Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Washington champion

Quite the impressive October for the Washington Nationals, who won five straight elimination games and had to overcome deficits in each.

Here's an apparent trend: This is the third straight World Series won by a team whose manager, with reason, mistrusted his bullpen and turned to starters to fill relief roles:

The 2017 Astros saw Ken Giles --  who had a fine regular season, with 34 saves and a 2.30 ERA -- implode repeatedly in the playoffs. In the Series that year, A.J. Hinch finished wins with Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. Lance McCullers finished the clinching win in the ALCS.

The 2018 Red Sox similarly saw their closer, Craig Kimbrel, splutter in the postseason. When Alex Cora had a chance to wrap up the series, he brought in his top starter, Chris Sale, and left Kimbrel in the pen. Kimbrel was charged in the 2018 postseason with seven runs in 10.2 innings.

The Nationals this year were in a different boat; bullpen depth was a problem all season. Closer Sean Doolittle had some injury issues and pitched to a 4.05 ERA. They picked up Daniel Hudson, an oft-injured journeyman -- he's had two Tommy John surgeries -- from the Blue Jays in an end-of-July trade that barely showed on the radar, and he performed far better than anyone could have imagined.

Doolittle and Hudson gave the Nats a usable back-end of the bullpen. Bridging the innings between the starters -- and the Nats do have a notably strong rotation -- and Doolittle/Hudson was an issue. Davey Martinez dealt with that issue in the playoffs by utilizing starters, particularly lefty Patrick Corbin (the winning pitcher in Game Seven).

The Astros were confident in the quality of their bullpen this October. And that confidence was sustained until Game 7, when Will Harris and Joe Smith imploded and Roberto Osuna didn't get the job done either. My Twitter feed Wednesday night fed me plenty of criticism of Hinch for bypassing Gerrit Cole for his usual relief crew. I suspect that criticism gets extra lift because we now have a string of winning managers -- including Hinch in 2017 -- who bypassed his usual relief crew for a starter.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

On to Game Seven

Ron Luciano, who was an American League umpire during my formative years as a fan, wrote -- or at least had his name on -- a handful of books telling tales of his career. I trust any specific anecdote's accuracy about as far as I can throw a locomotive, but "The Umpire Strikes Back" and "The Fall of the Roman Umpire" are at least amusing, and his description of umpiring as an vocation is both appealing and repelling, which suggests it's an honest one.

Anyway, one serious point he made in one of the books was this guideline about a sticky rules call: If in doubt, penalize the team that screwed up. The rulebook, he said, is designed to do that.

Sam Holbrook did not do that on his botched inteference call in Game 6. The screwup wasn't on Trea Turner's part, it was on Brad Peacock, who made a poor, off-target throw. An accurate throw from Peacock

  • doesn't take the first baseman into the baseline and
  • probably doesn't beat Turner to the bag either.

The issue was largely mooted when Anthony Rendon launched his homer one out later, but it could have been a pivotal play.

So ... on to Game Seven. Which suggests a close series. Which it is and isn't. None of the games have had a close final score, and the home teams have seldom really been in the contests late.

Presumably Max Scherzer is going to start for Washington, Zach Greinke for Houston. Greinke has long been one of my favorite non-Twins players, but he hasn't looked good this October. On the other hand, I have no idea how Scherzer's back and neck are going to respond.

We have two starters with their Cooperstown tickets pretty much already punched, and a genuine possibility that both of them will have poor starts.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Tinkering with the 40

The Twins got a head start on paring their 40-man roster Monday, outrighting Ian Miller, Ryan LaMarre and Ronald Torreyes. None of them were on the 40 before September, and they might not have been on the 40 had it not been for all the injuries the Twins were dealing with in the final month. Cutting them is no surprise.

So the 40 is down to 37, and there will be more coming off the 40 when the World Series ends and free agency begins. Off the top of my head, that includes Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda, Sergio Romo, Jonathan Schoop and Jason Castro. I had thought C.J. Cron was on that list also, but he has another year of arbiration eligibility.

They also have two guys on the 60-day injured list. Byton Buxton will certainly be restored to the 40, and I presume Sean Poppen will also, although I can see the Twins deciding to outright him also.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Notes, quotes and comment (World Series edition)

Just one or two games left to the 2019 major league season. A few quick comments regarding the World Series so far:

* I came into the Series uncertain of who to root for. The Nationals have more former Twins, and I can't imagine any Twins fan with unkind thoughts about Brian Dozier in particular. The Astros, meanwhile, are building a case for themselves as a top-shelf dynasty, and it's always fun to see greatness establish itself.

Then the Astros front office made the decision easy with its abominable behavior.

They chose last year to acquire Roberto Osuna, a talented relief pitcher who probably committed a felony in Toronto and managed to avoid prosecution. They have been dishonest in their defense of that decision. They continued that dishonesty in attacking a critic.

*  Long as I'm quoting Twitter takes:

Agreed. I've had my own experience with debilitating back problems. And the competitive drive to high-level athletes like Scherzer is not to be underestimated.

Questioning the veracity of his injury is silly.

* There were eight managerial openings after the regular season. Three have been filled: Joe Maddon with the Angels, David Ross with the Cubs, Joe Girardi with the Phillies. Derek Shelton, the bench coach of the Twins, is reportedly still in the running with the Mets and the Pirates.

The Mets, being the Mets, will probably go with a bold-faced name this time around. I don't think the Pittsburgh job is one that offers a clear route to success.

* I've been watching the Series with the sound down, and unfortunately the At Bat app this year appears to have dropped the radio feeds for the postseason games. So I missed the "lock him up" chant that greeted President Trump at Game Five.

Booing presidents at World Series games is a time-honored tradition. It happens to them all. This takes it to a new level.

Trump, incidentally, is on track to be the first president since Taft to avoid throwing out a first pitch at a major-league game.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Good-bye, Rowson

James Rowson, who has been the Twins hitting coach the past two seasons, was reported Thursday to have taken a job with the Miami Marlins as bench coach and "offensive coordinator."

That last is, so far as I know, a unique title in baseball, and is apparently intended to denote Rowson's reponsibility for hitting instruction not only with the major league team but throughout the organization.

I have often wondered how much, and how effectively, organizations coordinate between the major league staff and the farm system. We have certainly seen examples in Minnesota of disconnect between two fiefdoms, most prominently over Jorge Polanco. The minor league people clearly had concluded that Polanco could not play shortstop, and when he arrived in Minnesota then-manager Paul Molitor wouldn't play him anywhere else.

Molitor's gone, but he clearly won that battle. Polanco is still the shortstop, and he's not vacating the post anytime soon. It's worth noting that the farm director and Triple A manager at the time are in a different jobs with the organizaton, now, although I doubt the differences over Polanco had much to do with either move.

But it's asking a lot to put supervising minor league coaching on a major league coach's plate. Rowson's not going to be spending any time with the Marlins' minor league teams during the season. Supervising from a distance may be possible, but it's unlikely to be as effective. That said, if the minor league instructors are to report to him rather than somebody in the farm system hierarchy, the expectations, suggestions and instructions may be more clear.

Anyway: The Twins have not only lost their primary hitting coach, but their minor league hitting coordinator as well. Peter Fatse was hired last week by the Red Sox as their assistant hitting coach. So the Twins have a couple of positions to fill along those lines.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Washington and the ex-Twins factor

The Washington Nationals made short work of the NLCS, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals so emphatically -- the Cardinals never had a lead in any game -- that they didn't have to pull their starters-as-relievers bullpen gimmick.

And so Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Fernando Rodney, three ex-Twins of varying tenure, are going to the World Series. As is Anibal Sanchez, who was in spring training with the Twins as a non-roster invitee in 2018 and was released when the Twins signed Lance Lynn. Since then Sanchez has pitched more than 300 innings with an ERA of  3.39. (He pitched more innings this year as the Nationals' fourth starter than Jake Odorizzi worked for the Twins.)

We can call Sanchez an ex-Twin, or decide that a few weeks in spring training doesn't count -- but he certainly qualifies as one who got away.

As for the others:

Dozier, now 32, had the lion's share of playing time at second base for the Nats and bopped 20 homers, but Howie Kendrick has pretty much taken over the position in the postseason. He was a bench piece for the Dodgers in last year's World Series also.

Suzuki, now 36, essentially splits the catching chores with former Indians backstop Yan Gomes. Gomes is the better receiver, Suzuki the better bat. I frankly thought Suzuki was pretty much done when his Twins tenure ended, but playing a little less than half-time has worked well for him the pst three seasons. Uniquely among the Nats' ex-Twins, he's signed through next season.

Rodney, now 42, is one of the bullpen pieces the Nationals seek diligently to avoid using in key moments. The Nats picked him up after the A's released him; he pitched in 38 games for Washington with an ERA of 4..05, which is considerably better than the 9.42 he had with Oakland.

Their roles are smaller than they were with the Twins, and their time remaining in the majors is dwindling. But if this is it for Dozier and Rodney, they're going out on a big platform.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Back, at least for a day

Years ago I realized that blogging every day made it easier to blog every day.

And taking days off  when the well seems dry makes it easier to skip other days, days when I might have something to say.

But here I am, because I figure I ought to put in an appearance after almost a week of avoiding this corner of the internet.

News from Twinsland since their playoff crawl ended:

* The Twins picked up Nelson Cruz' option for 2020. Might be the easiest decision the front office makes all winter. Man hit 41 homers and batted .311, and now he gets a pay cut.

* The Twins dismissed their entire Triple A coaching staff: manager Joel Skinner, pitching coach Stu Cliburn and hitting coach Javier Valentin. Cliburn in particular has been around the Twins organization for a long time. The Redwings finished 70-70 in 2019, which seems pretty solid considering that they couldn't have had a stable rotation considering how often the Twins shuffled the major league staff.

* Royce Lewis, who had a rough 2019 -- .236/.290/.371 split between high A Fort Myers and Double A Pensacola -- has been tearing it up in the Arizona Fall League. He was named the MVP of the Fall Stars Game on Sunday. He also has been playing mostly third base in the AFL, with a little second base and center thrown in. I don't know how much to read into this. The Twins have long said they see him sticking at shortstop. Not everybody agrees with that assessment.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Out with a whimper

When Miguel Sano fouled off the hanging slider in the second inning, whatever optimism I had about the Twins in the third game of their ALDS series faded almost completely away.

Bases loaded, nobody out, and a fat pitch -- and an opportunity lost. Sano eventually popped up. Which is more than Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Cave achieved; each struck out.

And in their next at-bats, the Yankees -- with a man in scoring position, two outs and and two strikes -- managed to push a ground ball through the infield.

The 2019 Twins hit a lot of homers. We know that. But they also didn't strike out very much. They struck out a lot in this series. Credit the Yankee pitchers, blame the Twins hitters, question the heavy use of hobbled players. It happened.

The 2019 Yankees were a slightly better team during the regular season than the 2019 Twins. That this series went the Yankees way is not really surprising. That it went their way so emphatically, that does surprise me.

But that's baseball. If Sano crushes that hanging slider, that game might be completely different. An opportunity lost.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

NL wild card game

The argument for homer-centric lineups in October is simple and, I think, logical:

You're not going to beat the likes of Justin Verlander with a sequential offense. He might allow five baserunners in seven innings; it's asking a lot to get those five baserunners, or even four of them, in the same inning. You are more likely to get the three or four runs you need with one or two longballs.

Josh Hader is in the same category, only as a reliever rather than as a starter. When he fails, it's generally because somebody took him yard.

On Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals beat him with sequential offense, starting with a disputable hit-by-pitch and culminated by a single and outfield error with the bases loaded that plated three runs.

It was an unlikely way for the Brew Crew to go out. But that's baseball, the game that gave the late 1980s star pitcher Joaquin Andujar what he called his "favorite English word: youneverknow."