Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the Braves’ clinching NLCS victory over the Dodgers was one of the greatest at-bats I’ve had the pleasure to witness. It reminded me of a classic home run by David Ortiz, the details of which I can’t recall, except that it was in an even more dramatic, climactic point of an even more important game. Both Rosario and Ortiz had the benefit of being charismatic, personal favorites of mine, and both, of course, were famously former members of the Minnesota Twins. I understood why the Twins let Rosario go after he regressed in 2020 from his peak season in 2019. He was maddeningly erratic in his performance: while he was often the Twins’ best clutch player, steadiness was not one of his virtues, and he would go from throwing out a baserunner to throwing to the wrong base. And he was a streaky hitter with little regard for the strike zone when he swung. Furthermore, the Twins had three young outfielders in the minors, at least one of whom could replace Rosario at a much lower salary. (While the play of Kiriloff, Rooker and Larnach, when not injured, probably justified this decision, the subpar year of Max Kepler made one wish he had been jettisoned instead.)
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Rosario’s style of play and I was sorry that he showed little in the first half of 2021 when he played for the Indians, except to the extent I rooted against Cleveland as a Twins division rival. I hadn’t focused much on Rosario’s time with the Atlanta Braves until the playoffs began and he started getting game-winning hits. By the time he faced Buehler in the 4th inning of Game 6 Rosario had established himself as the hitting star of the NLCS. His hits had been timely and plentiful: with two 4-hit games he set a record, and with 13 hits he was one short of the single-series playoff record, which had been reached only in full seven-game series. The setting, albeit in only the 4th inning, was packed with early drama. The game was tied 1-1; runs had been in short supply all series; and both sides could believe that an early lead would be decisive.
The rally started with two outs. Buehler, the Dodger ace pitching on three-days’ rest, had light-hitting catcher Travis D’Arnaud 1-and-2. A strikeout for out three seemed to be in the cards. But D’Arnaud worked a walk, bringing up the pitcher’s spot. To the amazement of the TV announcers, manager Brian Snitker sent up a pinch-hitter for Braves pitcher Ian Anderson, one of their best pitchers who had been effective over three innings. The pinch-hitter was Ehire Adrianza, another former Twin. Not only was Snitker taking out one of his best pitchers, he was using his primary reserve–in only the 4th inning! With a slow runner on first and two outs, it hardly seemed much of a rally or decisive moment in the game. Yet somehow,  Adrianza, who had made outs in all his previous pinch-hitting appearances in the series, fisted a broken-bat double to rightfield. It was suddenly a moment of drama for Rosario, already 1-for-2 against Buehler.
The at-bat itself was full of drama. Rosario swung and missed at the first two pitches, sinking into an 0-and-2 hole. He fouled off the next offering from Buehler. He didn’t bite on an outside pitch. Then he fouled off two more pitches, barely staying alive. But you sensed, the more pitches he saw, the better chance he would have. With each pitch, the tension racheted up a notch. On Buehler’s seventh pitch, an inside fastball, Rosario turned and drove it down the rightfield line, inside the foul pole, a half-dozen rows into the stands.
There was one moment of drama still to come, when Luke Jackson gave up a single, walk and double to the only three Dodgers he faced in the seventh and Tyler Matzek had to strike out three in a row to maintain a two-run lead, but Rosario’s home run effectively decided the game and gave the National League pennant to the Braves.

Playoff Preview

I’m looking forward to the Astros-Red Sox ALCS with pleasure, the Dodgers-Braves NLCS not so much. What a contrast in personalities and style of play. Both AL teams can flat-out hit, up and down their lineups, aided by the DH, too. Both NL teams had trouble scoring–and there weren’t a lot of dominant pitchers causing the problem. The Red Sox scored 26 runs in their three victories; the Dodgers’ 2-1 nailbiter last night was similarly emblematic. It may also be a gross generalization, but the NL squads seem unusually white, even whitebread. Any team featuring two Turners and a Taylor is pretty bland (or pretty Southern California) in this era. I don’t know a lot about the Braves, but their star is Freddie Freeman! By contrast, Boston, the last team to integrate, is led by Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Kike Hernandez. The Astros themselves could qualify for the Latin World Series, with Altuve, Gurriel, Correa. Alvarez. There’s a lot of attitude, enthusiasm and flair on both teams. And whereas playoffs often come down to a hot pitcher, that role has been diminished by managers who take their starters out at the slightest slump, even in the 2d or 3d inning.
So bring on the bats and let the games begin. And even if there is no play as exciting as Randy Arozarena’s straight steal of home for the Rays, I’m expecting highlights aplenty from the American Leaguers, and a bit of a snooze from the Nationals.

The Save

Traditional baseball statistics are being devalued, as their relationship to actual player value is rightly questioned. A pitcher’s won-lost record is now regularly described as unimportant. One current example is the pitcher who pitches four shutout innings in a 7-inning doubleheader game but doesn’t qualify for a win, even though, percentage-wise, he has contributed more innings to his team’s victory that the pitcher who goes five innings in a 9-inning game.
I have previously criticized the rules for a “save” as being capricious and arbitrary, and Wednesday’s Twins win over the Cubs (9/22/21) provided a glaring example. Alex Colome, the Twins’ dubious closer, was brought on in the 9th to protect a 5-2 lead, the minimum margin eligible for a save. Before recording the third out (on a swinging strikeout in the dirt), he had given up a double, two singles, a walk and three stolen bases, but only two runs. For this less-than-stellar performance he was awarded a save. The three relievers before him gave up a total of one hit and no runs, but Colome got a save, not them.

Runs Batted In

The Twins have said goodbye, for the moment at least, to leftfielder Eddie Rosario, who led the team in rbi’s the last two or three years. It used to be thought that the rbi was the statistic that best indicated a team’s most productive hitter, but not only did the Twins show little uncertainty in releasing Eddie, but no other Major League team offered to pick him up at his projected salary of $10 million. I can’t help but think this means that the rbi has been severely downgraded in this new age of analytics, and I can guess why.

Let’s look at the variable factors that may contribute to rbi totals. How many games did he play? Where in the lineup did he hit? The more at-bats, the more potential rbi opportunities.  We can account for this by dividing rbi’s by number of plate appearances. Not “at-bats,” because a sacrifice fly, squeeze bunt (rare), or bases-loaded walk or hit-by-pitch can produce an rbi without an official at-bat. But not all ABs are created equal. Obviously, someone hitting cleanup after three .300 hitters will have more chance at rbi’s than the number 8 hitter on a weak-hitting team. Maybe a rough corrective would involve factoring in a team’s total runs, so that an rbi for a weak offense will count more than one for a powerhouse, such as the Twins were in 2019 when they set the all-time home run record. I’d like to burrow down more deeply, though, and I wonder whether modern analytic data-collection can go this far.

Every rbi could be categorized for the situation it occurred in: the number of outs and the number and locations of base runners. If a hitter bats in the number of runs in a given situation that the average of all hitters did in that situation in, say, the previous year, his rbi average for that situation, in my proposal, is 1.00. Twice as many, 2.00. Half as many, .500. Computing the average of all the situations he faced would produce his overall rbi average. This would give us apples v. apples comparisons, not apples and oranges. To spell out one example: runners on second and first, no outs would be one “situation.” Bases loaded, one out, another. I would break the situations down by outs for the simple reason that the third base coach is more likely to send a runner home if there are two outs than no outs, so it’s more likely to result in an rbi. And of course if there are two runners on, rather than one, there is the chance for more rbi’s. I don’t know how many permutations there are, but it’s closer to 9th-grade math than infinity.

Is there any need to weigh the scores from the different situations differently, given that the rbi probability is much greater if the bases are loaded than if they are empty? Not at this point in my analysis. For our purposes, a run is a run, and we’re comparing one player against the league average. We’re looking for someone’s value as a run producer, whether in the 1st or 9th inning. But once we’ve given a player his rating for each possible situation, we can massage these data for other purposes, and the one that comes first to mind is “clutch hitting.” MLB tried to quantify this with something called the “game-winning rbi” in the 1980s. It died of its own uselessness because it couldn’t distinguish, for instance, between a bloop single in the 1st inning of a 9-0 blowout and a 9th-inning grand slam in a 4-3 squeaker. So, rather obviously, there are two new factors to consider if we are to put a value on the rbi: inning and game score.

Here the permutations and combinations are pretty close to infinite, so I’ll propose a different test: just as we now have a “quality start” for starting pitchers (a stat with its own problems), we should have “quality rbi’s.” A quality rbi is any rbi from the 7th inning on, or in the last inning of a rain-shortened game, in which the hitter’s team is tied or one run ahead, or results in his team’s being one run behind, tied or ahead. For this statistic, it doesn’t matter where in the order a batter hits. It does somewhat matter how good his team is, for the better team will have more runners on base and, thus, more chances for an rbi. Given the arbitrary nature of this statistic, however–unlike the more pure rbi average, above–I’ll let this unaccounted variable slide. Compared to the nothing that is here now, it is a meaningful marker. And this variable is less of a factor here than in such other recognized statistics as wins for a pitcher.

One last word on rbi’s. At some point in the not-too-distant past, the accepted abbreviation of “runs batted in” became “rbi,” instead of “rbi’s,” presumably on the theory that the plural “s” comes after the “r” for “runs,” not the “i.” I have always considered “rbi” an entity of its own, capable of taking an “‘s” after the entire abbreviation. I still do.

World Series 2020

The better team, the Dodgers, won the World Series last night, but they got more than a little help from the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and his adherence to a pet peeve of mine, “analytics.” This is the trend that has swept the Major Leagues the last half-dozen years, although it was introduced 20 years ago by the Oakland Athletics, as glorified in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. The old-time scout who relied on his eyes and his gut was replaced by the office nerd who crunched numbers; the skipper who had a feel for the game from decades in the trenches was replaced by the manager who was good with a computer. The prototypical general manager was now a young Ivy League grad who had only been in ballparks as a paying customer. Slightly late to the game, the Twins eschewed Ron Gardenhire, a baseball lifer, and Paul Molitor, a baseball legend, with Rocco Baldelli, not because of his fleeting and undistinguished playing career, but for his background working with the analytics-driven Rays. Similarly, baseball operations were given over to wunderkinds Derek Falvey and Chad Levine. Before going any further, I should point out that this administration has so far produced remarkable results in Minnesota.

Now, back to last night’s game. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay’s best pitcher, had totally mastered the Dodgers through five innings, allowing but one hit and striking out nine, while nursing a 1-0 lead thanks to Randy Arozarena’s first-inning home run. LA’s number nine hitter led off the 6th with a soft single to center, bringing up the top of the Dodger lineup for their third times at bat. What had these next three hitters done previously? Nothing! Nevertheless, Tampa manager Kevin Cash removed Snell, over his disbelief, and brought in Nick Anderson, who had given up runs in each of his last six postseason appearances. I was not the only one who echoed Snell’s disbelief and sensed imminent calamity, which was immediate. Mookie Betts, who had been quiet offensively in the Series, smoked a double. Anderson unleashed a wild pitch, allowing the runner on third to tie the score. Betts then streaked home on a grounder to first by Cory Seager, giving the Dodgers a lead and all the momentum they would need to cruise to the wire. With seven of their nine regulars hitting under .200 during the Series–all but one under .130, in fact–the Rays just didn’t have the firepower to come back against the LA bullpen.

Why did Cash remove Snell? Had he thrown too many pitches? (73) Did he seem to be tiring? (No) The only reason was that he would be facing the Dodger lineup for a third time, and analytics showed that a team’s batting average rose considerably the third time they faced the same pitcher–and I assume this analysis applied specifically to Snell. There was no consideration of how Snell had been pitching (two hits and no walks over five innings), how the upcoming batters had fared against him (six-up, six strikeouts), nor any allowance for the fact that this was a tremendously important World Series game and the last time Snell would pitch all year. “Analytics” dictated, take the pitcher out after 18 batters, so he was gone.

I’m sorry to come down so hard on Anderson, a Minnesota native, but he was such an obviously poor choice–obvious to everyone but Cash, apparently. Given that he was first out of the Rays’ bullpen, I’m guessing that he would not have to have been used if Snell had gone another inning. The strategy generally is to save your best relievers for later in the game, and Cash could have navigated the last three innings with pitchers who had been more successful, and would be more confident, including Aaron Loup and Pete Fairbanks, who finished up, and Diego Castillo and John Curtis, who both had more success. Looking at the Internet account of Twitter comments by other Major Leaguers, I find my view to be shared by just about everybody.

John Smoltz, the best TV color man around, let drop hints about his view of analytics baseball throughout the game–the first I’ve heard on a broadcast. His comments before the Snell maneuver were addressed to the defensive shifts that both teams employed. Yes, he said, over the course of a 162-game season the statistical averages will work out, but a World Series game is a single unique event, and the impact of a single ball hit the opposite way against the shift would be devastating. It didn’t happen in Game 6, and I’m not sure Smoltz articulated the position  as more than a gut feeling (I’ve written about my feelings at length elsewhere on this blog), but I know what he meant. Gone are the days of the 1991 Twins, when Jack Morris pitched into the 10th inning, refusing to be relieved, rising to the magnitude of the moment. Not incidentally, Smoltz was pitching for the Atlanta Braves that night.

The Shift – 2

An undiscussed consequence of the tendency to overshift pull hitters is what it means for the scoring. In a game last night the Angels played their shortstop in short right field, in between the first and second basemen. I presume a ground ball hit to the shifted shortstop will be scored 6-3. But now, what does that mean? It’s no longer an indication of where the batter hit the ball. It also messes up any fielding analysis. The main use I make of my scoresheet when I’m at a game is to look back and remind myself of what a batter has done in his previous at-bats. When I see a hitter went 6-3 in the 2d inning, how will I remember that he hit the ball to the right side of the infield?

Another way of looking at it: the scorer’s number designates the position on the field, not the player. Thus, when Jake Cave moves from center to left field as Byron Buxton enters for defensive purposes, his number changes from 8 to 7. In my example above, why shouldn’t David Fletcher, the Halos’ shortstop, change from 6 to 4 when he is shifted between the first and second baseman? Does it have to be for more than one batter? If Buxton got hurt after one batter and Cave went back to center, he would still have been a 7 then back to 8.

Twins Preview

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The Minnesota Twins are coming off one of their best-ever regular seasons and a pretty darn good offseason, too. They added Josh Donaldson, their highest-paid free agent ever, with his 3rd-base defense and 36 homers, to their offense, which set a Major League record for home runs; and three veteran starting pitchers to their somewhat suspect rotation. What’s not to like?

Applying some typical Minnesota sports negativity, let me count the ways: Luis Arraez could have a sophomore slump instead of hitting .400. Mitch Garver could wear down from having to catch more than last year with Jason Castro gone. Eddie Rosario could repeat the second half of last year instead of the first, when he momentarily led the league in homers. Miguel Sano, after his late start and faced with a short season, might never find his timing. Byron Buxton could get hurt (this is a near certainty). Nelson Cruz could start to show his age (40). Josh Donaldson could have a year like 2018 instead of 2019 (there’s a reason he qualified, after all, as Comeback Player of the Year). Jorge Polanco could fail another drug test. The three new starters – Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey (an unfortunate name for a pitcher) – are all on the wrong side of 30, and there’s probably a reason their former teams let them go. The bullpen is the Twins’ unacknowledged strength, but everyone knows that relief mastery can disappear without warning (see, e.g., Trevor Hildenberger last year) or arise from nowhere (see, e.g., Ryan Pressley from last year); so my confidence in Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Sergio Romo may be misplaced.

A full baseball season is one of sport’s great unpredictables. Whether a 60-game season will admit of as many twists, turns and rookie sensations is anyone’s guess. But one certainty in every sport is the impact of injuries, which should be many times magnified in 2020. Not only have the players had a shorter time to get their bodies ready for the season – a threat to pitchers’ arms and baserunners’ legs – but the compressed schedule (the Twins have only two days off all summer) could accentuate that problem. And oh, have you heard about Covid-19? Talk about unpredictability: not only could the pandemic sideline a star on game day, it could jeopardize an entire team, not to mention the whole enterprise.

With all that being said, I am looking forward to once again following the soap opera of a baseball season. It would be nice if the Twins built on their success of last year. It would be even nicer if they found a way to beat the Yankees, in the regular season or the postseason. But come what may, I’ll be watching.

Stealing Signs

Major League Baseball came down hard on the Astros’ GM and manager because of a perception problem and that’s whom they could punish. Jeffrey Luhnow and A.J. Hinch apparently didn’t instigate or even encourage their coaches or players to use the video-replay monitor to steal the opposing catcher’s signs, but it occurred on their watch, so they have to go. My guess is that any attempt to penalize the players who actually did this would have run up against the players’ union, which would have been messy and taken much longer. Also, as I kept reading around World Series time last year, a lot of people in baseball don’t like the Astros’ management, which probably made this a little easier.

Is stealing signs really so bad? This is not the Chicago Black Sox scandal: no one was throwing games or giving less than their full commitment to winning. In fact, stealing signs has a long tradition in baseball; certain old-timers were famous for their prowess in this regard. There is no rule against the runner on second relaying information to the batter if he can somehow figure out the catcher’s signs. At the same time, I am often told, many batters don’t want to receive this information. It’s one more thing – perhaps one thing too many – to think about when you’re at the plate and you have to be able to adjust to a pitch’s location and speed, not just its type. And there’s always the chance the information provided will be wrong – which will really mess you up if you’re relying on it. The Astros’ alleged means of transmission – banging on a trash can – hardly seems foolproof. “Just let me hit,” seems a more sensible attitude.

No, it is only the use of electronic equipment to steal signs that is prohibited. You can see why MLB, with the ever-increasing sophistication of electronic equipment, wants to quash this practice in its infancy. It also, justifiably, wants to present a squeaky-clean image after seeing the public-relations messes the NFL has been in recently over video-taping other teams’ practices and such trivialities as taking an ounce of air pressure out of a football. Opposing fans will see to it that any plausible controversy will not die. And of course I should mention Baseball’s own bad handling of the steroid era, the taint of which still hangs around every time the Hall of Fame has a vote.

I doubt the stigma will prevent Hinch from managing again, perhaps after a coaching stint, given the high turnover rate among Major League managers, not to mention the willingness of owners to hire retreads (e.g., Gardenhire, Ron).  And managers will henceforth be vigilant in supervising how the game’s video feed is monitored and used. But in all, baseball is just a game played by boys, some older than others, and boys will be boys. If you can get away with something, somebody will try it. Spitballs, corked bats, phantom tags, pretending the pitch hit you – where you draw the line is a question of personal morality and often depends on whether it’s your team or the other guys who are doing it.

World Series 2019

As a Twins fan, I found my heart pulling for the more familiar Astros, although my mind favored the Nationals for all the obvious reasons: they were the underdogs, the Astros’ executives were arrogant and sexist, and, believing in the principle of distribution, Washington, D.C. had not had a winner since 1924!
With travel and social commitments I was only able to watch sporadically but didn’t feel I missed much. The games themselves were almost uniformly disappointing, with lopsided final scores of 12-3, 8-1, 7-1, 7-2. Even the climactic Game Seven, which was a nailbiter through seven innings, ended up a 6-2 runaway. What you want in a World Series are games that go down to the last out, the best hitter against the best pitcher with the game on the line. Mazeroski hitting a homer in the 10th; McCovey lining out to Richardson; Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, etc. Here, the big blow was a “cheap” (because not that long and almost slicing foul) two-run homer by journeyman Howie Kendrick off an undistinguished reliever, Will Harris. And then, rather than mount a comeback, the Astros fell apart, including a run-scoring error by their defensive replacement in centerfield.
Still, all credit to a Nationals team that entered the playoffs as a wild card, won five elimination games and amazingly won four games in Houston. It makes you wonder if future teams will work so hard to obtain “home-field advantage.” There are several other takeaways.
1. Anthony Rendon is a legitimate Star. He got big hit after big hit, including the momentum-swinging home run off Zach Greinke in the 7th, only Washington’s second hit of the game. For all the fuss and furor over Manny Machado last year, I would take Rendon over Machado in a heartbeat.
2. Juan Soto is scary. He only turned 21 during the Series, yet the Astros pitchers were clearly afraid to pitch to him – and when they did it was usually a mistake. Maybe opposing teams will figure something out, or maybe he won’t have the same success against lefties, but for now his future looks golden.
3. Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are scrappy speedsters, fun to watch, in the middle of interesting and unusual on-field action. (Why do I think they look like LA Dodgers?)
4. The Nationals probably won’t be a dynasty. For starters, they have the oldest squad in the Majors. Then, every time we think a dynasty is starting, it doesn’t happen. Think of the Cubs with Bryant and Rizzo; the Red Sox with Betts and Boegarts; now the Astros with Altuve and Bregman. Scherzer and Strasburg were great, but it’s hard not to worry that their best days – or injury-free seasons – are not behind them.
5. The electronic strike zone can’t come soon enough. My personal view is that Game 7, and thus the entire Series, swung on a missed strike call. After Rendon’s homer, Greinke had a 2-1 count on Soto when his pitch at the knees was called a ball. Greinke couldn’t believe the call, and the box on TV showed the pitch entirely in the strike zone, not just on the border. Whether flustered or having to pitch more carefully in the 3-1 hitter’s count, Greinke walked Soto. That led manager AJ Hinch to remove Greinke, who had given up only two hits and thrown only 80 pitches. On reliever Harris’s second pitch, Kendricks hit his home run and took the life out of Houston. We’ll never know if, pitching 2-2, Soto would have been more anxious, and Greinke could have thrown one of his drooping curves and retired him. Then, if Greinke had finished the 7th, Hinch surely would have brought in Gerrit Cole to pitch the 8th and 9th, and the story today would be different.
6. One of baseball’s worst rules was exposed when Turner was called out for interference in Game 6 as he, the first baseman’s glove and the ball arrived simultaneously a foot before first base. The glove flew off, the ball wasn’t caught and Turner should have been safe. Turner ran a direct line from his batter’s box to the middle of the bag, yet the rule would require him to run a zig-zag to first, moving to foul territory before returning to fair territory, where the base is located. More to the point is the justice of the situation: Turner was penalized for doing nothing wrong, while the defense was rewarded for making an off-target throw and missing a catch. When a rule, however well-intentioned, results in a wrong, it should be changed, and it easily could be. For starters: There can be no interference when the runner is within one step of the base (which is what the TV announcers thought the rule said).

A Save Anomaly

The Twins were leading the A’s 4-1 starting the 9th. Enter Sam Dyson in a “save” situation. He retires none of the four batters he faces, giving up a single, double and two walks, leaving the game with the bases loaded, no outs and a 4-2 score. Enter Taylor Rogers, who proceeds to strike out the side after giving up one hit that scores two runs and ties the game. Clearly, Sam Dyson has blown a sure win for the Twins, and his ERA will show that he gave up 3 runs; but for his trouble he gets a “hold (H)” next to his name in the box score, merely because his team was still ahead when he departed. Conversely, Rogers, who made the best of the fraught situation he inherited, gets a “BS” – blown save.
This anomaly repeated itself Labor Day with the Twins on the winning side this time. Ahead 3-2, the Tigers brought in Buck Farmer to start the 8th. He gave up a walk and two singles, leaving with the bases loaded but no runs scored, so he was awarded a “hold.” The next pitcher gave up one hit, resulting in two runs scoring. He, not Farmer, got the “blown save” – although Farmer, incongruously, received the loss to go along with his hold!