SoSH Weekly Baseball Notebook: October 10, 2016

While impact rookies, lackadaisical runners, and farm animals on the loose require their own articles, lots of things happen in baseball every week. SoSH Baseball typically doles out expert analyses, but we also try to cover the joy of baseball – the rules, the terms, the strange, the historic, and the just plain weird. Dave McCullough has no GMs on speed dial or anonymous quotes, but he does have a love for the old-timey baseball notes column.

Oh Buck

The AL Wild Card game was an instant classic: The Orioles and the Blue Jays battled into the 11th inning, tied at 2. But it ended abruptly for Baltimore, as Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion blasted a homer off Ubaldo Jimenez to send the Jays to Texas for an ALDS matchup against the Rangers while the Orioles went… wherever teams go when they are eliminated from the playoffs by a walk-off, extra-inning, soul-crushing home run. (As an aside, the cliché here is “golfing” but isn’t it more likely that today’s MLB players don’t automatically head out to the links – maybe Vegas? Do we think Chris Davis went to Branson, Missouri? Please leave your suggestions in the comments, thanks.)

The game also ended with a bit of controversy, as Baltimore manager Buck Showalter went strictly by the book and left Cy Young candidate, and closer, Zach Britton in the bullpen – waiting for a save situation that never came. The Orioles went 6-3 in extra-inning games during the 2016 regular season: 6-0 when Britton pitched, 0-3 when he did not. That is completely unsurprising, given Britton allowed FOUR earned runs all season. He was the most dominant, unhittable reliever in major league baseball this season – but the “book” says that on the road, the team should save their closer for when they have a lead. In a tie game, Showalter instead rolled out other relievers (Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Brian Duensing) and then went to Jimenez – a starter with 298 career major league appearances, but just eight in relief (four coming this season).

Lost in the immediate aftermath of Showalter’s entirely conventional bullpen usage in a win-or-go-home elimination game was his postseason history – and his reluctance to use his closer after being burned by his bullpen management… in 1995. Twenty-one seasons ago, Showalter was the manager of the New York Yankees. After a long slog – for the Yankees – without postseason baseball, the Bronx Bombers earned a date with the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS. After taking a 2-0 series lead in the Bronx, the series shifted to Seattle. A Game 3 loss led to Game 4 where Yankees closer John Wetteland coughed up a game-winning grand slam to Edgar Martinez. When Game 5 went into extra innings on the road, Buck Showalter did what Buck Showalter does: He eschewed his closer in favor of Game 3 starter (and loser) Jack McDowell.

Yes, Buck Showalter made the same exact move to lose a playoff game in 1995 that he pulled in 2016 with Baltimore. To his credit, he did use future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera (then, a setup man for Wetteland) in the 8th, but then opted for McDowell on three days rest instead of his other relievers (most of whom had pitched in the Game 4 loss after riding starter David Cone for 147 pitches.

Showalter believes in the book. He will not bring in his “closer” on the road, in a playoff game – even in extra innings. He will use a starter in relief – even if that starter has almost no relief experience (McDowell made two career regular season relief appearances and just the one postseason relief appearance). Buck Showalter is an accomplished regular season manager – his strict adherence to the book has carried the Orioles into the playoffs twice in the last three years, and he has – in his 18 year career – taken three different teams into the Division Series. However, he has yet to advance to a World Series. Interestingly, both the Yankees (1996) and Arizona Diamondbacks (2001) won the World Series in the year after he was terminated.

Buck’s book works in the regular season. He is, probably, the best manager to never win a World Series. However, his rigid faithfulness to the “book” has now bitten him twice in the playoffs, albeit 21 years apart.

Breakouts And Fizzles

Several players vastly exceeded expectations in 2016, maybe none moreso than Boston’s fourth-string catcher Sandy Leon, who ended the year batting .310/.369/.476 after posting a .184/.238/.202 line in 128 at-bats in 2015. Boston expected Christian Vazquez or Ryan Hanigan or Blake Swihart to handle the pitching staff from behind the plate, but ineffectiveness and injury derailed those best-laid plans. Leon’s emergence, and unexpected contribution, was a major reason the Red Sox were able to capture the AL East crown this season. However, his minor league track record and September swoon don’t suggest that he is a future star – just a guy who got hot for a few months and rode it for all it was worth.

At the other end of the spectrum, Miami’s Christian Yelich has been among the more touted prospects of the past few years, but his initial MLB experience had been nothing to write home about. The lithe centerfielder first broke in with the Marlins in 2013, getting 240 at bats and posting a .288/.370/.396 line. While serviceable, more was expected from the top prospect – but 2014 and 2015 brought minimal improvements – he batted .284/.362/.402 in 2014, and .300/.366/.416 in 2015. That’s a decent player – but not a star, and not what was expected. However, Yelich seemingly just needed a few years to grow into his skills – and power. In 2016, he maintained the batting average (.298), and slightly improved his on-base percentage (.376), but drastically increased his slugging, posting a .483 mark on the year. He set a new career high in doubles (38) while launching 21 homers. Coupled with excellent defense, the now 24-year old seems poised to become one of baseball’s elite center fielders next season as he enters the prime of his career.

Similarly, Boston’s Mookie Betts was expected to be a very good player, and at 23-years old, he is still developing his skills. He blazed through the minor leagues and arrived in the majors at 21, where he put up a .291/.368/.444 line in 189 at bats – more than adequate for a guy who also had shown plus speed and base stealing ability in the minors. He built upon his early success in 2015, posting a similar slash line, albeit a little heavier on the slugging and lighter on the OBP – .291/.341/.479 – showing doubles power and the base stealing ability (21/27) expected by prospect philes. But no one expected, or predicted, his 2016 breakout, with featured a slash line of .318/.363/.534 with 42 doubles, 26 stolen bases (in 30 attempts), and a whopping 31 home runs. Betts was seen as a good player, and one Boston could build around – but his breaking out into an MVP candidate was a very pleasant surprise for the team, and its fans. Meanwhile, several stars suffered through career worst seasons in 2016. Bryce Harper was still an MVP candidate, but his numbers were down across the board in 2016 – .243/.373/.441 (as opposed to 2015’s .330/.440/.649) – because of injuries. Fellow 2015 MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen had a massively disappointing season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, stumbling to a career low in just about every category, while hitting .256/.336/.430. McCutchen’s decline is harder to peg – he did not suffer through reported injuries the way Harper did, he had yet to turn 30, or show obvious signs of decline. He just had a lousy season, filled with buzzard’s luck and line drives hit right at someone, instead of into a gap.

But Alex Gordon of Kansas City earns the dubious honor of being the Fizzle of the YMear, given his hard regression. Gordon went from leading the World Series champions as a fan-favorite – featuring a .271/.377/.432 line in 2015 – to falling off a cliff in 2016 with a dismal .220/.312/.380 line in 506 plate appearances. Gordon’s precipitous decline contributed mightily to the Royals struggles this season and given his contract runs another four seasons and $79 million, small market Kansas City really needs him to rebound next season.

The Week In Tweeting

Voting for the MVP and Cy Young awards wrapped up last week, before the playoff games began. But that does not mean I’m through promoting my choice for AL MVP, Mike Trout:

Hours before the ending of the NL Wild Card game, Matt Sammon predicted the ending:

Somewhat obscured by the dramatic ending – and Buck’s Boner OR Boneheaded Managing – was the Toronto fan who threw a nearly-full beer at Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim. Thankfully, the projectile missed and the fan has since been ID’ed and arrested for both throwing a dangerous object at a player with intent to injure and wasting a nearly-full beer. But the incident drew comment and reaction from all over the baseball world – with Texas’s Rougned Odor winning the funniest reaction:

When asked about his lack of postseason success, baseball’s most entertaining player – and future Hall of Famer – Adrian Beltre feigned memory problems:

Finally, Daniel Murphy had a tremendous first season in Washington after departing the New York Mets in free agency last offseason. However, before he left Murphy had a rough World Series last year – which he chose to address directly:

The GIFs and Videos Of The Week

During the offseason, we’ll review the season’s best defensive plays, most unhittable pitches, and most interesting homers. For now, we’ll continue to show the best baseball has to offer from its playoff games.

But first, here is a compilation of Beltre’s best moments. And since the love this columnist has for Beltre should be obvious by now, it will come as no surprise that I watched this video about 350 times this week:

The Marlins announced that they would be bringing back The Hit Sensei, Ichiro Suzuki, in 2017. This tribute video was released in Japan some time ago, but it is worth watching now:

Encarnacion’s homer was comment worthy in so many ways:

Conor Gillaspie’s game-winner in the NL Wild Card game was also worth watching again:

The blast by the Cubs’ Javier Baez to win Game 1 of the NLDS series over the San Francisco Giants probably saved thousands of Cubs fans from hypertension-related heart attacks:

The Giants only advanced to the NLDS because Noah Syndergaard tired after seven strong innings where he delivered filthy pitches like this one:

Solo homer aficionado Curtis Granderson did his part to keep the Mets in the game, turning in this tremendous defensive effort – not slowing a bit and crashing into the fence face first:

 

News, Notes, and Nuggets of Information

  • SoSH Baseball regularly features the best baseball writing on the internet in a column we call “This Week In Baseball Writing.” However, that recurring column is on hiatus until after the playoffs – and this just can’t wait. Deadspin hosted this outstanding story by Phil Braun about how he “covered” the Braves for several seasons for a fake newspaper, using little other than bravado, moxie, and a confident walk. Braun got into the dugout, into the clubhouse, and onto the field armed with nothing more than a notebook. It is a fascinating read – and makes me totally jealous.
  • Vice Sports delivered this interesting look at how the Giants have become “baseball’s most boring dynasty.” It is an even year on the calendar, meaning San Francisco is once again a threat to add to their three World Series titles in the past six seasons. The core of the Giants success has been their dominant pitching – especially staff ace, and possibly the best playoff pitcher ever, Madison Bumgarner. Cubs fans were desperately rooting for the Mets to win the NL Wild Card game, if only to avoid the National League’s postseason juggernaut.
  • Commissioner Rob Manfred commented on the pending legislation (in Congress – no, really) that would limit the pay of minor league players. Proponents (read: people in favor of the current system) claim that baseball would be irreparably harmed if it had to pay its low-level employees more than they currently receive. While major league players make (at minimum) hundreds of thousands of dollars, those clawing their way up the minor league ladder often have to subsist on as little as $1,100 – or below the federal minimum wage. Manfred this week attempted to re-characterize his (and thus, baseball’s) objections to raising minor league salaries as not being about the money – it’s about the record-keeping:
  • Manfred might have a point – baseball is not an “hourly wage” endeavor – but his comments either miss the mark or evade it masterfully. By re-framing this as an issue related to tracking hours and “overtime”, Manfred is effectively invoking the “only the hardest working players make it to the big leagues” mantra that makes for wonderful marketing material – and is exposed as weasel-wording when examined closely. Minor leaguers deserve to be paid a minimum wage – they will be putting in the work whether they get it or not. But there’s no reason – other than protecting existing profit margins – to not play these potential stars of the future a reasonable, fair rate. No one is playing minor league baseball because they are going to get rich doing it. And paying them less than a living wage makes it harder to make it to the big leagues, and succeed. Proper nutrition is just one small casualty of MLB keeping minor league players from making minimum wage. Manfred’s comments are disingenuous and designed to protect profits – not players.
  • As the Blue Jays and Rangers battle again this season, we are reminded of last season’s biggest postseason controversy: Jose Bautista’s bat flip. ESPN’s Mina Kimes went east to the land of the mighty bat flip – the Korean Baseball League has become the world’s foremost bat-flipping extravaganza, with players practicing and executing some truly astounding bat flips.
  • Finally, here’s a quick-and-dirty look at how this season’s playoff teams were built:

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