When Will The Games Return?

Boy, do I miss my baseball season! Where’s the box score I can peruse before going to bed each night? Where’s the split screen on my computer I can zoom in on when the Twins rally? Where’s the intellectual stimulation of thinking how I would have managed the game differently? Where’s the agony of seeing the Yankees win again? This would have been such an entertaining year to be a Twins fan – even better than 2019 if Buxton and Sano could somehow stay healthy and show more maturity and Donaldson could play as advertised. But would I want a season played entirely in Arizona begining July 1? It’s hard to say something wouldn’t be better than nothing, but so much of the beauty and legitimacy of baseball comes from its 162 (or 154)-game schedule. If the season were only a month long, Chris Colabello would be an RBI champion and Eddie Rosario would have led the league in home runs. A shortened season would be of interest, but not something to take too seriously.

The big issue for all sports is economics. Would the owners lose more if games were played without spectators in a truncated season than if the season were called off? Every sport is different in this regard. I can see golf coming back online well before anything else. One, there are no salaries. Prize money can be set at the discretion of the tournament, and players could participate or not. They could practice social distancing, just like country club golfers are already doing. And spectators are of less importance to golf than any other major sport, both in terms of revenue and atmosphere. So, to be sure, let’s get enough testing in place to test the golfers and their caddies, then bring on the Masters.

The NBA was far enough into its season that it could go right to the playoffs without complaint, whenever health requirements permitted. Spectators add a soundtrack, but games on the playground can be plenty competitive, as would games with pros. Contagious contact is a given – and the NBA was early in identifying cases among its players – so testing before every game would be a necessity, but that could be done for 12 players and 3 coaches per teams and 5 officials. 35 tests a game is not outrageous. If spectators were eliminated, there would be no compelling reason to hold games in the teams’ own cities, and concentrating play in central locations would eliminate travel that is often an issue. Basketball revenue, I am sure, comes largely from TV; so the owners should want to put on the show. Players’ salaries will be the big sticking point. How do you “pro rate” if you’re only playing playoff games? What about players on non-playoff teams?

The NFL is the first to take the spotlight, with its three-day player draft this week. This provides a veneer of activity, but it’s basically a mirage. The numbers in football dwarf those in basketball; testing would almost have to be universal before it could be considered safe to play (not that football is terribly “safe” to begin with). Social distancing is impossible. TV revenue is still the king, but ticket-buyers must be a much bigger revenue source than in any other sport, and the absence of crowd noise would also be a much bigger factor. A shortened season would create competitive disadvantages, but that could be accepted, given the circumstances. There isn’t the option, as there would be in basketball or baseball, of compressing or extending the schedule. Football is truly “America’s Sport” now, and this will be where the rubber meets the road: will the NFL have a 2020 season?

Tennis is like golf, except for the relative lack of TV revenue. The game could be played quite safely, and there are no salaries that owners have to pay. The question is, would anyone put up enough prize money to make it worthwhile for enough name players to compete? People will watch golf on TV for the sake of the game. People will not watch tennis unless they care about the participants. Both golf and tennis rely on corporate sponsorships and naming opportunities for the events. Will a corporation, struggling with its bottom line in a faltering economy, throw a chunk of money at a sporting event without spectators and, perhaps, dubious TV viewership, just to get its name before the public?

As is my wont, I will pass on hockey.

In all of the above I see a goldmine for lawyers and agents. How much less money will professional athletes be willing to accept? Some seem willing to play for the love of the game. Others measure their worth by how much they get paid. Collective bargaining agreements between players and owners take months, if not years. Will there be time, given the fluid health advisories, to strike a deal and get in a reasonable facsimile of a sports season?  I have no one to bet with, but my guess is that golf and tennis will both resume activity in 2020, with golf leading the way. Baseball, basketball and football will have enough to do, figuring out their responsibilities to their 2020 contracts, and will cross their fingers and hope to resume in 2021.

Super Bowl and Tricks

On 4th and 1 inside the 49er 5-yard line, the Chiefs lined up with four men in the backfield, with the quarterback under center. Then, on cue, all four pirouetted(!) like synchronized swimmers and moved one step to the right. The ensuing snap then bypassed the quarterback and went directly to one of the running backs, who charged directly ahead for a first down, almost breaking the goal line. I heard this morning on ESPN that the Chiefs borrowed this maneuver from the University of Michigan’s 1948 Rose Bowl victory, although a clip showed the shift but not the pirouette. What effect the spin had on the defense, or the success of the play, I don’t know, but it sure was fun to see and must have been a kick to practice.

My second thought was that in years of watching the Minnesota Vikings, I have never seen such flamboyant trickery. There were also numerous reverses, flips, option runs and other creative plays more imaginative than anything done by the Vikings. Maybe it’s the nature of their stolid, Midwestern division: Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay tend to play straightforward football without the multidimensional quarterbacks rising elsewhere in the NFL. I recently watched a 15-minute YouTube video of Trick Plays in the NFL: fake field goals and punts, halfback passes, the Philly Special, etc. Conspicuously absent were the Vikings.

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.

2019 Vikings

The best player for the Vikings today was their punter, Brad Colquitt, which says pretty much what you need to know about their 27-10 playoff loss to the 49ers. Their ground game was literally nonexistent, their trademark screen passes often lost yardage, and Kirk Cousins didn’t have the time to mount a downfield passing attack. The defense fought but simply wore down: not only were they only six days and two plane rides away from an overtime game in New Orleans, but the Vikings’ offense, with seven three-and-outs, gave them no rest. The game actually wasn’t as close as the score. The Vikings touchdown came on an underthrown pass to Stefon Diggs that was almost as freaky as the Minnesota Miracle of two years ago, and their field goal resulted from a sparkling interception by Erin Hendricks, not any movement by the offense. Meanwhile, the 49ers were content to milk the clock by running on every play in the second half. No doubt they could have easily scored 40+ points if there had been any need.

In recent years and maybe more, the Vikings offensive line has been unable to protect the quarterback. The need is obvious, and every year the pundits plead for the Vikings to use a top draft pick to get a left tackle. Maybe it’s not as easy to find offensive linemen in college as the more glamorous, and visible, skill position players. The Vikings have also traded for offensive tackles, without notable success. For whatever reason, I can’t remember the last time I saw a Vikings quarterback drop back in the pocket, calmly survey the field and pick out his target the way the other three quarterbacks on TV today were able to do. If Cousins doesn’t release the ball as soon as he gets set, he will be in trouble, and he is not very good at eluding rushers. In the penultimate regular season game against the Packers and against San Francisco today, the defense seemed to swarm Cousins at will whenever they needed to.

Nevertheless, we can be grateful for the Vikings’ season, when you consider that ten other NFC teams didn’t make the playoffs at all. There wasn’t, however, a signature win: none of the Vikings’ 10 wins came against a team that ended the season over .500. When they beat the Cowboys in Dallas it seemed like a big deal, until we realized how bad the Cowboys were. I would’ve like a win over Chicago in the season finale – an 11-5 record sounds better than 10-6 – and the Vikings’ second-stringers came within a blown 4th-down coverage of doing that.  The end-of-season losses, though, made the wild-card playoff win over the Saints even more preposterous, and that win, by itself, made the season worthwhile.

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).

Twins Post-Mortem

The sad thing about the Twins’ losing three games in a row to the Yankees was their non-competitive nature. Playoff baseball can be exciting and instructive, something to think about and hash over, and a five-game series – as we’re seeing in all three other division match-ups – can be an emotional rollercoaster. I fully expected the Twins to fall to the Bronx Bombers, but I hoped the games would be fun to watch. Not so much.
Nothing about their playoff pusillanimity – 16 straight losses over the last decade – can diminish the pleasure the Twins gave me during the season. Never before have I so enjoyed home runs (usually I’m a triples, hit-and-run, bunt and steal kind of guy) or been so continually surprised by a team’s resilience. Every time I thought the collapse had arrived, the Twins got up off the mattress, seemingly unconcerned by their fans’ lack of faith, and rattled off a couple of solid wins to right the ship. Their winning style was fairly consistent: bang some home runs in the early or middle innings, then mix-and-match relief pitchers for the final four innings to hold on for the win. Usually the opposition was sufficiently demoralized and the Twins’ lead held up. There were almost no walk-off wins – none at all until the last third of the season, I believe – and not a lot of scrappy rallies. The variety came from who would hit the home runs that day.
The starting pitching was surprisingly good in the season’s first half (Martin Perez!) and perhaps unsurprisingly bad in the second half (Martin Perez!), while the relievers were just the opposite. After a wholesale roster purge – gone were Magill, Hildenberger, Parker, M—— the Twins settled on a relatively reliable procession of Duffey, May, Romo and Rogers to navigate the latter innings of close games, while giving a fleet of rookies a chance to handle the innings in blow-outs. As a result, the Twins look fairly set for relievers as they enter the 2020 season. The starting rotation is a different matter.
I have never been sold on Jose Berrios as the staff ace he’s been anointed. I wonder if he might have fared better against the Yankees starting Game Two. Jake Odorizzi was clearly the more mature, consistently competent starter this year, and I hope the Twins will sign him for next year. Beyond that the field is open. No one is talking about Michael Pineda, who looked formidable before his drug suspension. Will the Twins want him back? Kyle Gibson has been frustrating for too many seasons to be counted on again, and Perez inspires no confidence. Will one of the rookies step up: Graterol? Smeltzer? Someone I haven’t heard of?
Which brings me to Luis Arraez, whom I had never heard of when this year started but who firmly established himself as the Twins’ best hitter – in the playoffs as well as the regular season. Writing him in ink as the full-time second baseman and leadoff hitter is a great way to start looking forward to next year. The other two who performed well against New York should also be fixtures, with caveats. Jorge Polanco, the Twins’ All-Star shortstop, is a professional hitter. His lack of arm strength makes one wish he could play second base, but Arraez is there. Eddie Rosario is the most fun Twin to watch, by far. Some confuse his flamboyance with lacadaise, but when he gets hot he can carry the team. Jim Souhan in the Strib recently suggested trading Rosario for a starting pitcher, but if the Twins are to trade a hitter, I’d rather it be Miguel Sano.
Sano continues to infuriate me, almost as much for his attitude and immaturity as for his strikeouts. I heard that he had the highest “exit-velocity” of any hitter, which may just indicate that he swings for the fences every at bat. His nonchalance when striking out seems to suggest a belief that striking out is okay, so long as he hits a mammoth home run every three games. I will concede that he won a few games for the Twins; but I will never enjoy watching someone appear so helpless at the plate, missing pitches by six inches, even fanning on fastballs down the middle. If there weren’t hanging curves, he wouldn’t be in the Majors.
As for the rest, I hope Max Kessler will continue to improve when he won’t have to hit lead-off, and C.J. Cron will anchor first base, injury-free. The biggest question mark, as it has been for five years, will be Byron Buxton. Can he avoid injury? Can he learn, and be willing, to bunt? By themselves, those two things would improve the Twins’ chances immeasurably.
But all these questions can wait…until pitchers and catchers report next February.

Twins’ Homers

Now that Jorge Polanco and Jonathan Schoop have each reached the 20 home run mark, giving the Twins eight players with that figure – a new Major League record – my Minnesota negativism has me worried about something just as important: although the Twins have broken the Major League record for home runs in one season, set by the Yankees last year, I fear that this year’s Yankees will overtake the Twins and own the record by year-end. The Yankees set a record in August for home runs in a month, and they are continuing at about that pace. I don’t know if the Twins are much more than a dozen ahead at this point; and when the Yankees hit five in a game, as they did yesterday, that lead can disappear pretty quickly. The Twins’ only edge may be the inferior pitching they will be facing the rest of the year.
I am so caught up in the home run game that I almost don’t care if they lose, so long as they hit at least two homers. If Cleveland makes a run for the division lead I may feel differently, but the Indians are so crippled by injuries – losing Ramirez and Naquin just last week – that it will take a monumental collapse for the Twins not to stay ahead. Of course, a monumental collapse is still possible.
A general thought on the Twins’ postseason chances. Their starting pitching is so unreliable it is inconceivable they could win more than one game in any playoff series. Their winning formula is to hit home runs early to give their pitcher a comfortable lead, letting him pitch with some confidence. Then their bullpen, a relative strength, holds off the opposing team. In the playoffs, however, you can’t count on the other team’s ace pitcher giving up a lot of early home runs. I, like everyone else in Minnesota, will be satisfied just to see them win their division.

The Twins’ Triple-A’s

On an off-day in the Twins’ pennant race, it is useful to look at the longer-term future of the club – specifically, who will be on the roster next year. Most of the starters will be back (except to the extent Jonathan Schoop is considered a starter), which means the competition will again be for the three or four backup spots. This is where it gets interesting, for the Twins have three almost identical players who will be fighting for one or more of those spots, and their names all start with ‘A’! Willians Astudillo established himself early in the year as a fan favorite – La Tortuga – for his hustle and the fact that he swings at every strike and rarely misses. Like his competitors, he was used in both the infield and outfield, but unlike them he also catches, which makes him an especially valuable property. Luis Arraez wasn’t even on the radar screen when the season started, but injuries to Astudillo and the Twins’ middle infielders gave him a chance, which he took advantage of by hitting .500 for a month. He now plays almost regularly and has the lowest strikeout rate on the team, if not the league. Before Astudillo and Arraez flashed, Ehire Adrianza was considered the essential utility piece on the roster. After a so-so first half, he has become a dangerous hitter when given the chance to play; and to my eyes he is a better defensive player than the other A’s. In fact, he is probably a better shortstop than the incumbent, Jorge Polanco, who should be a second baseman – except that is Arraez’s natural position for now, further complicating the picture.
Partly because they are so similar, there really isn’t room for all three, although any or all of the three fully deserve to be on a big-league roster. The other pieces currently in the puzzle are Jason Castro – maybe expendable if Astudillo is an adequate backup catcher; Jake Cave – the only legitimate outfield substitute, with both speed and power potential the others lack; and Marwin Gonzalez, who is perfectly adequate everywhere and has the most experience. Assuming Schoop is released (a safe assumption), second base will open up for Arraez. Assuming Castro is not re-signed, Astudillo becomes the second catcher. That leaves at least one roster spot for either Gonzalez, at a much higher salary, or Cave, who still has room to improve. Or someone else – a minor leaguer or free agent – who’s not in the picture this year. Interestingly, the Twins could have avoided this whole situation had they not recklessly traded away (for nothing) Eduardo Escobar in the middle of last year’s lost season. Escobar was sent to Arizona and so far this year has 102 rbi’s, 15 more than anybody on the Twins. We could see the same thing happen with Adrianza.

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!

The Problem Called the Shift

Data analytics having taken over baseball-think in 2019, there’s scarcely a team that hasn’t committed to shifting its infielders at the slightest suggestion of a pull hitter at the plate. Three infielders on one side of second base is no longer reserved, as it was in my youth, for Ted Williams. My observations are based solely on watching Minnesota Twins games this year, but so far I can say that I Hate the shift.
1. and least important is the traditionalist complaint: it dilutes and distorts the classic alignment and function of the nine defensive positions.
2. it’s not helping the Twins: Maybe someone is keeping track, but it seems to me that Twins hitters, especially Max Kepler, have been deprived of many more hits than the opposition.
3. it exposes a modern-day failing: it should be easy to get on base by hitting, or better yet, bunting, against the shift. I saw Eddie Rosario, early in the year, square around and bunt a pitch toward third base, where no one was playing. He could have walked to first, and in fact almost had the chance to stretch it to a double. With hits so hard to come by – the best hitters make outs 7 out of 10 times – why not take what the defense gives you? Either players don’t want to, because they’re so intent on hitting a home run, or they haven’t learned to bunt or hit to the opposite field – old-school skills that used to be a part of learning to play the game but are seldom seen anymore. (I can’t remember the last time the Twins tried a hit-and-run.)
4. this is the big one: there will always be ground balls that make it through the infield for hits, but against a standard defense the ball has to be fairly well hit. When the infield is in the shift, a weakly hit ball against the shift is automatically a base hit, because there is no one there to field it. How discouraging to the pitcher who makes a great pitch, only to have the hitter flail and hit a nubber…to no one.
My Solution: Earlier this year there were rumors that Major League Baseball might consider implementing a rule requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base. Other sports – including the NFL and NBA – add and change rules with some frequency, so it can be done, even if baseball has been slow to follow their lead. I haven’t heard much discussion lately, compared to conjecture about an electronic strike zone or adding a 26th player to the roster.
The other solution is the natural one: convincing players to beat the shift on their own, by bunting and punching balls to the other field. Not only could they pick up easy hits, they would force the other team out of the shift, opening up the normal holes. For every action there’s a reaction, and I hope this particular pendulum will start swinging back, returning baseball to the grand old game I so love.