Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Utley suspension

Chase Utley watches GameThree of the Dodgers-Mets
division series from the dugout.
Chase Utley was suspended Sunday for Saturday's excessive and injurious takeout of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. He appealed the suspension and was, as is typical of baseball suspensions, eligible to play in Monday's game.

I wrote about the Saturday play here and expanded upon that post in the Monday print column. But while I think Utley's play was dangerous and, by the rulebook description, illegal, I can't see that the suspension is warranted.

The governing rule on this is 5.09 (a)(13):

[A batter is out when ... ] A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play;  
(Comment): The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play

Both in the itself and the rulebook commentary emphasize the umpire's judgment. In practice, umpires have chosen not to exercise that judgment. In practice, umps will only make that call if the baserunner assaults the infielder with a tire iron. The umpire, Chris Guccione, followed the tradition, which is why Utley's defenders can legitimately say it was a legal play.

I may be taking an overly lawyerly approach to this, but I can't see how the suspension can stand up. I also don't think making Utley actually miss games is necessarily the point.

Whether Utley takes the field again or not, Joe Torre has now put the umpires on notice: Enforce Rule 5.09 (a)(13). The issuance of the suspension effectively tells Guccione and the his brethren that his judgment on the the play was wrong. And it warns baserunners not to repeat what Utley did.

I fully expect that Rule 5.09(a)(13) will be revised this winter, with expanded commentary and less emphasis on the judgment of the umpire. Whether it is or not, stricter enforcement of 5.09(a)(13) is overdue and perhaps sufficient to cool off the aggressive basecrashers.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ex-Twin watch: LaTroy Hawkins

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins after the 2003 season,
and he's still pitching in the majors -- for now.
LaTroy Hawkins intends this to be his final major league season. Here's hoping his last appearance isn't Friday's loss in the division series.

Hawkins is, apparently, one of the last men in the Toronto bullpen. (So too is fellow former Twins Liam Hendriks, of whom I may blog as the postseason progresses.) The Hawk didn't get into Friday's game until the 14th inning, when he yielded three hits and two runs in two-thirds of an inning and was saddled with the loss.

The Hawk is 42 and has been in the majors for 21 seasons, His 1,042 appearances ranks 10th on the all-time list; should he renege on his retirement plans and duplicate this season's 42 games pitched, he'd climb into the top five all time.

It's an intriguing career. Longevity is usually related to quality, but Hawkins has a modest career record of 75-94, 4.31. The only category he ever led the league in was earned runs allowed (129 in 1999).

To be sure, that record is tainted by the Twins' persistent attempts in the 1990s to find a starting pitcher in his talent; his ERA in his 98 career starts was 6.11. Hawkins has said that he thanks God everyday for Tom Kelly, who made him a relief pitcher, but it was also Kelly who ran him out for all 98 of those starts.

Obviously, Hawkins thrived in the bullpen. He had a few scattered seasons in which he found himself closing, but for most of his career he was a seventh-inning guy -- a set-up man, and not even the top option. He pitched for 11 teams in his 21 seasons, with nine years in Minnesota. Once he left the Twins as a free agent, he was a wandering arm for hire.

Baseball Reference estimates that he's made more than $47 million in his major league career. Nice work if you can get it and keep it. For more than two decades, Hawkins has always found somebody willing to pay him to fill out the pitching staff.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pic of the Week

Ruben Tejada, shortstop for the New York Mets,
fractured his leg on this play Friday night.
Let's call this was it was: A rolling block by Chase Utley. It was not a slide; nothing but his feet touched the ground between leaving first base and undercutting the leaping Tejada. This sort of no-slide bodyblock of infielders was routine in the days of Frank Robinson and Hal McRae. Eventually a rule was put in to allow the umpire to call a double play if the baserunner made no effort to touch the base. Utley never touched the base, so he clearly made no such effort.

That rule is seldom invoked. It should have been in this case, but the umpiring crew, and specifically second base umpire Chris Guccione, lacked the, let us say, courage to make that call. Not that making the interference call would heal Tejada's leg.

This play comes a few weeks after a similar late slide by the Cubs' Chris Coghlan broke the leg of Pittsburgh infielder Jung Ho Kang.

Utley's block, even in the context of ''gotta break up the double play," was probably unnecessary. I don't think Tejada could have gotten the double play had Utley simply slid into the base. There are differing opinions on whether it was a dirty play. I think it was.

Utley was wrong. The umps were wrong. And I sincerely hope that MLB, which has largely cleaned up the home plate collisions, will tighten the rules on force play slides. If you hit the infielder, you've got to touch the base as well, or have the DP called automatically. No judgment required.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ex-Twins watch: Chris Colabello

Chris Colabello tags out Texas' Josh Hamilton in the
first inning Friday afternoon.
The Toronto Blue Jays could almost be described as "Twins Canada." The roster includes Ben Revere, who has played left field and led off in both playoff games; starting pitcher R.A. Dickey; bullpen arms Liam Hendriks and LaTroy Hawkins; and Chris Colabello, first baseman-outfielder and right-handed bat. All are former Twins.

Colabello is pushing 32 now. He's been a long time waiting for his shot, and his best opportunity with the Twins went awry in 2014 when he injured his thumb and tried to play through it. The Twins let him go, He landed with Toronto, made the roster out of spring training, and was playing a lot of outfield for the Jays when the Twins first saw them in May.

Colabello is miscast as an outfielder, and when the Jays acquired Revere from the Phillies in July Colabello lost most of that portion of his playing time. Revere and Colabello are pretty much opposite players. Revere is small, speedy, left-handed, a singles hitter; Colabello is big, slow, right-handed, a power threat. Playing Revere over Colabello is about the Jays needing his specific skill set.

Before the All-Star Game, Colabello had 221 plate appearances and hit .325/.371/.500, a very strong slash line. After the All-Star Game, his playing time fell off (139 PA) but his production did not (.315/.360/.551).

The Jays didn't have to reduce Colabello's playing time to get Revere into the lineup. They could have made him the first baseman. Instead he splits playing time with Justin Smoak, who hit .226/.299/.470. Even granting that Smoak is a better defensive first baseman, it's difficult to see that his glove makes up for the hitting difference.

But the core of the Jays lineup is heavily right handed. Josh Donaldson, Jose Batista, Edwin Encarncion, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin -- all right handed. Smoak is a switch hitter, so he gives the Jays a left-handed stick with some power to balance out the right-handed sluggers. It's the skill set issue again. Colabello is a right-handed slugger on a team with a surplus of right-handed sluggers, and that limits him now to a platoon role.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The non-quality of the broadcasts

McCarthy's ire was raised by the FS1 studio crew. and specifically Pete Rose, who twice went on rants about Josh Donaldson's coming out of the Rangers-Blue Jays game after being kneed in the head.

The Donaldson play itself -- I'm not going to waste a lot of sympathy on him. He went in late and high. He got a knee in the head from a leaping infielder because he was sliding to make hard contact. He got what he was looking for. Donaldson is a likely MVP, and I'm rooting for Toronto in this series, and if he is concussed it's going to hurt the Blue Jays, but it's his own fault.

But the FS1 broadcasters Thursday were pretty poor. There is a lot of overlap these days between the various Fox baseball productions and MLB TV, and I'm not sure who exactly deserves the blame or credit for various aspects, but Harold Reynolds is emphatically MLB TV's fault nowadays, and I find him unlistenable. The sound was off for my viewing by the second inning of the afternoon game.

One thing I will give FS1 credit for: the graphics to illustrate the infield shifts were good and informative: different colors for each of the infielders showing the traditional positioning and where the infielder was actually playing. I've not seen that used before, and it's particularly useful on those shifts in which the shortstop remains on on the left side but the third baseman has moved to the other side of second base.

But really, FS1 has to be able to find announcers who, if they want to criticize sabermetrics, at least know what it is they're ripping. A.J. Pierzynski and John Smoltz don't, and said so. Specifically, they were questioning the preseason predictions of the Royals. How can you predict a team with this rotation and this deep lineup to win 70-some games?

Well, because Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas drastically outperformed any reasonable expectation. Because the Royals rotation really is NOT good (by Baseball Reference's version of WAR, it was the third worst starting staff in the American League). Because when those predictions were made, Ben Zobrist was an Oakland Athletic, not a Kansas City Royal. Because while Alex Gordon was indeed hitting eighth Thursday night, that's because manager Ned Yost insists on hitting Alcedes Escobar and his sub-.300 on-base percentage leadoff, not because the Royals have a truly deep lineup.

Hey, Morales and Moustakas had really good years. But if Moustakas had hit at the .641 OPS he did in 2013-14 instead of the .817 he did this year -- and if Morales had hit at the .612 OPS he did last year after his sustained holdout -- the Royals lineup would be the freaking disaster the metrics predicted.

One problem with three-man booths is that there are too many voices. I had the sense that the play-by-play guy knew the rationale for the predictions, but he's got the action to call, and he's supposed to be directing traffic, not arguing with ignorants.

And later, we saw a problem with using current players (Pierzynski) in the booth. Late in the game there was cause for criticism of an umpire, and Pierzynski begged off because he didn't want to make any umpires unhappy.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

One and done

The Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games. The Chicago Cubs won 97. These are the second- and third-best win totals in baseball this year, but they were in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 100, so they wound up in the wild card game.

Jake Arrieta pitched Wednesday night as he has for a few months now, which is to say about as well as anybody possibly can, so the Cubs won and move on to face ... the Cardinals.

You don't have to look very hard to find people who think the one-and-done format is unfair to the wild card entries. I'm not in that camp. If the Pirates and Cubs wanted to avoid that game (and they did), they needed to win their division. The Pirates had losing records against both the Reds and the Brewers. Turn that around, and it would have been the Cardinals playing the Cubs.

The Pirates may well a better team than either the Dodgers or Mets, but their better won-loss record in and of itself doesn't necessarily prove that. The fact is, with unbalanced schedules and variations on interleague play, teams in the same league aren't playing anything close to the same schedule. And treating the Pirates as equal to the division winners is emphatically unfair to the division winners, who -- you know -- finished first.

This format isn't as good at rewarding quality as the pre-division practice of "best record goes to the World Series," but that era isn't returning. I'm old, and my fandom doesn't extend to the days before divisions. This format does give more weight to the regular season than did the previous one-wild card system.

Most years in most leagues, this format is going to wind up with something closer to the American League wild card entries -- two teams that aren't exactly medicore but flawed. The 2015 National League is atypical. There was only one genuine divisional race and five teams well ahead of the other 10.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The corner infield "logjam"

Terry Ryan on Tuesday had a media session Tuesday heading into the organizational meetings that start later this week in Fort Myers. The consensus on Twitter was that there was no big news coming out of it but a few tidbits were informational.

  • No surgeries are planned, but Brian Dozier is to have an MRI on his hip. 
  • The coaching staff is expected to return en masse, although contracts have yet to be finalized.
  • Ryan won't pinpoint any specific position or player for offseason moves. (No kidding.)
  • Trevor Plouffe and Joe Mauer won't be changing positions, and Ryan doesn't want Miguel Sano pigeonholed as a designated hitter.

That last is probably the most significant of the items. Plouffe has become a quality defensive third baseman, and he led the Twins in RBIs this year while hitting in the middle of the lineup. Mauer had the worst offensive season of his career but still led the Twins in walks and on-base percentage (as long as we draw the qualifying line above Sano, who had about half a season of plate appearances.)

The irrational grief Mauer takes on talk radio and social media obscures reality. He isn't the .330/.400/.500 hitter of his 20s. But his OBP still plays in the upper half of the batting order.

Both Mauer and Plouffe were, by OPS+, slightly below league average at the plate but considerably better than, say, Torii Hunter. Neither was as good at hitting as Sano, whose time in the field was limited by hamstring issues.

There is only a problem here for the Twins if they make it one. They have three corner infielders, each of whom still has a useful role in the lineup, and three positions to play them (first base, third base and designated hitter). This isn't a true logjam.

There's a fallacy that the Twins have fallen into before, notably with David Ortiz: So-and-so is "too young" to be a designated hitter. This is not unique to the Twins, of course; most notably, the Seattle Mariners wasted a sizable chuck of Edgar Martinez' career because he had no defensive position. He had to get into his late 20s before the M's let him do what he was born to do.

The Twins want Sano to work on his defense, and one piece of that may well be that he will have to hold his weight down if he's playing in the field. Another is that they'll want him in the lineup for interleague road games. But the core reality is this: The 2016 Twins, barring trade or injury, figure to have Mauer, Sano and Plouffe in the middle of the lineup, and the best defensive alignment of the trio has Sano as the designated hitter.