The Perfect Playoffs

A brief blurb on how pleased I am with this year’s baseball playoffs. Getting the Yankees wiped out – and looking particularly feeble – in the play-in game was a treat in itself. Next to depart were the Cardinals, who have won too much, in a colorless fashion, to root for. The fact that it was the wild card Cubs that accomplished the feat only made it sweeter. Toronto was my favorite team of the season’s second half, with their bludgeon baseball and former Twin Chris Colabello; so I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them come from two down to take out the Texas Rangers. Moreover, they did it morality play manner: just when you thought they would lose on an undeserved, freak play – with a return throw from the catcher bouncing off the batter’s bat – they bounced back with a four-run seventh, climaxed by a monstrous home run by Jose “Joey Bats” Bautista. The fact that Elvis Andrus dropped three straight balls to create the rally made you think there was some kind of baseball karma at work.

Kansas City has been a favorite since last year’s playoffs. They play the most entertaining brand of baseball – good defense, basehits from everyone, and a shutdown bullpen – and they are from the Twins’ division. But best of all was the Mets defeating the Dodgers, in Los Angeles, no less. I don’t usually warm to New York teams, but the Mets have been down so long you almost feel sorry for their fans (not their ownership). The Dodgers, meanwhile, are the Yankees West, an overpaid smug bunch. What set me off completely, however, was the Chase Utley slid play, which was not only loathsome in itself (see prior blog), but gave LA a game the Mets c0uld have, if not should have, won. If the Dodgers had gone on to the NLCS because of that, their defeat would have been a moral crusade. As it is, I don’t really have a rooting interest. KC v. Toronto is speed and finesse v. power, a classic confrontation. Mets v. Cubs is a revelatory showdown of great young pitchers v. great young hitters. I hope both series go the distance, by which time I may know whom I’m for. Until then, I will hope every game goes to the home team.

Outrage at Second

[fusion_text]Previously on this site I have recommended a baseball rule change, requiring a baserunner to slide toward the base he is approaching and awarding a doubleplay when this rule is broken. The urgency of such a rule change increased tonight when a slide that should be illegal not only broke a shortstop’s leg, but changed the outcome of a playoff game.

With runners on first and third, one out and the Dodgers trailing 2-1, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy fielded a hard shot behind second, tossed the ball to shortstop Ruben Tejada who reached backward for the ball, pirouetted and started to throw to first. Dodger runner Chase Utley, however, ignored second base and instead slid into Tejada well off the bag. In fact, and this should’ve been important, Utley did not even touch second base. His slide was late, starting only when reaching the bag, and wide.

Not only did the tying run score from third, the replay official noted that Tejada’s toe did not quite reach the base and so he ruled Utley safe, ruling that when an umpire makes an incorrect call on the field, the runner should be placed where he would have been had the correct call been made. Why anyone could think that Utley would have been at second if the umpire had not signaled him out is astonishing. It was just as likely, had the umpire signaled “safe,” that Tejada would have tagged Utley, who had overslid the base by several feet. Unless, of course, the replay official was factoring in Tejada’s broken leg, which he could not have known about at the time of his decision.

Under my proposed rule, a double play would have been awarded and none of the Dodgers’ four runs that inning would have scored. Maybe the Mets wouldn’t have held onto the 2-1 lead for another inning, but they should have had the chance.

The game announcers never really came to grips with this issue. Cal Ripken, surprisingly for a former shortstop, didn’t see anything wrong with Utley’s late slide. Ron Darling, former pitcher, faulted the slide, but with hesitation, while the play-by-play man, not a former player, deferred. No one took on the absurd conclusion that Utley “would have been at second” absent the incorrect out call. The postgame announcers were wildly out of their depth on the subject: I’m sure TBS did not expect to be holding hearings on rules interpretations when they signed up Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and Dusty Baker to be their analysts.

I will look for more informed comment in the newspapers tomorrow, but my conclusion is clear and firm: the takeout slide at second – or any base – has no place in today’s game of baseball. The runner’s sole purpose can only be reaching his base safely. If he hits a fielder in the course of that aim, so be it; but he must not be allowed to interfere with the fielder, let alone attack him dangerously, if the fielder is not in his way as he goes to the base. You can’t run into a fielder who is fielding a batted ball; the catcher can’t block the plate without the ball; a runner can’t intentionally knock the ball out of the fielder’s glove – let’s make it consistent and rule that the runner can’t slide into a fielder if he is not going for the base. Period.[/fusion_text]

Next Year’s Twins

[fusion_text]Everyone’s a general manager these days, and I’m no exception. Rather than linger on the Twins’ surprisingly successful 2015 season – which, thankfully, finished above .500 but short of the playoffs – I am already in roster-planning mode for 2016. And what a happy prospect it is!

Start with starting pitching, the heart of a successful team. This appears to be a strength, thanks to the totally unforeseen emergence of Tyler Duffey as the team’s ace. Next, Ervin Santana came on strong and will be available for a full season. Kyle Gibson gets a little better each year, especially at home, and should be a dependable third man in the rotation, capable of a 15-win season. Then there is Jose Berrios: I’ve never seen him pitch, but if he is as good as he’s been in the minors, he will earn a spot. That leaves one opening for Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, Ricky Nolasco or Trevor May – and thankfully closes the door on Mike Pelfrey. That’s an enviable competition to have, and while Hughes and Nolasco will be paid a lot of Minnesota money, whether they pitch or not, I’ll be happy if Milone emerges on top. Of course, with injuries inevitable, it would be nice to be able to stockpile one of these starters.

The relief pitching is almost as important and much more uncertain. Kevin Jepsen earned the closer role, which raises the question of Glen Perkins, who is also on the line for a large salary, awarded when he was deemed the closer for years to come. First, can he be happy as the 8th-inning setup man? More to the point, can he regain the form that totally deserted him from the All-Star Game on? Was his problem physical? Or did he lose confidence? Trevor May was the next most effective reliever, but some thought he had the greatest upside as a starter. The surplus of starters and paucity of relievers argues for keeping him in the latter role, at least for now. The rest are journeymen, and you never know who among them will have a good year. Every season the Twins pick up someone who surprises – a Casey Fien, a Blaine Boyer – so it’s foolish at this distance to predict who that will be in 2016. I do think, however, the string has run out on Brian Duensing; and I expect to see J.R. Graham getting more minor league experience now that his Rule 5 year has passed.

The biggest issue on the offensive side is, what to do with Joe Mauer? He is vastly overpaid, and will be for three years, and has lost almost all his fan support. His lack of power for a first baseman is embarrassing, his unchangingly mild demeanor is frustrating, his play in the field is average, at best, and when he hits .260 instead of .320 you wonder what he is doing smack in the middle of the lineup day after day. If you could get him to catch again, even part-time, it would provide an upgrade over what’s there now. Trevor Plouffe at first would offer better defense, more power, and the chance to play Miguel Sano at third. Kennys Vargas is another possibility at first, but he would have to hit more consistently than he did this year.

Brian Dozier will be the second baseman, although one hopes he can be taught to hit to right and not wear down as the season progresses. It is hard not to think that his early success make him homer-happy, which led to a plethora of strikeouts and groundballs to short. Eduardo Escobar solidified the shortstop position, and Plouffe or Sano will man third. Kurt Suzuki slipped some at catcher and clearly needs better relief than Hermann or Fryer could provide.

The outfield, too, is interesting. Pencil in Eddie Rosario for the next ten years. Beyond that, if Aaron Hicks can take another step forward, as he did this season, he’s the centerfielder. Byron Buxton was brought up prematurely when Hicks was hurt and the team was floundering; he needs, and deserves, a year at AAA (which he’s never had) learning how to hit breaking balls. Should the Twin bring back Torii Hunter? It depends on who else is available. As of now, I’d say yes. I don’t know if Max Kepler, the Twins’ minor league player of the year, is ready to start in the majors. I’d certainly take Hunter over this year’s fourth outfielder, Shane Robinson.

That’s what I’d do with the present roster. Maybe the Twins can trade Plouffe or Hughes for a catcher, reliever or outfielder, and I have no idea what free agents will be on the market. That’s what will make the winter interesting, that – more than the Timberwolves or Wild – will keep me turning to the Strib’s sports pages. And in only four months spring training will begin…


A Stupid Rule


When I think of stupid rules in sports, I usually land on the golf course, where plenty of rules designed to add strokes to my score – usually involving the ball hitting a foreign object – are a mystery, both as to scope and necessity. This week, however, the NFL introduced us to a rule in football that seems to exist for no good reason, which seemingly no one knew about, yet which, if enforced, would have changed the outcome of a game. Briefly put: when a Lions receiver fumbled on the one-foot line, the loose ball was punched out of the end zone by a Seahawk player, resulting, per the officials, in a touchback with the ball going over to Seattle on the 20. Game over, Seahawk victory. What the game officials, coaches, players and TV announcers did not know was a rule prescribing a 10-yard penalty against a team that intentionally knocks a live ball out of bounds. If understood and applied, this rule would have resulted in the Lions’ retaining possession on the six-inch line, with a high probability of scoring a touchdown on the next play, for Detroit’s first win of the year.

After the game, ESPN’s officiating analyst pointed out the rule and said it had been on the books for the 26 years he had been an official. This resulted in much gnashing-of-teeth by Detroit fans and much incredulity by the players involved, who had never heard of this rule, but complaints by coaches and players and national outrage was rather muted because, I submit, everyone realizes what a stupid rule this is. In fact, the hubbub would have been significantly greater, I have to believe, if an official had, in fact, called the penalty and the Lions gone on to a victory that most would feel was not deserved.

What is the reason for such a rule? It’s not player safety – the reason behind so many recent rule changes. Punching the ball out of bounds avoids unnecessary physical contact. Does it give the offending team an unfair advantage? It does eliminate the need to control a loose ball, so maybe it eliminates an act of skill that should be required? And maybe it interferes with the other team’s chances of recovering the fumble.

(At this point, I should admit that I do not know the various permutations of the rule in question. Does it matter which team bats the ball out of bounds? How does batting it out of bounds on the sidelines compare to batting it out in the end zone? Is change-of-possession affected only when it is the defense doing the batting – and if so, is that fair? Or is possession affected only when the bat occurs in the end zone?)

In the incident in question, there was no Detroit player in the vicinity when the ball was batted, and the Seahawk defender could just as easily have caught the ball or fallen on it. Why reward Detroit? Perhaps there is room for a rule that says, if in the referee’s judgment a player’s batting the ball out of bounds prevented the other team from recovering it, that player’s team shall be penalized ten yards. There is already room for the referee’s judgment in the current rule, as the official has to determine that the batting was intentional, not inadvertent; so adding judicial discretion is not new.

The important thing for the rule – for any rule – is that it not change the game 180 degrees from what would have happened if the act precipitating the penalty had not occurred. Rules should facilitate the normal flow of the contest, not reverse it.