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Pirate Ship Sinking: How a Bad Call and a Bad Pitching Staff Have Derailed Pittsburgh, and Why It’s Okay

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

Pirates fans the world over could be forgiven, on the night of July 26, for feeling a bit dizzy and shell-shocked. Many likely flashed back to 1992, and succumbed to a Vietnam veteran-style flashback. Here was an Atlanta Braves baserunner scrambling home with the winning run. Here were the Pirates, with every chance to get that guy at home plate. And here were the Braves, celebrating as the Pirates trudged to the visitors’ clubhouse, knowing almost beyond doubt that their run was over.

Those are the similarities. But the differences are more important:

  1. The Brave who scored in 1992 (Sid Bream) was actually safe. Not so in 2011.
  2. Those 1992 Pirates belonged in the NLCS. They were a legitimate contender. Not so in 2011.
Yes, Jerry Meals derailed the Pirates’ season. With one erroneous sweep of his arms, he tore down the literary fourth wall in the fairy tale of Pittsburgh’s resurgent campaign, and the disillusioned Bucs have never been the same. They may yet finish at .500, which would be a feat unto itself, but they rapidly fell out of the NL Central race and will not reenter it. A team like that, a team so young and unexpected, cannot afford the slightest crack in their collective confidence. In baseball, as in life, one must sometimes fake it to make it, and losing the confidence (read: arrogance) that allowed them to consistently beat better teams in the early part of the year wrested away the Bucs’ fighting spirit.
But fear not, Jolly Roger Rooters. There is no need to shed tears over the 2011 Pirates. They were never meant to be. Neal Huntington wisely minimized his expenditures in trying to improve this club, acquiring Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee without giving up anything the organization will ever miss much. Huntington has begun to lead the team out of the darkness into which Dave Littlefield plunged the PNC Plunderers, and to have tried too hard to force their way into a postseason in which they would have no chance would have been ruinous to all he has built.
How did the Pirates get here? Why were they even in first place on July 26? It’s a cocktail, really, of four factors:
  1. Andrew McCutchen, after a slow start, has emerged as exactly the true superstar the team envisioned when they drafted him. In his second full season, McCutchen has proven he has the defensive chops to rank among the league’s elite center fielders and has posted a remarkable 5.2 WAR for the season, according to FanGraphs. That makes him the ninth-most valuable position player in baseball.
  2. After being (improbably) the worst defensive team in baseball last season according to Defensive Efficiency, the Pirates have moved into the middle of the pack this year. The numbers still fall far short of overwhelming, but with meaningful improvements in both corner outfield spots and expected positive regression from McCutchen and shortstop Ronny Cedeno, the Pirates have become much more sure-handed and much efficient at reaching balls in play and turning them into outs.
  3. The Pirates pitching staff, largely on the strength of that improved defense, got some momentum and good fortune going. Without the stuff to dominate hitters (to wit, the team has the third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball), they all began getting outs via well-timed ground balls and solid defense. They also got extraordinarily lucky when it came to preventing runners who reached base from scoring. No staff in MLB has stranded a higher percentage of runners this season, and that usually reflects luck, not some esoteric clutch ability. It got especially out of hand in July, as Pittsburgh stranded 78.5 percent of runners while no other team stranded even 76 percent.
  4. The bullpen, headed by Joel Hanrahan, has outperformed any expectations. As a group, their 3.77 FIP (a middle-of-the-pack number among big-league relief units) belies a 3.03 ERA that ranks fifth among bullpens. They are some of the major culprits behind the team-wide baserunner luck, as no unit in baseball comes close to stranding as many as te 80.2 percent Pirates firemen have left aboard so far.
Those are all encouraging, in their own ways, and show a team in the process of maturation and coagulation. But no one ought to have been fooled by the shallow success of the early season, and very few actually were. The next step, then, is to move forward cautiously, and to use the information these points yield–that the bullpen might be vulnerable to even more regression, that the rotation must be infused with some guys who can miss bats, and that defensive upgrades are always worth the investment–to build upon this ephemeral success next year.

A Hell of an Afternoon: The Day Kosuke Fukudome Ruled Baseball

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2011 at 10:00 am

With the Cubs having dealt Kosuke Fukudome to the Cleveland Indians Thursday, it seemed proper to give remembrance to a bold experiment, a rising anticipation, and one of the stirring debut performances in sports history.

The heat wave that swept Chicago in October 2007 wrought complete havoc. The Chicago Marathon, begun ill-advisedly despite heat indices north of 90 degrees, was called off mid-race as dozens of athletes collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration. One died. Some of the over 10,000 runners did not even reach Wrigley Field, the extreme northern limit of the race route, before the cancellation.

That was okay, because unexpectedly, there was a game to be played there that night. The Cubs, in their first season under Lou Piniella, had improbably taken off after two sluggish months, and now were preparing to host the Arizona Diamondbacks in their first home game of the NLDS. Arizona had won the first two contests, though, and Piniella’s squad (sans a dangerous left-handed hitter, as Piniella was already eager to tell the media) was within another stumble of elimination.

Yet they had spent the season seemingly on the brink of extinction. They had been 8.5 games out of first place until June 23, and did not pass Milwaukee (a newly intense rival) to take the division lead until August 17. That game, by the by, was won almost single-handedly by center fielder Jacques Jones, a left-handed batter who hit a two-run home run and made two tremendous catches in a 2-1 win. Given all they had overcome, the team had every right to believe they could come back in the next three games.

That, however, was not the prevailing sentiment.

“The place was quiet,” said sportswriter George Castle of Wrigley that evening. “It was eerie. I remember thinking, ‘Something’s not right here.'”

Perhaps the heat had the fans sweltering and disinterested. Maybe the accumulated scar tissue of 99 years without tasting postseason success had left them too easily disheartened. In either case, the game got underway virtually without the usual fanfare of a playoff home opener.

It was over before it began. Rich Hill, who had a terrific season in 2007 and would scarcely be heard from again, grooved the first lollipop curve of the night through the humid air and into the middle of Chris Young’s strike zone. Young swung, flicked his bat away, hopped a bit and (unlike Hill, who had seen all he needed to see) watched the ball sail toward Waveland Avenue.

The crowd never did get into it. The team, the tough customers who fought each other (Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett brawled in the dugout and clubhouse in early June) and then others (Derrek Lee nearly decked a different Chris Young after a mid-June plunking), and who never gave in (witness the game of June 29, when they fell behind 5-0 to division-leading Milwaukee in the first inning, only to slowly chip away and win their seventh straight contest on a two-out, two-run, walk-off homer from Aramis Ramirez), melted meekly into the golden haze of a too-hot autumn evening. Jones had the only big hit, an RBI double in a 5-1 loss, but would be traded before the end of the month.

The bullpen had failed; the rotation had made ill-timed mistakes; and the offense had sputtered. The Cubs needed to make some changes, yet after an unprecedented free-agent binge the previous winter, they could hardly announce a rebuilding program. Hendry turned his attention, rather blithely, to the weakness of the team as Piniella described it: The lineup needed a left-handed presence.

His search led him from that sunset to the land of the rising sun. Kosuke Fukudome, the 2006 MVP of the Japanese NPB Central League, was ready (at last) to move to the United States. A power-hitting right fielder with reputations as a patient batsman and a smooth defender, Fukudome was coming off a season marred by injury, but had been a superstar of Japanese baseball prior thereto. In nine NPB seasons, he hit .305/.397/.543 with 192 home runs. Hendry felt confident, as he would say at a press conference introducing him, that Fukudome was “the best free agent available” that winter. Acting on those beliefs, he ponied up: Fukudome got a four-year commitment and $48 million in guaranteed money.

Expectations varied widely on Fukudome, just not in Chicago. Hendry envisioned Fukudome hitting 30 home runs. Steve Stone went on television to say that he thought Fukudome could hit .280 or better with a ton of walks and 25 home runs. A song (“Now that there’s a dragon here/Let’s get rid of that billy goat”), released at mid-season but written in March, seemed to put Fukudome on a pedestal as the key to breaking the team’s legendary curse and winning an NL pennant.

Opening Day was the usual, miserable affair at Wrigley Field, a chill and rainy afternoon. Fukudome batted fifth, and when his name was announced, the crowd went wild. Of course, enthused by the widely held notion that the team would repeat as division champs, the crowd cheered loudly for everyone.

The opponent for the day was the same Brewers team the Cubs had narrowly beaten the year before. Carlos Zambrano (he of the new five-year, $91.5-million deal) got the nod for a fourth consecutive season-opening start, facing too-familiar foe Ben Sheets.

From the first pitch, the match was a classic April pitcher’s duel. Neither Zambrano nor Sheets surrendered a run. As the wet and frigid afternoon wore on, the two teams seemed to meld into one another. Sheets and Zambrano; Derrek Lee and Prince Fielder; Rickie Weeks and Mark DeRosa; Felix Pie and Tony Gwynn; Ryan Braun and Alfonso Soriano all began to feel indistinguishable. As if a season in microcosm were yawning before them, the crowd sensed another year of wondering who would pull away between two semi-competitive virtual clones.

One player broke that malaise. Fukudome looked like a man among boys that day. Whether he was oddly at home in those elements, or rigidly focused to the point of obliviousness, or just playing at the true peak of his considerable ability, Fukudome took over the diamond that day. He came up first in the bottom of the second inning, and banged a double off the brown ivy of the center-field wall. On the first pitch. He hesitated not at all; he simply hit the ball harder than anyone yet had, harder than anyone would for the next two and a half hours. On some days, it would have been a home run. The stadium did not even explode, at least not right away: There was a moment of collective oxygen intake, as the crowd absorbed the shock of the sound bat had made as it met ball. Without a pitch to settle in, Fukudome had scalded a Ben Sheets fastball.

Sheets cruised onward, though, and Fukudome next came up in the bottom of the fourth. This time, Sheets avoided the plate, and Fukudome walked. This was a bit more as advertised from Fukudome, but still, Wrigley reserved itself. The composure, the fire and the fluidity of Fukudome’s game had everyone on their heels.

J.J. Hardy gave Fukudome his first defensive test in the top of the fifth, driving a ball toward the gap in right-center field. Fukudome made the catch on the run, and did so so smoothly that the crowd failed to notice the range he used to make the play. He was dominating, inexplicably, and making it look strikingly easy.

By Fukudome’s third plate appearance in the bottom of the seventh, Cubs not named Fukudome were 0-19 with a walk. Hell, players of any persuasion not named Fukudome were 3-for-42 with two walks. Sheets remained on the mound and looked to be in control. One pitch later, he was headed to the showers, after Fukudome shot a two-hop shin-bruiser through the box and into center field. In five pitches, he had walked and collected two hits. The crowd cheered immediately this time. It was a pitchers’ day, with dominant pitchers afield, and everyone was hitting the ball in one manner. Fukudome was hitting it altogether differently.

Still, the Cubs could not score. Fukudome was thrown out trying to reach third. The game proceeded into the eighth, the weather getting no better, and the score moving not at all.

Kerry Wood entered in the top of the ninth inning, taking his first turn as the Cubs’ designated closer. The game was tied, but it only made sense to use Wood against the meat of the Milwaukee order. It did not go well: The Brewers finally found their bats, and scored three times after a hit batsman, a sacrifice, an intentional walk and a pair of big run-scoring hits.

Thus came the bottom of the ninth, and things looked bleak: Eric Gagne entered for the Brewers, fresh off a renaissance season and primed for an easy save in his Milwaukee debut. Fukudome was still the only Cub with a hit, yet he would represent the tying run only if Gagne could retire neither Lee nor Aramis Ramirez.

In Chicago, the air can sometimes crack a bit. The wind suddenly dies, and in its place, a certain chill descends and numbs the face long enough to lend a feeling of incomplete action to the moment. In those moments, if the light is right, the sky a dim blue and the objects within it thrown into orange relief, that incompleteness can become anticipation.

It came, that day, during Lee’s plate appearance leading off the ninth. He fell behind in the count, but Gagne stepped off the mound before delivering a 2-2 pitch. When he recaptured Mt. Hurler and fired, Lee had already tasted blood. He lashed the ball smoothly the other way, a liner to Brewers right fielder Corey Hart on two bounces. The crowd, silenced after an agonizing top of the frame, came to life now.

Gagne was shaken. Whether he felt uncomfortable physically or merely mentally, he began to labor. Ramirez stepped in, and his at-bat seemed to stretch for minutes between pitches. Gagne walked around the mound, his glove tucked under an arm, rubbing up the baseball in what had long been his customary way. He toed the rubber four times. He threw four fastballs. Ramirez jogged to first base.

Now fever took hold. Fans in the upper reaches of the park began to chant Fukudome’s name as he came to the plate, in a (very American) four-syllable cadence that rapidly overtook the cries of “Eh-ric Gahn-yeh!” that had echoed from several swaths of Wisconsinites throughout that bowl. Tension mounted, between fans and between players. The pitching coach came out to quiet the nerves of a man who once saved 63 consecutive games. Fukudome pursed his lips as he watched and waited. He looked around, but seemed to have glazed over. His eyes, far from searching the seats for inspiration, seemed bemused and yet intensely honed.

Gagne had no confidence in his once-supernal changeup. He threw a fastball, and then another, but missed with both. he threw a change on the third pitch, but it, too, was a ball, and now the standing, pleading faithful began to whoop out of sync with one another. Their hysteria rose to match Gagne’s wildness. Along the back edge of the ballpark, down the left-field line ever so slightly, a scarcely perceptible tremor shivered the poured cement. Fans stomped and rocked from pillars to stay warm as they willed Fukudome forward.

Fukudome never left the batter’s box. During the at-bat, he at most pivoted to square his shoulders to the mound and swing his bat anxiously from his right hand. Gagne came home again. This time, it was a strike. Fukudome might have been forgiven for swinging, given the afternoon he had had, but he waited. His eyes narrowed a bit. He seemed to have cognitively allowed Gagne victory on that fourth pitch. He seemed to have baited him, like prey. That is exceedingly unusual in a hitter: By their nature, hitters are defensive creatures. They do not know what the pitcher will throw; they do know that the numbers stand against them. Pitchers win some 68 percent of all batter-pitcher confrontations. A pitcher is a hunter; a batter is supposed to be worthy game, but game no less.

Fukudome was a predator, at that moment. His hands held far from his body, his arms straight but ready to snap and violate the ball, he stood perfectly still, hoping Gagne would not see the danger in those hands. He hoped Gagne would dare him. Gagne did.

The ball off the bat was a laser, the first pitch anyone had hit so hard since he had swatted his double in the first inning. This one was to the right of center field, but flew true, like a ball hit dead straight. Fukudome flipped his bat away before he had finished a proper follow-through, and took off. Tony Gwynn gave chase, but not for long. The ball was five rows deep. The game was tied.

Fukudome drew as much adoration from the Wrigley Field crowd that day as he ever would again. He drew as much as Ryne Sandberg had on the day of what would be called the Sandberg Game, June 23, 1984. And he did it in his first game in a new uniform, in a new league, in a new nation. He was not merely the best player on the field, but the smartest, the smoothest and the quickest of bat. He started the All-Star Game that season on the strength of that day. The Cubs lost in ten innings. It mattered hardly at all, although that was not the vantage point of fans who trudged from the gates that afternoon. Fukudome had set a tone, and the Cubs took their cue. A four-game sweep at Miller Park in late July set the house of cards to falling, and with Milwaukee away in September, Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter there against the displaced Houston Astros. Chicago won the division by 10 games.

I once watched Sammy Sosa hit two home runs in Detroit, at Comerica Park, before they moved the fences in. I saw Randy Johnson mow down Chicago batters on the way to going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts for the 1998 Astros. I saw Mark DeRosa notch five hits, including a walk-off single in a three-run ninth inning, on a September night that helped make the Cubs NL Central champions in 2007. I even saw a non-prospect rookie named Sam Fuld execute a dazzling double play from right field late in a game that really mattered in late September that year. In one play, he changed everything for that team.

Fukudome was never as good again. He played fine, notching a .369 OBP and playing good defense except when miscast as center fielder. But the dominant Fukudome–the one who played the game backward and scorched balls up the middle so hard pitchers scattered like scared animals–was never quite the same. It matters little. For one day, he was the most dominant ballplayer I had ever seen in person. Baseball players are not supposed to be that good, that soon. They are not supposed to simply swing and connect, to blast the ball straight and without slice, or to look out at the pitcher as though he;s the one in trouble. But Fukudome, if only for a day, did it. If you must remember the bad days in Junes and Julys and Augusts thereafter, do not let it make you forget the day Fukudome became Mr. March.

Jerry Meals Meets Jerry Rice

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

It wasn’t close. The call was clear.

The stakes could get no higher at Turner Field last night. Atlanta Brave Julio Lugo, dashing toward the plate on tired and aging legs, made only a half-hearted, pop-up slide, knowing full well he was out. By a mile. By a mile and a half. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Michael McKenry (Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, a prospects guy, didn’t recognize the man earlier in the telecast) made a perfect sweep tag, giving Lugo no chance to turn his shoulders and effort to pop the ball loose.

Scott Proctor had fallen on the way to first base. He’s a pitcher, after all, and not used to running the bases, and since he is a relief pitcher, he is not used to running after having already pitched three innings, as he did last night. He stumbled and fell headlong in the infield grass, so as soon as McKenry made his tag of Lugo, Pirates pitcher Daniel McCutchen frantically pointed for McKenry to fire to first. They might have a double play. The inning could be over. The game, already 19 innings and six and a half hours old, could go for 20. Martin Prado, who stood at 0-for-9 on the night, would get a chance at sweet redemption (or bitter, nearly unprecedented futility) leading off the Braves half of that frame.

Only McKenry would not, could not turn and throw to first base. because he had another situation on his hands. Jerry Meals, working home plate, had called Lugo… really? … safe.

It wasn’t close. The call was clear.

Steve Young dropped back from center, backpedaling across the chewed-up 49ers logo beneath his feet to the center of the 50-yard line. He looked to his right, underneath a shell coverage, and surprisingly, there was Jerry Rice, with relatively open space around him. The Green Bay Packers, on this January day in 1999, had made such a point of double-teaming Rice downfield that the San Francisco 49ers elected to try a wholly different tack.

As a matter of fact, they tried a dozen tactics. They tried everything. And yet Rice had not one catch. On this play, with a minute to play and trailing by too much to get any help from a field goal, they brought their Hall of Fame-caliber receiver into the right edge of their line and had him run a very short out route. It worked, and Rice caught the ball cleanly.

But they could hardly have expected the two-time defending NFC champions to forget about Rice, and behold, now came Bernardo Harris and Scott McGarrahan, swarming and swallowing Rice. And as he fell, Rice fumbled. He fumbled. It was plain as the nasal strip Rice customarily wore across his nose. He was perhaps halfway to the ground, but his legs had a foot of clearance from the turf when McGarrahan popped the ball loose. Harris recovered the ball, and the Packers had cleared the San Francisco hurdle yet again, and were headed for a third straight NFC Championship Game.

Only, they weren’t. The zebras saw the play differently. In their twisted estimation (the peculiar tangle that so quickly became Rice, Harris and McGarrahan obscured the views of the side and line judge, who were in the best positions, theoretically), Rice was down prior to losing control of the ball. They declared it San Francisco ball at the 41-yard line. A few plays later, when Terrell Owens announced himself to the NFL world with a dazzling catch in traffic, it was over.

Sports change all the time. Seasons get longer. Three-point lines get moved back. Fences get moved in. Players are disallowed from certain plays on a seemingly weekly basis. Teams come and go, moving from city to city, being contracted, being founded through expansion. Leagues legislate equipment of all different sorts: A player must wear this, but cannot wear that. The following month, said athlete can wear that, but not the other.

Yet, for every change, there must be a catalyst. For the drastic changes, embarrassment (even humiliation) is almost inevitable. Integration in baseball would not have been possible if Negro league All-Star teams had not consistently thumped white opponents throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Free agency would not exist if it were not for lawsuits and thoughtful texts by players who never fully reaped the rewards of their struggles. Even as we celebrate the return of NFL football this fall, we must be cognizant that it took a pie-throwing, mud-slinging four-month standoff between owners and players to effect common-sense changes geared toward safety, and to take proper care of those football players who toiled before the game’s compensation became at least somewhat commensurate with its risk.

Instant replay came to the NFL beginning in fall of 1999, after having been voted down repeatedly in previous years. The community-owned, small-town Green Bay Packers had voted against the installment for each of those years. In spring of 1999, they voted in favor, as did all but a very few NFL squads. That game in San Francisco did not single-handedly change the course of league history, but it was a well-timed and very natural nudge.

Such is the case this morning in Major League Baseball. The Pirates fell from first to third place in the NL Central when they lost last night, but remain firmly in contention. They are, arguably, the biggest national news story going in baseball right now. Fans have flooded recent games at gorgeous PNC Park. The team has an enthralling young superstar outfielder in Andrew McCutchen. They have no starting pitcher over age 29. They have a bright future, but for fans who have waited two decades to smell a hint of baseball on the first breezes of fall, the present is critical.

All of this is not to mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The Braves and Pirates? A steamy night in Atlanta? A dramatic, razor’s-edge play at the plate? It sounds an awful lot like the turning of the tides. It sounds like a chance for the Bucs to erase 19 years of mourning the fact that Barry Bonds played too deep in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. This game could have been the watershed moment of the Pirates’ organizational turnaround. Instead, it will probably mark merely the end of a tenuous run by an overachieving team. It would have happened eventually, but because it happened now, and in this context, the issue is now standing spotlight.

Now is the time, Bud Selig. The commissioner, who has long overstayed his welcome in office anyway, has dragged his feet before the specter of full-bodied replay technology in baseball for long enough. This game, marred by ugly ball-and-strike umpiring and an all-time terrible call from which there could be no recovery, should be the league’s Jerry Rice moment. Install cameras to cover virtually every angle of the ballpark. Partner with one of the half-dozen companies who do fine work mapping the locations of pitches, and with SportVision to utilize its proprietary technology for tracking batted balls through the air.

We need not replace umpires; the NFL has made that clear. But arbiters need more accountability. Forcing Angel Hernandez, Joe West and/or Meals (the three worst umps in baseball, by no small margin) to swallow a more-than-occasional overturned ruling from on high would cut their considerable and disproportionate egos to size, and punishing them for consistently poor performance is long overdue. Meanwhile, the extra job created–you would want a press-box review man to streamline these decisions–might mollify the umpires’ union enough to make it feasible. If not, the union will have to remain unsatisfied, because it is high time to invoke the best interests of baseball and make the game less vulnerable to crucial mismanagement.

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