to save big money in March? If saving money was the main principle involved, there would have been no re-signing in the first place.

A simpler explanation is the one I made (see above link). Rather than release Beimel for the dreadful second-half performance, he was re-signed as a reward for the first-half heroism and given a chance to compete for his job again in the spring. The most obvious reason a GM re-signs a player is that the GM thinks the player can help next year. Given that Beimel was awful down the stretch in 2003, the most obvious explanation for his re-signing was the belief he could return to the early 2003 form. In March 2004, his performance was more like late 2003 than early 2003, so he was released.

All things being equal, I'll always take the simpler explanation over the more complicated one.

Taking pitches

Bryan's argument (see previous post for the link) about the absurdity of taking pitches for the sake of taking pitches got me thinking about a scenario when it might make sense.

Say your team is facing a club with strong starting pitching but a wretched bullpen. Say that bullpen was often used (maybe in extra inning games) in that team's previous series. So, they are bad and tired.

Would it make sense to open the series taking pitches for the sake of taking pitches with the goal of knocking the starter out in the fifth or sixth inning? Then you get to three or four innings to be aggressive against the bullpen. Maybe it's not a wise strategy for a single game, but could it be one for a series? "Let's take a ton of pitches tonight, get the starter out of the game and get to their overworked bullpen. Tomorrow and Sunday they'll have nothing in the pen that can protect a lead." It could make even more sense if you did this against a hated division rival that was scheduled to face a non-threatening out-of-division doormat in their next series. Not only could you take a ton of pitches to face a battered bullpen tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday, you could also take a ton of pitches with the goal of softening the hated division rival for the non-threatening doormat to increase the chances the rival would lose that series.

... In a pregame interview, Brady Clark just talked about how the whole Brewer lineup goes to the plate with the goal of "working the count," "seeing pitches," and "getting the opposing pitcher to throw as many pitches as he can."

Hacking Cubbies

Per the Cub Reporter, the Cubs did not see many pitches in their series against the Reds. Perhaps we won't need much of the bullpen next week after all.

... Bryan at Against the Grain has a nice post on what "being aggressive" really means to hitters. The permalink appears to be broken, but you can scroll down and read his entry on "SABRquixotics" as he calls them.

Queen City weekend

The Pirates head to Cincinnati. The Reds' best starter went Thursday, so we'll match up Fogg, Wells, and Oliver Perez with Harang, Lidle, and Haynes. If I could pick one starter in the division to match up against Oliver Perez - who has not inspired confidence this spring - it might be Haynes. That could be an 8-6 Easter day extravaganza.

That said, this trip will be a big test for the team. Unfortunately, after Cincinnati the Pirates move right on to Chicago. If Wells can't go deep into Saturday's game, and if Oliver Perez pitches as well as his spring training starts suggest he will pitch, then the bullpen could be spent going into Benson's Monday start in the Cubs home opener against Maddux. (If Benson wants to make a statement to the team and to the league, could he ask for a better opportunity?) The Tuesday off will help, but this will be a tough and long road trip for the Pirates if the Reds can chase Fogg and/or Wells early and work the bullpen hard before Perez goes out to practice his new mechanics on Sunday. They should lean on Meadows first chance this weekend and save Boehringer for long relief on Sunday.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Stopper

Sweet sweeet victory. Huge. After pissing away last night's game, the Pirates came back and won big-time tonight. They take the series from the Phillies, who were a consensus pick as one of the top teams in the NL.

Jose Mesa got his second quick and easy save. Nice. Bobby Hill had two hits. Excellent. Jack Wilson had two hits. Gravy. Kendall backed up Smizik's article with a clutch walk and a clutcher RBI single. Yes. Mondesi struck out on a bad pitch with the bases loaded in the fifth, and then came back with the big two-run homer in the seventh. More like this please.

Other thoughts. Why is Randall Simon hitting cleanup? A league-average slugger (.440 SLG) does not belong in the four-hole ahead of Craig Wilson. Randall Simon is a good baseball player, but in the power department he's more like Rob Mackowiak than Jim Thome.

Vogelsong's lines are looking like Ramon Ortiz with all the Ks and homers. He gave up something like four taters in the spring; it will be interesting to see if he's going to be one of those 30-tater starters like Jake Peavy or Ramon Ortiz. Don't get me wrong - we'll take it and like it too. That was a stellar, huge, clutch, stopper-like performance tonight. The Pirates let one slide away last night and Vogelsong came back and pitched like the team had momentum going into the game.

Vogelsong tonight

Last night was ugly in many respects. The baserunning errors were brutal, and Boehringer was not good. Mac should think twice about bringing BB in with a lead to protect.

Bob Smizik has a good piece about Kendall. Kendall may be overpaid by the standards of the current market, but he's still a damn good player. (More here.)

Bob Dvorchak also reports the Bucs offered Benson for Milton Bradley. Huh. Not sure what to think of that news. Not exactly selling Benson high. Why not wait until he gets a roll?

Anyway, the good news is that Ryan Vogelsong starts tonight. And Torres and Mesa should be available for the late innings if the Bucs have a lead.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Bouchette redux

Props to Ed Bouchette for writing the clearminded Cowher piece he should have written the first go-around. Bloggers get do-overs and so should professionals.

Losing to win

More evidence this is always a losing strategy. Losers lose; winners win. You can't lose to win. It's nonsense to spin a losing season as the surest route to a winning season. It's on par with drinking one more bottle of scotch to kick off the end of scotch drinking or spending all your money to begin a new era of frugality.

Dawn of the yes men

Socrates: Only six of the sixteen managers are likely MoY candidates.
Agathon: Of course.
Socrates: Kerry Wood is the most likely winner of the NY Cy Young.
Agathon: Yes.
Socrates: Remember further that the difference between the Athletics and the Angels is certain and unambiguous.
Agathon: I agree with you.
Socrates: The Cubs and Astros are clearly superior to the Cardinals.
Agathon: Very true.
Socrates: Reds are certainly better than the Brewers or the Pirates.
Agathon: I agree with you.

There's too much consensus among the experts. You can reverse some of the terms above and use the same formulas to describe these predictions as well. BP loves the Astros, ESPN loves the Cubs. BP loves the A's, ESPN loves the Angels. There is a dearth of originality. Are the leading people at these institutions such tyrants that their followers and newcomers feel compelled to suck up and not disagree with them? Are analysts such cowards that they fear calling attention to themselves with a novel projection? Is the inner circle of ball geniuses so desirable that no one will jeopardize their status as a cool kid by disagreeing with so-and-so's clever be-all-end-all take on a given contest?

What is the deal with all the consensus?

It's a bad sign for the fans; it betrays some kind of viral bias in the analysis. Don't tell me there's no ambiguity and no room for original selections when it comes down to choosing the Reds, the Brewers, or the Pirates for fourth, or the A's or Angels for first. Why the huge bandwagon for Bruce Bochy as Manager of the Year? Why the roaring chorus for Kerry Wood as the NL Cy Young? I don't understand why the experts don't work harder to bring something original to the table with these meaningless award brackets.

... The only thing "fearless" about these predictions is the gloating about the accuracy and spin-ability of the previous year's picks. How can San Diego be your "surprise" team when every one picks them as the "surprise" team? That's not fearless. It's cowardly, sheepish, safe, imitative.

... another set of similar-looking predictions here.

Littlefield steady

Littlefield says the Bucs will stay the course. That's the right thing to tell the Pittsburgh media. As Clay wrote in the comments, the Rooneys have set an example of measured and methodical governance which has become the (black and) gold standard in the Steel City.

There's not a whole lot in the interview that does much to draw back the curtain and let us see what the team is really thinking. There's not a lot of specific detail. There is this, though:

Ryan Vogelsong threw the ball well; Jose Castillo did a nice job; Bobby Hill, Jose Mesa, J.R. House. I think there were a lot of people that performed well that we weren't anticipating.
J.R. House is a name that not too many people were talking about this spring. He didn't really hit that well or often (he went 1-for-7 in five non-split squad games) so you have to wonder what they saw in him that they liked so much.

Balance is a good thing to talk about in any interview. Try to slip it in every chance. Seeking balance always sounds wise, even if you are saying, "When I work the grill, I seek a balance between cooking the burgers to just the way the customer wants them and delivering the finished orders just when the wait staff are available to deliver them." Here's Littlefield:

However, there is a balance. It's nice to go young as long as the young players are talented and ready. We still haven't seen how some of those players will do. The jury is still out. I don't want to sound pessimistic, but I've got to be realistic in this job. We did bring north with us veteran guys like Jose Mesa, Raul Mondesi and Chris Stynes, who have played fairly well in the big leagues and can help balance the youth that may be out there, too.
He's not talking about manufacturing food-service jobs, obviously. He's right that the jury is still out on half the position players: Jack Wilson (will he hit?), Tike Redman (what can he do in a full season?), Jason Bay (what can he do when he's healthy?), and all those options at second base.

Lefties in the NL Central

Tonight the Bucs are scheduled to face Randy Wolf, a left-hander. The Bucs won't see many lefthanded pitchers this year: the NL Central is shockingly low on southpaws.

Houston (11 pitchers): Andy Pettitte
St. Louis (12): Ray King, Steve Kline
Chicago (12): Kent Mercker, Andy Pratt
Cincinnati (12): Phil Norton
Milwaukee (12): Doug Davis, Chris Capuano
Pittsburgh (12): Oliver Perez, John Grabow, Mike Johnston

The Bucs will only face two left-handed starters in NL Central games. Given Mac's preference to play the handedness angle, Simon might not start tonight. J.J. Davis could start in right with Wilson at first and Castillo at second. Wilson should hit cleanup tonight. (Redman - Kendall - Mondesi - Wilson - Davis - Stynes - Wilson - Castillo?) There won't be many lefties on the schedule so it's not like there will be many more opportunities to play J.J. Davis by sitting Simon for reasons that have little to do with Simon's recent performance at the plate. (But he did draw a walk last night so maybe Mac will feel compelled to keep that hot streak going.)

Last year the Reds ran out Jimmy Anderson for the third game of the season and Mac started Rob Mackowiak (a left-hander) in center. (Man I hope we see Jimmy in a Cubs uniform this season. I will neither confirm nor deny that my dog is chewing on a Kerry Wood voodoo doll as I type this.) Rob Mac went 3 for 5 against Jimmy last year. He had 80% of his at-bats against right-handed pitchers in 2003 so it's not like Mac regards him as a lefty-masher. Stynes is a right-handed hitter who has always hit lefties a lot better than righties (807 OPS vs. L over last three years; 691 OPS vs. R). Stynes over Rob Mac for sure then. There isn't enough data on Tike Redman's career as a left-handed hitter to know if his performance against lefties has been weak enough to justify benching him against Wolf.

None of the current Bucs have more than 9 plate appearances against Wolf. Hopefully Mac will not regard Jason Kendall's 1 for 8 record as significant enough to bench him, because a record in eight at-bats is close to meaningless. The Pirates might as well pinch-hit with Oliver Perez since he's gone 3 for 3 against Wolf.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The wrath of Sheehan

Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus foreman Joe Sheehan damned the Bucs for signing "veteran stopgaps" that "block better options." He argues that Mondesi, Simon, Mesa, and Stynes are likely to have no trade value at the deadline, too. Then he drops the big bomb:
This franchise needs to start over with new management and new players before it replaces the Brewers as the butt of all baseball jokes. It may already be too late.
Yeah, Joe, nuke Fallujah! That will teach Pittsburgh to resist the generosity which is the unsolicited advice of the Baseball Prospectus staff of experts.

Sheehan may be right that none of the four will have a market three months from now. That said, there is a case to be made for not fielding an all-rookie team, and if the Bucs don't sign veterans, then they won't have them. They aren't keeping any of their own - at least not when they're signed at Cam Bonifay-negotiated salaries. That case may not be strong, but either way, it's not accurate to assume that flipping the vets for B prospects was the main or only reason for signing them at bargain rates in the first place.

Sheehan's assertion that "better options" - plural - existed before the signings is dubious. What better option did the Pirates have at third base? Jose Castillo? The bounty that is the current second base situation was unexpected and could be a spring mirage. What better option did the Pirates have at right field? OK, Craig A. Wilson, perhaps. There's no way J.J. Davis represented a better option when Mondesi was signed. What better option did the Pirates have at first base? Carlos Rivera? Maybe, but I doubt it. Chris Shelton? Give me a break. What better option did the Pirates have to close games? A random rookie, in a Brandon Villafuerte-type experiment? Josh Fogg? Why give up on Fogg as a starter until the Pirates have better options for the rotation? No one predicted - especially the BP team of experts, which you know if you read the 2004 book - that Van Benschoten and Burnett would look ready this spring. And if the Pirates had decided to convert Vogelsong to closing in lieu of signing Mesa, they would not only have a potential Villafuerte disaster, they would also not have someone that now looks like a most promising starter. To make a long story short, the Pirates did not have better options, they had one better option, Craig A. Wilson. Even if Sheehan disagrees, and thinks Castillo should have been given third base, Wilson right (where's he a better fielder), and Rivera first, that leaves the Bucs with inexperienced big leaguers at 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, CF, RF, and, if Kendall is dealt, at C. The Pirates would have no depth at any position. Imagine a team where Jack Wilson is the elder statesman! Would this strategy guarantee a playoff team in two years? It better, because only that kind of reward would justify indulging in this fantastic formula for losing 120 games.

Even if Wilson et al represented some other options, the Pirates were wise to think that they didn't represent enough options. Wilson can catch, and with a Kendall trade always in the works, it makes sense to think that the Pirates would need another 1B/OF to play Wilson's position if and when Kendall leaves town. And depth is another thing. You can't have too much depth for a 162-game season. Maybe the Pirates knew Jason Bay wouldn't be ready for the season, and maybe they didn't. Either way the Mondesi and Simon signings look wise considering that Wilson, Mondesi, and Simon are all on the field on Opening Day. Maybe Sheehan would hand a starting job to Jose Guillen Chad Hermansen J.J. Davis, and maybe that gamble would pay off, but few clubs would do that. Sheehan ranks the Phillies with the very best teams in the league. Did Larry Bowa break in Marlon Byrd any quicker than Mac has broken in Craig A. Wilson? Did the Astros find time for Jason Lane? Did the Cubs make room for Hee Choi and Bobby Hill? Did the Marlins hand a job to Ramon Castro? I seem to remember teams going with veteran options (Glanville, Biggio, Karros, Grudzielanek, Pudge) while those "better options" existed, and I don't see anyone suggesting that these teams need new management and new players.

Adding to the mystery of the wrath of Sheehan is his sunny optimism about the Tigers. The Tigers tried the all-rookie team and lost 120 games. Now they bring in veteran stopgaps. The Pirates of 2004 are damned for not being the Tigers of 2003, but the Tigers of 2004 are praised for being the Pirates of 2003. What gives? "At some point," Sheehan writes in his AL preview, "adding lots of average players matters." He predicts the Tigers will "not win anything" in the end - bold prediction, that - yet he foresees them hanging around .500 and competing for first in the AL Central for much of the year. He guesses Detroit will be one of the season's "interesting" stories.

For sure, the Pirates, like a lot of teams, need all the constructive criticism they can get. For sure, they have made some mistakes. But this doesn't explain or justify Sheehan's conclusion that Pittsburgh needs "new players" and "new management" before they will be an "interesting story" and a team that at least flirts with a .500 record.

Why does Joe Sheehan hate the Pirates?

If Sheehan is from Pittsburgh, I would diagnose the problem as win deprivation and prescribe plenty of scotch and other patience-inducing drugs. If Sheehan is not from Pittsburgh, the wrath of Sheehan is far more intriguing. Did Lloyd McClendon laugh at his hideous tie at some ballgeek dinner? Did David Littlefield steal Sheehan's high school sweetheart? Did Kevin McClatchy run him down with his Hummer, crushing all the bones in Sheehan's right foot and forcing him to walk with a cane? Inquiring minds want to know.

Bucs angered by low expectations

Sam Ross Jr. gets some great quotes from Mac and the players on all the preseason cynicism.

Pirates win; Wilson rocks

Was that Opening Day victory sweet, or what? Wells labored early and threw a lot of pitches, but he rolled up the strikeouts and got key outs. Randall Simon walked! Tike Redman got on twice. Bobby Hill went 0-for-3 and Abraham Nunez replaced him, probably to keep Castillo on the bench as a possible pinch-hitter. Torres was OK and Mesa got that quick and easy save - against the Phillies (!) - that we've been rooting for. And the big good news is Craig A. Wilson, who had a double and a home run off that tough right-handed "ace," Kevin Millwood.

Don't think Mac didn't notice. As Ed Eagle reports for MLB.com:

"Craig did an outstanding job," said Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon. "The home run at-bat was a pretty darned good at-bat. Millwood threw him some pretty good pitches. He just missed a home run on the pitch before, he stayed in there on another slider and hit it the other way."
Last year, Wilson didn't get his first hit until April 23rd, when he had a double and a home run off the left-handed Kirk Rueter. He started April 24 against left-hander Damian Moss, April 25 against left-hander Odalis Perez, and sat for Simon and Stairs against Nomo and the Dodgers on April 26. Mac started him on April 27th against lefty Kaz Ishii. Wilson went 0-for-1 and walked against Ishii. He then doubled off Guy Mota for his first hit off a right-handed pitcher. At the end of the day, he was hitting .200 / .333 / .400 in 30 at-bats that included about ten pinch-hitting appearances. Over the next month, he didn't get many at-bats, and he didn't show that deserved them. His OPS was 639 at the end of May.

And people cry that Mac should have handed him more playing time as a result. Wilson, of course, did not have the record of consistent success that warranted such handouts, and Mac has been wise to not degrade the value of PT on the Pirates by giving it away to prospects who aren't demanding it with excellent part-time play.

If Craig A. Wilson continues to hit like Jim Thome, don't be surprised if Wilson and Jason Bay force Simon to the bench. Unless Simon starts drawing a lot of walks and hitting for more power, he won't have a stronger claim on a job than Wilson or Bay. As Shelly Anderson reports Mac saying after the game:

"One thing I told Craig -- and I mean this and I think he understands this -- I don't make out the lineup. Guys that perform make out the lineup," McClendon said. "There's been such an uproar about Craig Wilson's playing time. Maybe, just maybe, we've done the right thing as far as his development is concerned. Maybe now he's ready to take a step further. He's come a long way."
No doubt Mac's detractors will read this as Mac taking credit for a development that Mac stifled, but if Wilson has a Jim Thome-like season this year, Mac deserves at least some credit for it since it will be hard to say that Wilson's development was stunted.

Also, at this point, given the fun of any "uproar," we can expect (and should applaud) efforts like this, by Chris Bradford at the Beaver County Times & Allegheny Times, to keep the uproar going. That said, uproar or no uproar, it would be out of character for Mac to sit a white-hot Craig A. Wilson to play a less-hot Randall Simon. The uproar might not be necessary. Wilson may look like a statue at first base, but if he hits like that Willie Stargell statue outside the ballpark, he'll be in Mac's lineup.

McClendon on the hot seat?

In numerous preseason essays, Mac was named as the NL manager who is most likely to get fired this season. Joe Sheehan of BP suggested the same in a recent chat.

It's human nature to dump on teams you don't understand, don't care to study, or don't want to respect, but Mac was a puzzling consensus choice in this department. As Sheehan wrote, manager firings usually happen with "a bad team starting horribly."

Not in Pittsburgh, though. In other cities, owners may fire managers and sell more tickets, but something about Pittsburgh suggests this won't work here. The Bucs have had many bad teams and many horrible starts - but only four managers - since 1977. The last in-season firing was in 1973, when Bill Virdon was riffed in early September for losing the respect of his players in a series of heated disagreements with two of the team's best players, Dock Ellis and Richie Hebner. His replacement, Danny Murtaugh, had been the manager of the team, on and off, on and off, on and off, from 1957. He won two World Series with the team, and he came out of retirement and led the team to 285 wins over the next three years. The Virdon firing is hardly an example of the kind of public execution writers like Sheehan have predicted as somewhat likely in Pittsburgh this year.

There's no guaranteed continuity between the McClatchy ownership and the previous stewards of the team, but any student of baseball (and football) history should know that Pittsburgh is not a town where an owner can scapegoat the manager with the approval of the fans. Some of the most frequent talkers about the team are also some of the area's most frequent complainers, but your average fan of Pittsburgh sports knows that that a quick firing is rarely a quick fix.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Game on

(drooling, in Homer Simpson voice) ... oh ... beautiful, beautiful baseball

Dusty's quick hook

The Reds rattled Kerry Wood, forcing him to throw 95 pitches in five innings, and Dusty pulled him with the Cubs nursing a slight lead.

Last night Dusty must have had a terrible dream starring Jimmy Anderson.

The next time someone says the 2004 Pirates are worse than ever, remind them that Jimmy Anderson made 100 starts for the Pirates between 1999 and 2002.

Littlefield and statistical research

John Perrotto interviews Dave Littlefield and discovers Baseball Prospectus in his office. My favorite quote comes from Mac:
"There is a lot of stuff out there when it comes to statistics, a whole lot of stuff," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said.
Also, DL:
"We also do a lot of our own in-house statistic studies that I find instructive."
My experience with statistical studies is that they are rarely instructive, so it's good to learn they are getting somewhere in the numbers lab four stories below PNC Park.

One other thing. When different GMs talk about their balance of stats and scouting, they sound to me like NFL coaches talking to the media the week before the game. They aren't saying anything meaningful. Witness DL:

"I think you need to do it with a combination of the two," Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield said.
It sounds like Coach Cowher telling the media that the Steelers plan to play hard on offense, defense, and special teams. "No shit?! Get out of here, you crazy genius" is not the informed or common response.

So when Perrotto concludes, "the Pirates aren't ready to abandon their scouts in favor of mathematic formulas," that's not much of a conclusion. That's not Perrotto's fault; he has to work with what they give him.

No doubt the best of all worlds would be having scouts who understand the latest theories suggested or proven by the statistics, and statheads who understand the science behind the tendencies of the scouts. If the stats have any real meaning, that meaning can also be found by the scouts. And vice versa.

After all, the truth is the truth is the truth.

Mac, Littlefield get extensions

Stability has been a good thing for Pittsburgh sports. Both these men have earned their extensions. Congratulations to them.

Terry Shumpert

The Pirates today signed 37-year-old MIF Ter--

ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZzzzzzzzz.

Managing expectations

In sport as in politics, if you want to keep the peoples happy, manage their expectations. Bob Smizik has a fun column this morning that helps set up the public for the thrilling excitement of a .500 season. John Perrotto has a similar take.

In all seriousness, forecasting a .500 season is never a radical prediction, not even for a team that looks pretty awful on paper. The teams play 162 games. Regression to the mean is a powerful force for both the good and the bad teams in the league.

Smizik writes:

The team has lost Brian Giles, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Matt Stairs and replaced them with Jason Bay, Raul Mondesi, Tike Redman, Chris Stynes and J.J. Davis.
I'm a bit underwhelmed by this argument since I'm high on Bay and low on Ramirez. Sanders and Mondesi are even. Lofton is an old man and Redman, though he clowned around the bases last year, has shown more promise than Adrian Brown ever did. Smizik attempts to heighten the gloom of subtraction by citing the 2003 numbers. Never mind that Matt Stairs had a flukeish breakout season at 35 last year, posting numbers that were well above his career averages, and couldn't be expected to repeat them this year even if he was returning to PNC. No one knows what J.J. Davis will contribute as a fourth outfielder or, should injuries strike, as a starter. Matt Stairs or J.J. Davis is Matt Stairs or Door Number 2.

Let's say that Davis fails this year. We can still play Devil's advocate and say, if we are just looking at the Bucs offense, that Kendall is hitting for more power this spring, Jack Wilson is another year older and still on the good side of the development curve, and any combination of Bobby Hill, Jose Castillo, and Freddy Sanchez is pretty sure to represent a significant upgrade over the offensively inoffensive combination of Jeff Reboulet, Pokey Reese, and Abraham Nunez. All you squeamish, look away: Reboulet gave us 300 PAs of 660 OPS, Reese 200 PAs of 530 OPS, and Nunez 350 PAs of 670 OPS. That was one marvelous three-in-one Out Machine.

The offense should be about the same. Instead of scoring 750 runs, maybe they'll score 725.

Breaking news: Mark Prior

News reported by Rotoworld:
If Mark Prior is feeling OK today, he will play catch.
In other news, if Rowdy Brown is feeling OK today, he will sit in the porch swing. Weather permitting, of course.

Seriously, good luck Mark Prior with that injury. I don't mean to make fun of Prior or to enrage the Wrigley faithful. Sometimes it's good to step back from the "breaking news" of baseball and see it in the big picture.

Baseball in April

It's Opening Day and already the irrational exuberance (for me) of Spring Training is beginning to wear off.

The winter April cold can be a real buzzkiller for the players. They've been in Florida for more than a month. The guys who played winter ball, plus some of the guys who have been on vacation, haven't spent time up North in months and months. Now they'll play in cold, crappy conditions. We'll probably have some miserable rain delays.

The cold usually affects the hitters. It could be because it can be painful to make contact, or it could be because the umps get generous with the strike zone when the temperature is below 40. After their hot Florida play, it would be ironic but not surprising if Bobby Hill and Jose Castillo start the season a combined 5 for 50. Chris Stynes can't struggle all month at the plate and not expect everyone to bring up his miserable year with Colorado and his anemic spring hitting. Jack Wilson got off to a great start in March but understandably lost a bit of focus recently.

The pitchers should be OK so long as they can get loose and stay comfortable on the mound. Since the rotation is a strength, the cold weather should mean that the Pirates will be in for a run of low-scoring games. If the cold weather might encourage one problem - say none of the infielders can get the bats going - on the other hand, it might help another: a generous zone and frigid swinging will facilitate a quick, smooth start for the veterans in the bullpen.

Frankly, Boehringer and Mesa have to be two of the biggest question marks here on April 5th. Three quick and easy saves will buy time for them to screw up later. Get it done, guys. It doesn't get easier as the season advances. Mesa did OK this spring but you have to worry about a closer who strikes out four and walks three in ten innings of "good" work. Spring players hit .378 off Boehringer. Torres wasn't much better. Keep an eye on these guys. They worry me.

The April schedule looks good. The Pirates have four weekday series and three weekend series. The weekend games are against fellow doormats (a home-and-home against the Reds, a series at Shea). The weekday series are against teams that the Heathers consider powerhouses. They go to Wrigley and get the Phillies, the Cubs, and the Astros at home.

The Phillies are in for an interesting month since they will open their new stadium next week after a trip to PNC and a trip to Florida. No doubt they want to win two in Pittsburgh so one win at the NL Champs will have lock up a respectable 3-3 record to bring into the home opener. The Bucs and the Reds know that opening a new stadium is no slam-dunk. It will be interesting to see if the Phillies keep their composure amid all the high expectations.

Looking at the Cubs' schedule, it looks like MLB has decided that it's in the league's best interest to get Chicago off to a fast start: two series with the Reds, two series with the Pirates, one series with the Mets, and a series with Atlanta and Arizona make up the April schedule. The Pirates will put on their Washington Generals Tampa Bay Devil Rays visitors' uniforms to play in the Cubs' home opener (Monday, April 12th). How sweet would it be to win that one? If I'm counting right, the Pirates will miss Maddux in that series and face Clement, Zambrano, and Wood. Since the Cubs have nothing better to worry about in April, they probably won't look past the Pirates.

The Bucs catch a break at the end of the month when Houston comes to town fresh off a weekend in Colorado. Playing in Colorado has a delayed effect on hitters. Adjusting to the movement on pitches in Colorado is one thing. The tough part is getting back into a groove hitting a moving ball near sea level. Ask Chris Stynes what can happen to a Rockie on that first trip after a long homestand. Mac will no doubt have all the curveball specialists break 'em off that first Tuesday night.

The Pirates won't blow too many teams off the diamond this year. They'll win by keeping it close and finding a way to win at the end. There should be no shame in bobbing just under .500 for the first stretch of the season. With four of the first seven series against highly regarded teams, if the Bucs can finish April at 11-12, they should be knowing that they are on pace for a 83-win season.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Honest Wag's NL Central preview

Bones Rowdy Scoop
Astros 89-73 Astros 89-73 Astros 93-69
Cubs 85-77 Cardinals 84-78 Cubs 91-71
Cardinals 83-79 Pirates 83-79 Cardinals 88-74
Pirates 81-81 Cubs 79-83 Pirates 77-85
Reds 64-98 Reds 77-85 Reds 74-88
Brewers 62-100 Brewers 75-87 Brewers 70-92

Bones

1. Astros 89-73: cy oswalt wins 23
2. Cubs 85-77: prior and sammy injure each other in roid rage brawl
3. Cardinals 83-79: j.d. gets hurt in first week of season
4. Pirates 81-81: vogelsong wins 14
5. Reds 64-98: griffey gets hurt in first week of season
6. Brewers 62-100: jenkins = 45 jacks

Rowdy

1. Astros 89-73: Clemens, Pettitte, and Jason Lane make the difference. When the Hummers circle up to collect the ‘Stros at the end of the season, they are orange and round and drawn by teams of mice.
2. Cardinals 84-78: St. Louis has some unstoppable players on offense. The rotation is suspect but La Russa is the guy to get the most out of pitchers like Jason Simontacchi, Alan Benes, and Jason Ryan.
3. Pirates 83-79: A breakout here and there and the Pirates still have few well-known stars. The rotation is deep and promising. The rookies arrive in a pack so the pressure is spread around. They are older than previous crops of Bucco rookies, they have been winning through the minors, and they all must compete for playing time. They’ll run about .500 all year and finish strong.
4. Cubs 79-83: The Cubs do not get on base enough to score reliably, and the Prior breakdown is the first in a cascade of pitching injuries the Cubs will handle by giving the ball to Jimmy Anderson and Glendon Rusch.
5. Reds 78-84: Adam Dunn powers the team with a home run crown, and Ryan Wagner shines like a set of triple-plated show-quality chrome rims. But this souped-up beater gains no traction in the standings as they have nothing better than bald or flat tires in the rotation.
6. Brewers 75-87: On paper, they’re comfortably mediocre on Opening Day. The very young hitting prospects – Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Gwynn Jr. – won’t grow the winning for several years.

Scoop

BULLIES
1. Houston 93-69: Lots of thumpers and more than solid starting pitching 1-5. Everybody's waiting for wade miller to put it together over a full season and this might be the year. Clemens will have a significant effect on his development like he had with...well, Pettitte.
2. Chicago 91-71: Everyone talks about the pitching, and for good reason, but their everyday lineup underwhelms me. Responsible for that persistent clanking sound you will hear all summer are Grudzielanek/Walker and Gonzalez up the middle. Why saddle such great pitching with Michael Barrett? If ever there was a spot for a joe girardi-type it is with the 2004 cubs. I never saw the genius ascribed to dusty baker until the playoffs last year, where I thought he managed brilliantly.
3. St. Louis 88-74: I admit it, I'm a larussa junkie. He spots phoneys (see J.D. Drew) better than anyone. He's worth +7 wins by himself. Without him they are a .500 team. If they get their pitching straightened out (huge if) they will be in it all the way. They'll probably be in it all the way anyway.
WEAKLINGS
4. Pirates 77-85: Fourth place? 77 wins? I can dream can't I?
5. Reds 74-88: Something about this team stinks, and it's not just the pitching or that stupid riverboat.
6. Brewers 70-92: "Lyle" is a great name.