Bill Plaschke is Grasping at Straws

The St. Louis Cardinals are embroiled in a major controversy as they are the target of a federal investigation in regards to hacking the Houston Astros database. When a team is accused of wrongdoing, it is not at all uncommon for the trolls to come out of the woodwork to stir the pot. Justin Gorman explains why Bill Plaschke is grasping at straws.

DISCLAIMER: The St. Louis Cardinals hacking investigation is as serious a scandal as one MLB team could be subjected to, and is unprecedented in MLB history. If the FBI concludes that the Cardinals did hack the Houston Astros’ databases, then this will be a serious violation of Federal law. It is worth keeping in mind that this is an ongoing investigation, and until the FBI publishes its conclusion, the allegations of hacking – however serious – are only allegations.

One of the reasons the story of “Deflategate” went so viral is because the mainstream media often acts as though they are futures market traders – generating clicks and trolling stories based off pure speculation. Once the report was released and the punishment levied – then it became a bona fide story that was worthy of reporting on. Prior to that, it was fodder for the prognosticators. However, this is a baseball website. If you want to learn more about “Deflategate”, our friends at Inside The Pylon did a fantastic job covering that saga.

This same approach has engulfed this Cardinals scandal, and in this case, there is no better example of a speculative journalist than Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. There are myriad examples of sports journalists around the country who can be called “homers” – especially in larger markets – and there is no fault in that. It is a part of the job – play to your audience. By this measure, Plaschke qualifies as the consummate homer.

In the June 17 edition of the LA Times, Plaschke writes an article entitled “FBI probe of Cardinals makes it fair to question series with Dodgers.” In his article, Plaschke pulls out his “jump to conclusions mat” and makes several questionable accusations:

Claim 1: Joe Kelly intentionally hit Hanley Ramirez with a pitch in Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS

To begin the game, Kelly struck out Carl Crawford swinging, and Mark Ellis hit a line-drive single to center. On a 1-2 count, with a runner on first base, Kelly drilled Hanley Ramirez with a fastball, resulting in a fractured rib. Plaschke asks:

“Does anybody not believe that hit was intentional? Because it occurred in the first half inning of the series, would it be so surprising if it was organizationally planned and ordered?”

The only way to fairly evaluate the above questions would be to look at Joe Kelly’s pitch data and the baseball situation. In 2013, Kelly registered a 3.2 BB/9, issuing more free passes than the major league average of 2.98. Kelly also had been known to hit a batter due to his wildness, plunking five during the regular season in 2013. He followed that up with seven more hit batters in 2014. According to BrooksBaseball, Kelly only threw 24 of 40 pitches for strikes in the first inning, and over the course of his six innings of work, he only threw his fastball for strikes 58.9% of the time.

The easiest way to debunk Plaschke’s allegation is by using common sense  and by realizing what the situation was in the game. Kelly had one-on, one-out, and was ahead in the count against Hanley Ramirez in the first inning of game 1 of the NLCS. Intentionally hitting a batter in this scenario would make very little baseball sense as that would move Ellis into scoring position and put two runners on for Adrian Gonzalez (2013: .293/.342/.461, OPS+ of 125). No one does that on purpose.

Putting aside the fact that the FBI investigation, focused specifically on the infiltration of the Houston Astros computer systems, has no logical nexus to the accusation of an intentional hit batsman in a playoff game 18 months ago, there just does not seem to be any evidence to back this claim up. It is just as valid to claim that Kelly was amped up for his second career postseason start – in fact, he threw a wild pitch on a 1-2 count during that next at-bat to Gonzalez, advancing both runners. The pitch that hit Ramirez was clocked at 95.4mph, and the wild pitch to Gonzalez sizzled to the backstop at 96.9mph.

As Rick Rowand has analyzed in the past, Joe Kelly’s control has a tendency to suffer when he dials up the velocity. The science in this case wins out over the conspiratorial hogwash.

Claim 2: The Cardinals Stole Signs in Game 5 of the 2013 NLCS, explaining Clayton Kershaw’s Bad Game

Clayton Kershaw is one of the safest bets in baseball. If he’s on the mound, the Dodgers have a great chance of winning the game if they also score some runs. The Dodgers lost Game 5 by a score of 9-0, and the Cardinals advanced to the World Series. Plaschke posits:

“Three of the Cardinals’ four run-scoring hits occurred with a Cardinal standing on second base peering into catcher A.J. Ellis’[s] glove. Stealing signs by simply looking at the catcher is part of the game – if you don’t like it, change your signs – but who knows if that’s all the Cardinals were doing?”

The 2013 Cy Young Award winner who posted a 194 ERA+ that year does not require a statistical rehash. He is a once-in-a-generation great pitcher. However, on October 18, 2013, Kershaw had a bad game:

Kershaw lived in the strike zone, and grooved a large number of pitches which the Cardinals’ offense ate alive. While Kershaw and Plaschke both admit that stealing signs is part of the game, Plaschke’s speculative question of “who knows if that’s all the Cardinals were doing?”, really raises several questions.

Were they evaluating game film and scouting the best pitcher in the league? Were they jumping on pitches early in the count, knowing that Kershaw was throwing a lot of strikes? Did the Cardinals have a very good offense in 2013?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes,” and they are all perfectly legal parts of the game. Another part of Game 5 which merits mentioning is the Dodgers offense, which scored zero runs on two hits, managing a measly three baserunners all game, with only one advancing to scoring position. Even if the Cardinals had only eked out one run against Kershaw, the lack of offense from the Dodgers would have still resulted in a loss.

Claim 3: The Matt Adams Home Run in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS

Plaschke once again puts on his tinfoil hat when he says that Kershaw allowed “arguably the most unusual home run of the season” on October 7, 2014. Matt Holliday led off the home half of the 7th with a ground ball single. Jhonny Peralta followed with a line drive single, moving Holliday to second. Matt Adams followed by jacking a 3-run homer to right, ending Kershaw’s night.

Putting aside the fact that Adams hit Kershaw’s 102nd pitch of the afternoon and Kershaw was then pulled for a reliever, Plaschke mentions:

“It was also the first home run by a left-handed hitter on a curveball in Kershaw’s seven-year career. And, what a surprise, there was a Cardinal on second base.”

This is certainly a compelling argument – Kershaw hadn’t allowed a homer to a LHB off his hook in seven years. This curveball, however, was a bit different:

Kershaw hung a curveball to Adams on an 0-1 count and he, a power hitter, crushed it. There is much more merit to the argument that Matt Adams (2014: .288/.321/.457, OPS+ of 115) capitalized on a tired Kershaw who was exhibiting clear signs of fatigue in the inning.

Plaschke is a tremendously famous and award-winning writer and has a stellar career to back up his body of work. This particular article jumps to many conclusions without any evidence to back up his claims. Sure, there are flaws in the arguments above as well – there may well be a vast St. Louis conspiracy that accounts for some of what Plaschke claims – and we will likely never know.

However, the FBI will announce the results of their investigation, and if the Cardinals are found to have been guilty of the allegations against them, they will be punished. In the meantime, the justice system will run its course and the conspiracy theories will fly.

We, as baseball fans, can thankfully refer to the wealth of data available for analysis to decide ourselves what claims or theories are meritorious. Plaschke closes the article asserting it is fair to ask the question of whether the Dodgers were beaten by the Cardinal Way, or the Cardinal Con. It is also fair to suggest that the Dodgers lost those games (and playoff series) because they played like the inferior team in both situations.

Justin Gorman has also written about general managers, manager tirades, a case for expansion, and an open letter to Rob Manfred.

Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.

Check out Rick Rowand’s piece on Mike Napoli’s offensive malaise.

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