Dumb, Weird and Great: It’s a new Season

The 2014 baseball is only two days old as I write this…or four days old if you count the Diamondbacks v Dodgers two-game set in Sydney over a week ago…which I don’t.

It didn’t take long for the first “HUH??!!” moments to appear and remind us just how dumb, weird and flat-out awesome the world of baseball can be. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on:

The Dumb: Milwaukee Brewers fans.

Ryan Braun was suspended last season for 65 games for taking Performance-Enhancing Drugs, a betrayal he had the temerity to term a “mistake”, as if he’d put too much milk in his bowl of Wheaties. It set a terrible example to fans and it deprived his team of their best hitter for more than a third of the season, and came after escaping a previous ban on a technicality. AP BRAVES BREWERS BASEBALL S BBN USA WI

So what did the Brewers fans do at his first at-bat of the season? They gave him a standing ovation of course. The kind of ovation you’d give someone if they’d come back from the adversity of, say, cancer, or a horrific injury, or because they’d won the MVP award last year. Or…apparently…if they’ve cheated, lied about it, been caught and then served a very lenient ban.

I’m trying to imagine taking my son to that game, applauding Braun and then having an honest conversation about it…

Son: Dad, why are you clapping Ryan Braun more than the other players?
Me: Because, I’m glad to see him playing again after missing the last 65 of games of last season
Son: Why wasn’t he playing in those games?
Me: Because he was banned for cheating
Son: So shouldn’t we be booing him for betraying baseball, betraying our trust, trying to derail a drug tester’s career by making false accusations about him, and lying about what he had done and then afterwards making out like he wasn’t even really responsible?
Me: No son, of course not. That’s how we treat other teams’ cheaters, like A-Rod who should have been kicked out of baseball for his lying and cheating. When the liars and cheats are on our own team we treat them like conquering heroes instead to try and make them feel better.

The Weird: Cliff Lee’s opening day pitching performance.

The Philadelphia Phillies’ Cliff Lee is an outstanding pitcher, a true ace over nearly a decade spent in Cleveland, Texas, Seattle (for about 5 minutes) and Philly. In Monday’s opener against Texas, however, he stank the place up, conceding EIGHT earned runs in five innings of what could loosely be described as work.

That however was merely strange – the weird thing is that he picked up the Win. That’s because the Phillies were able to beat up on Texas rookie Tanner Scheppers, leaving the ballpark with a 14-10 win that at least for a day banished the worries of an offense that had seemed anemic throughout spring.

The Great

The baseball season just started…didn’t I mention that already?

It’s Still Early

It’s way too early in the season to make sensible, balanced comment on the potential of a player or team for the rest of the season. However, it is the perfect time to be making presumptuous, stab-in-the-dark, over-reaching comments about players and teams, so here goes with a small sample of four players whose performances so far may…or may not…have any bearing whatsoever on the rest of the season. 

Justin Upton (Atlanta Braves) – 8HR, 12RBI, .340/.404 AVE/OBP*

Upton was a major frustration for the Arizona Diamondbacks, from whom the Braves acquired the alleged 5-tooler in a trade over the winter. The Braves gave up top pitching prospect Randall Delgado and All-Star outfielder Martin Prado. Upton had shown flashes of brilliance, and bucketloads of promise, but in 5 seasons in the majors had proven to that point only to be above-average. However, he’s only 25 years old and barely into the usual prime age for a hitter.

He’s currently on pace for 150+ RBI’s and over 100 HR’s, the second of which stat would be 30 more than the record…which isn’t going to happen. However, Upton’s a legit talent, and the D-Backs always thought he’d turn into this kind of hitter – they just hoped it would be for them.

BJ Upton (Atlanta Braves) – 1HR, 2RBI, .152/.250 AVE/OBP

Justin’s older brother BJ arrived as a free agent – a prized pickup from the Tampa Bay Rays who made no real effort to bring him back. There was a reason for that.

ImageThey knew that BJ’s potential – writ large in the first few years of his career – would likely win him a deal way richer than they could afford…or thought he was worth. In his last 4 years in Tampa, his batting averages went .241, .237, .243 and .246, as he tried to turn his natural speed game into a power game that his body wasn’t designed for.

I thought at the time of his signing that it was a terrible move by the Braves, and I’m more convinced than ever right now. He’ll get back over .200 no doubt, and he may steal 30 bases, but this guy’s main claim to fame in future years will be that he was Justin’s brother… 

Ryan Howard (Philadelphia Phillies) – 1HR, 5RBI, .241/.276 AVE/OBP

7 years ago, Howard was probably the best hitter on the planet not named Albert Pujols. 58HR, 149RBI’s, .313 batting average – he was an absolute monster. In 2009 he was still very, very good. However, after the following season, when his performance was already on the wane, the Phillies signed him to one of the stupidest contracts ever: 5 years and $125m to a man two years away from free agency.

The early-going this season is merely the further unfolding of an established pattern: that Howard is being overpaid by at least $15m/year. I can hardly bear to watch his at-bats against lefties any more (he’s 1 for 15 so far this year), and after his achilles tendon injury Imagenearly 1.5 years ago, even now he runs like he’s just blown out a knee.

 Three years ago he was a cornerstone of the franchise – now he’s more like a millstone…and he has nearly four years left on his deal.

 

Josh Hamilton (Los Angeles Angels) 2HR, 8RBI, .200/.258 (AVE/OBP)

Hamilton’s performance dropped off the map in the second half of last season, he’s been known to take at-bats “off”, he swings at a ton of bad pitches, he’s injury prone and he’s fighting an ongoing battle with alcohol abuse…but he’s a prodigiously gifted power hitter. That last fact explains the Angels’ decision to give him a free agent contract worth $25million a year for five years, but it sure doesn’t mean it was a good idea. The Rangers’ apparent unwillingness to go north of $15m/year should have been a warning sign – after all, as his former team they know him best.

 Hamilton won’t stay in the performance basement for very long, and he may even end up better value for his contract than Ryan Howard. And even if he plays well this year, being as he’s the wrong side of 30 you’ve got to think the Angels are only a couple of years away from a severe bout of buyer’s remorse.

So really, I’m not over-reaching at all – the early-season form of each of these guys is utterly predictable, and sadly for the Phillies, Angels and Braves (as well as happily for the Braves), whatever improvement they see for the rest of the season is unlikely to balance the books of satisfaction.

*AVE/OBP = batting average/on-base percentage

Felicitaciones a la Republica Dominicana!

ImageSo the Dominican Republic won the World Baseball Classic, at the third time of asking after the ultra-professional Japanese took the first two in 2006 and 2009. 

The Americans meanwhile didn’t even make it to the semi-final, due in large part to many of their best pitchers declaring themselves unavailable due to the timing of the event – in the middle of Spring Training when half of them can scarcely remember how to grip a slider. Some US-based pundits have been saying that this demonstrates the unworthiness of the entire event, that until the USA team is in a position to put out its very best, that the competition isn’t worthy of its name. They complain likewise that the American public isn’t sufficiently interested, in part for that same reason – the feeling the Americans are not at full strength. 

My first (slightly snippy) response to that is that the World Baseball Classic is a lot closer to meaning what it says than the World Series.

The second response is: Who cares? MLB doesn’t – the American public is not the primary target audience of an event designed to spread the message of baseball around the globe and bring back pots of money.

What the American public likes is to watch American teams winning things, and it has very little interest in watching events when the American teams doesn’t look like the favourite for victory. That’s fine – there’s no moral imperative here, and what the triennial WBC has demonstrated is that – even if all the best Americans were there – they would not be the clear cut favourites. 

In fact, I would argue that the Dominican Republic is to baseball what Brazil may be to football, and India is to cricket: the place where the sport matters the most, where it is most central to that country’s psyche. An idiosyncratic definition, I know, but work with me. Image

For sporting interest, Americans have ice hockey, football-without-feet, basketball…and a ton of other sports such as athletics and football-with-feet that hold varying degrees of interest and hold on people’s wallets. The Dominicans on the other hand have baseball…and that’s pretty much it. Partially as a result of that, but nonetheless way out of whack with their tiny population, they have produced some of the greatest players of the last 20 years. For example, did you know that all these guys are from the DR?

David Ortiz

Alex Rodriguez

Manny Ramirez

Sammy Sosa

Pedro Martinez

Albert Pujols

Jose Reyes

Miguel Tejada

Hanley Ramirez

Robinson Cano

Vladimir Guerrero

The hitters on that list would probably make up the bulk of most people’s list of the top-10 best pure hitters since the 1980’s. 

I think it’s something to do with the air. Or the soil. It has to be something strange because there are just too many of them who are too good for it to be coincidence. Even the Dominicans who can’t play the game can play the game. A good friend of mine who is from the DR came to watch my slow-pitch softball team play a couple of months ago. We were short of players and I cajoled/begged/pleaded/dragged him onto the field and essentially forced him to play for us to avoid our having to forfeit the game. He complained that he hadn’t picked up a bat in 15 years. No matter I said, if you don’t fancy swinging, then don’t swing – we just need you in the lineup.

Of course he only went 3 for 3 with a double and two singles and a swing so sweet it made Ken Griffey Jr look clunky. And he fielded a one-hopper in centre field with perfect aplomb before gunning it into second. 

It’s not fair.

It’s also why we were overdue for them to win the World Baseball Classic.

At last: victory for the home of baseball. 

Free Agent Catch-up

Spring training is a time of hope…and of fans scratching their heads saying, “We signed WHO??”, “Where is…?” and “I thought he was with…”.

So to remove a little of that confusion, here’s a team-by-team look at four of the biggest movers this off-season.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Key pickups:

Terry Francona (Manager) – a great track record of success…with teams that are loaded with top-drawer talent. Just like the Indians aren’t…

Nick Swisher (4 years, $56m; previous club: New York Yankees) – I had to read the headline at least four times before I believed it. That many years and that much money for a guy over 30 Imagewho’s lifetime average is .256, hits for only reasonable power, and has been a disaster in the postseason.

Michael Bourn (4 years, $48m; previous club: Atlanta Braves) – this may wind up being the unthinkable: a decent-value contract negotiated with Scott Boras.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (petty cash, minor league contract; previous club: Boston Red Sox)

Say what? Last time I checked, the Indians recognized and were addressing themselves as a team in a rebuilding phase, but they’re looking to strike lightning in a bottle here with Japanese star and Major (League) disappointment, Dice-K.

Verdict:

OK…so building for the future became “win now with above-average 30-something free agents that took the best money they could find to play for a franchise with no hope of winning now”. Good luck to y’all.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

 Key pickup:

Josh Hamilton (5 years, $125m; previous club: Texas Rangers) – astonishing natural talent, potential to die for, and an ageing body with a tendency to break down. As with $25m/year stablemate Albert Pujols, Hamilton will be a good signing when he plays to his potential, and a franchise millstone when he (predictably) gets injured or mentally checks out.

Verdict:

The Rangers wanted him back, but Hamilton followed the money out of town and the Angels better hope that they win the World Series in the next two years, because by the time Pujols and Hamilton hit their mid-30’s this team will be sinking $50m a year on a pair of frequently-injured, bit-part ex-superstars. Question is, do they have enough pitching to get them where they need to go?

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Key pickups:

Zack Greinke (6 years, $144m; previous clubs: Los Angeles Angels)

Greinke can opt out after three years of this bloated deal…but he won’t, because he’ll never fetch anything like this much again. He has outrageously unhittable stuff…at times. But his career-long ERA of 3.77 speaks to a decent no.2 starter worth maybe $15-18m a year…certainly nowhere near the $24m he’s going to be receiving.

Brandon League (3 years, $22.5m…33.5m+; previous club: Seattle Mariners; resigned after acquiring him via trade last year)

League, a decent reliever with inflated success due to pitching in the Grand Canyon…I mean Seattle’s Safeco field, actually has a lower contract value in theory, but the incentives that take it to the higher figure are largely easy-to-reach appearance thresholds. 

Verdict:

Put Greinke with last season’s pickups Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford give the Dodgers an MLB-leading $220m payroll, which is as unsustainable as a .500 batting average. Expectations are…HAVE to be…sky high, and every time the Dodgers lose a game it will be a scandal. Enjoy…

BOSTON RED SOX

 Key pickups:

Shane Victorino (3 years, $39m; previous club: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Victorino badly wanted to go back to the Phillies, but his plummeting batting average and high strikeout totals put them off. It even put off the more-money-than-sense Dodgers…but the Red Sox love him apparently.

Mike Napoli (3 years, $39m…oh no wait, he’s got a degenerative hip condition…1 year, $5-13m)

Because ageing, badly injured players are all the rage these days

Ryan Dempster (2 years, $26.5m; previous club: Texas Rangers)

Dempster, never an ace, went from a breakout year in his mid-30’s with the National League Chicago Cubs to horrible flameout after a trade to the American League Texas Rangers…to a sweet free agent deal with another American League team. He’s an “innings eater”, which basically means he pitches way more than you’d like because he’s not much good but you’ve got no-one better to replace him with. Alright then…

 Verdict:

Hahahahaha…

Big ticket free agency signings have paid dividends that justify the outlay roughly as often as you hear a member of the Steinbrenner family utter the words, “The Yankees are in a rebuilding phase so this year we’re more about developing players than getting results”.

So yes, there will be crying in Cleveland, Boston and LA this year. 

WHY BASEBALL IS(N’T) BETTER THAN FOOTBALL

Baseball is, without question, better…or not…than football (soccer).

This issue bothers me, because I’m English and football is the sport, particularly once I realised that having a serious relationship with a girl and playing or watching cricket for a day at a time didn’t fit. A decision must surely be made as to which is superior…

Baseball is better than football because:

1.)   The atmosphere at the grounds

Take your family, hang out, relax, soak it all in cry with sadness when the game is over.

2.)   The regard for tradition and history

Baseball celebrates and venerates those who have gone before, and the game can be traced into epochs the dead-ball era, the live ball era, the wild card era

3.)   No sponsors on the shirts

Shirt sponsorship “hit” the top division of English football in the early 1980’s, and sponsors logos are now far bigger than those of the team. It’s nothing short of an abomination.

4.)   No play-acting to get an unfair advantage

ImageIf it’s not killing football it’s coming mighty close: a game that thrived on its physicality is being ripped apart from the inside out by myriad players claiming the merest touch from an opponent is a scything blow. It’s become normal for players to claim they are “entitled” to deliberately fall over and claim a free kick/penalty when they feel any contact.

5.)   Nuance

It was once said that the quality of writing about a sport is inversely proportional to the size of the ball involved. Excluding golf, which is not in fact a sport but glorified tiddlywinks, it makes baseball one of the best sports and football one of the worst. There are just so many more things going on in a game of baseball than football, so many more plotlines, so many more set-piece, mano-a-mano confrontations.

6.)   Player loyalty

Major leaguers have usually been at the same club for upwards of 6 years before they have a chance to switch clubs. Footballers stay at one club just long enough – sometimes a matter of months – before their agents are pressuring the club to let them move on to a bigger and more lucrative places. It’s ruining the lower levels of the game and making footballers look like rank mercenaries with whom its impossible to emotionally invest.

And yet football is better than baseball because:

1.)   The atmosphere at the grounds

A packed football stadium can be a visceral place, and not just at the climax of a season but on any given week. Being part of a tribal atmosphere and leaving a game so hoarse Imageyou can hardly speak…priceless.

2.)   It’s a more pure sport

You don’t need any money, or any equipment to play football. Anything not so heavy it’ll break your foot can be a football – no matter the size . Baseball can get close to that…but no cigar. And as soon as it gets organized, the techniques and mechanics of it get so complicated you need extensive coaching just to function at the sport.

3.)   You have to be incredibly fit to play it well

I’ve defended the athleticism of baseball players, but it’s hard to make a compelling case that baseball is a bastion of athletic prowess when there are so many fat players who make it to the majors. And it doesn’t exactly help that the fattest player I’ve ever seen – Prince Fielder – is also one of the best. Not so football.

4.)   The whole world plays it

See point 2. See also hundreds of years of British imperialism. Baseball’s World Series (originally, “World’s Series” is a mis-named arrogance open to 29 clubs from the US and one from Canada). Football’s World Cup is the heart’s desire of billions of players and fans from well over 100 countries.

5.)   Relegation and promotion

Not winning the World Series is the fate of 29 of 30 major league teams every year. Two-thirds of them know, before the season’s even begun, that they won’t win, but they’ll still exist in more or less the same form next season as this. In football, lesser clubs in the Premier League have a chance of winning a knock-out tournament, and yet if they do a Pittsburgh Pirates impression and lose for fun, far from getting even more money handed to them on a plate (a la baseball’s revenue-sharing), they’ll disappear into the impecunious bowels of a lower division.

So there you have it. This all goes to prove that football is demonstrably better…or possibly worse…than baseball. 

Money Makes You Stupid

Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe money doesn’t make people stupid – it just allows for the stupidity deep within to rise to the surface.

Exhibit A for this case is Alex Rodriguez, whose 10-year, $250m contract with the Texas Rangers was secured because of his history of hitting for average and power. There was lImageittle expectation he was going to get better during the life of the deal – he had already played 7 major league seasons when he signed it. They weren’t projecting improvement and paying on the basis of that; rather, he got the money because of what he had already shown himself to be.

Unfortunately for Alex, when he got the money his inner stupid came out, and he decided that in order to justify such a ludicrously large contract, he needed to be better than he had ever been. And the only way to do that was to take drugs. So he added steroids, an extra 10 home runs a year and “cheater” to his resume.

The late George Steinbrenner obviously had an inner stupid that seemed to pop out with uncanny frequency, which ultimately has left his sons in a financial sinkhole that they have to try and dig themselves out of this off-season or face the horrific luxury-tax consequences.

But while people may lament George’s passing, they no longer have to live life without a stupid owner with a penchant for laughable excess. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you…[drum roll]…Magic Johnson and the rest of the ownership group of the Los Angeles Dodgers…[cue applause].

You see, one of George’s major faults was over-reaching for success today in a way that obliterated the hopes for tomorrow, trading away prospects and/or financial flexibility for free agents who by and large would have taken LESS to play for the storied Yankees but almost always ended up with a lot MORE than anyone else was offering.

And really, Steinbrenner can’t have been all that stupid. After all, he bought the Yankees for $8.7m in 1973 and by March 2012, Forbes magazine had the franchise valued at $1.85bn. That figure that would be markedly higher were the family ever to actually sell the club, bearing in mind the new owners in LA outbid themselves by about $0.5bn when they paid $2bn for the Dodgers this summer.

 After buying the club they made a series of trades that somehow made even the profligate Phillies look far-sighted, when soon-to-be-free-agent Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino was traded for high level pitching prospect Ethan Martin and a promising reliever. But that paled into insignificance next to taking on the ballast of a Carl Crawford contract that pays the hobbled speedster $20m a year for another 5 years, and an Adrian Gonzalez contract also netting the hitter over $20m a year into his late 30’s. Never mind Josh Becket and his disappeared fastball at $15m per annum.

 And then, this off-season, the Dodgers “won” the “race” to sign free agent ace pitcher Zach Greinke. Greinke’s an excellent pitcher – occasionally elite when he gets his pitches Imagemoving around like he can. But 6 years and $147m? For a guy whose ERA last season mirrors that of the existing Dodgers staff combined? Value it ain’t.

And the stupid tree in LA grows tall, as it turns out local icon and new minority owner Magic Johnson has also bumped into a few of its branches.

“We missed the playoffs, so now we’re spending all the money to make it not happen again.”

That’s a Freudian slip right there – “we’re spending all the money”. Words such as “plenty”, or “enough”, or “in line with our income” clearly weren’t going to get folks excited, but if you promise to spend “all the money” – well, that’s a real ‘commitment to winning’ right there. And a ‘Get out of jail free’ card if it turns out Greinke goes back to his adequate, non-dominant self when the pressure comes.

It’s sad but Dodgers are starting to resemble a poor imitation of the Yankees between 1990 and 2005: the talented home-grown core and now the reversion to free-spending lunacy. Only difference is the 90’s Yankees won three World Series, while the Dodgers haven’t even been to the Series for a generation. 

Fixing the Yankees and Red Sox

Let’s be clear, I don’t want the Yankees fixed. Their wanton splurging of cash over the free agent landscape has won them most of their success over the years. Notable exceptions of the mid-late 90’s teams that benefitted from the more semi-wanton sprinklings of money on the likes of Paul ImageO’Neill and Scott Brosius. But they have more money than anyone, and more fake fans than anyway, just like Manchester United, whose hundreds of millions of fans include a vast majority who watched ESPN once, saw them win and thought “Oo, I’ll support them – they win lots”. So yes, I am bitter, and I don’t want them fixed.

But if I DID want to fix them in a hurry, here are a few things I’d do.

  • Get rid of Alex Rodriguez. Now.

He costs $25m a year and rising, he has warning track power and he serves as a gigantic distraction from this little thing called ‘team’. When he’s not hitting on Australian models in the crowd he’s mostly getting beaten by hard stuff inside and soft stuff away. If they’re lucky, the Marlins will agree to pay him $10m/year of that salary so the Yanks should trade him for a bag of chips. As for the notion that A-Rod wouldn’t wave his no-trade clause – he’d sign it like a shot if it was made plain to him he’d been a bench player from here on.

  • Avoid free agent Zach Greinke like the plague

Yes, he’s definitely the best pitcher on the market, but he’s also hopelessly fragile mentally, in a market that eats up even relatively stable individuals. He needs to stay West Coast or go small-market – he’d be dead in the water before the end of Spring Training otherwise.

  • Re-sign Rafael Soriano as a closer.

Closers are over-rated as a breed, but Mariano Rivera is massively over-rated. That’s not to say he isn’t brilliant because he is, but the idea that the almost-perfect, pressure-cooker trhriving Sorianio should be allowed to walk because a 43 year old has decided he’s going to play another year is laughable. Mo didn’t flinch from nailing the Yankees to the wall in all his contract negotiations so they needed to man up and tell him it was their call – not his – whether he came back for another year.

As for the Red Sox, I used to really like them. Pre-2004 that is. I felt sorry for them – to be that heavily scrutinised by the media and yet to have no success in 90 years to show for it. OK they’re rich, I thought, so sympathy is at a premium, but poor little chaps to play second fiddle to the Yankees for so long. Their World Series win in 2004 was wonderful, not least because of their historic comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS. But after they won again in 2007, Boston fans started sounding a lot like the most hard-boiled of arrogant Yankee fans. 

So I don’t want them fixed either – in fact, I’m gunning for an Orioles/Rays domination of the AL East for the next decade. But if I DID want to sort out this 93-win train wreck of a franchise from a year ago, here’s what I’d do…

  • Most of the things they’ve already done

Really, the quota of common sense versus fan pressure that prevailed when they traded away Josh Becket, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez was remarkable. Gonzo’s a stud, but he had toImage go to persuade the Dodgers to take the Crawford and Beckett millstones, but this was a good day for the Red Sox. Not great, because it essentially admitted they’d messed up before. It was perhaps the Red Sox’ Dunkirk: a humiliating retreat that nevertheless cleansed the strategic palate.

  • Stop trying to be George Steinbrenner reincarnate

The Crawford contract was ridiculous. Seven years and $142million for a player who relies on speed and turned 30 in the first year of his contract…well, it’s almost as if then-GM Theo Epstein wanted to torch the Red Sox before leaving them. Just embarrassing.

  • Trade for young pitching

Jacoby Ellsbury would fetch them a decent return and they have plenty of hitting to thrive even without him. They need someone, a no.2 or 3 would suffice, to back up what they hope will be a rejuvenated Jon Lester, who went from unhittable to meatball-merchant in less than a year.

All being well though, none of this will happen, common sense will disappear like the morning mist in a hundred degrees, and I’ll be writing an off-season column next year entitled, ‘Rays/Orioles Axis Set to Dominate’. 

How Did it Happen?

I mean seriously…the team with the best pitcher and the best hitter in the world just got swept in the World Series by the team whose co-ace (Tim Lincecum) was so horrific that he got relegated to the bullpen. The Tigers only held a lead for about 15 minutes of one of the games – it’s like they were never even in it, even though the games started off close.

How does that happen?

For starters, so to speak, one of the reasons I gave why the Giants could win was crucial. Last week I pointed out that Giants’ starting pitcher Matt Cain is just as good a pitcher as Justin Verlander. Turns out that in this series, EVERYONE was better than Justin Verlander. Game 1 was supposed to be the game when Detroit put down a marker, when there big stars shone, and when Verlander was going to get redemption for his other World Series appearance in 2006 when he got knocked about.

The problem with Verlander is that he gets the jitters, and it takes a while for him to get himself under control. The problem with THAT, in game 1, was 5 runs conceded in 4 innings, and the consequent evaporation of the Tigers’ mojo after their barnstorming 4-game drubbing of the geriatric Yankees.

Not only that, but the Giants did it with a pitcher who’d become an afterthought. Barry Zito – left off the 2010 rosterImage because he was, well, rubbish, , had returned. (Tim Lincecum meanwhile had gone the other way – from stud to dud with an ERA over 5 during the regular season.) Game 1: the limp-armed Zito versus the Tiger offence on the one hand, and flame-throwing Verlander versus the Giants anaemic offence on the other.

It should have been no contest.

And really it wasn’t, as the Giants gave an 8-3 spanking from which the Tigers never recovered. Pablo Sandoval, who’d hit 16 home runs all season (that is to say, about half as many as any self-respecting power hiter would consider a minimum), hit 3 in game 1. Noodle-armed Zito had his curveball from 2002 moving so far out of its running lane it should have been disqualified, and Lincecum emerged from his chrysalis as an unhittable reliever. Now, Sandoval’s not a complicated dude, so you could argue Verlander shouldn’t have kept throwing him fastballs to tee off on, but all the same, the Tigers just ran into a perfect Sandoval-Zito storm that no-one could have realistically predicted.

The fact that the next three games were decided by a total of 5 runs implies that this was a series-on-a-tightrope, that it could easily have gone either way. But scores can be misleading, especially in the postseason when pitchers are given far less rope by their managers to recover from a couple of wayward pitches, and the pitching is on average of a far higher standard than during the regular season.

Game 2 for example was a 2-0 Giants win, and yet they had 10 baserunners during the game to the Tigers two. And it always looked as though the Giants were going to win the game, whereas the Tigers never really looked in control. Evidence for that are the figures for batting averages with runners in scoring position. That is, the batting average purely for those at-bats when hitters had a runner on second or third base. In those situations the Giants batted .333, while the Tigers managed a paltry .125.

ImageWhat it all seems to boil down to, is that the San Francisco were – and are – a better baseball team than the Detroit Tigers.

This is a tough one to swallow for a culture that idolises speed over intelligence, and power over doing the little things well, but that was the difference between the two sides. The Giants had a gameplan that they executed almost to perfection, holding Cabrera in check and fellow slugger Prince Fielder to a humiliating 1 for 16 hitting line. They had gameplans for every hitter, and their hitters stayed within themselves – not trying to muscle everything, working the count and laying off bad pitches.

Well, OK…intelligence, doing the little things well, and a fat third baseman who hit three home runs in a game for only the fourth time in World Series history.

The Giant Tigers Will Win

Two sets of players, two sets of fans; all of them convinced that there’s no way they would come this far only to lose at the final hurdle. Convinced it’s their ‘destiny’ to win, never mind the fact that ‘destiny’ has the worst hit-rate of any pre-season prognosticator, real or imagined.

There are enough heartwarming-stories-in-waiting between the Tigers and Giants to heat half of Michigan, and 101 reasons why whoever wins will have, in the grand universal scope of things, “deserved it more”.

As a big believer in making things more rather than less confusing, I am presenting you with three reasons why the Giants will prevail, followed by three reasons why it will actually be the Tigers.

The San Francisco Giants will win the World Series because:

1. They had no right to be in it in the first place, so they have to win

They were 2-0 down to the clearly superior Reds and won the next three in the Division Series. Then they went 3-1 down to the hodge-podge but somehow always good St Louis Cardinals, and won the last three games in that series as well.

2. The Tigers have no Closer.

Jose Valverde: he of the big gut, lots of guts and a flight path on his pitches so predictable they look like they’re on a string. After his inevitable implosion the Tigers went to Phil Coke, who had precisely 7 saves in his entire career before this postseason, and allows baserunners at a horrific rate.

3. Matt Cain is just as good a pitcher as Justin Verlander.

ImageHe has a lower career ERA, precisely the same WHIP (average number of hits/walks conceded per inning), but has 40 fewer wins because the Giants’ offense has been so bad for so long. He also doesn’t look as good, because he
doesn’t have a jerky leg-kick, tight pants and a 100mph fastball. He’s just borderline unhittable with his matchless ability to locate, mix speeds and locations and generate great movement on his pitches. Teams get mugged by Verlander, but picking pockets is just as effective a way of stealing money, and that’s what Cain’s been doing for years.

The Detroit Tigers will win the World Series because:

1. The Giants’ cadaver of an offense has been dragged through the playoffs by a Colorado Rockies reject.

Marco Scutaro is with his sixth club in 10 years, and hits for about as much power as I will be on Friday afternoon after double hernia surgery. The pretty bubble of Scutaro’s recent overachievement has to burst soon, and what happens to the Giants then?

2. The Tigers have the game’s best pitcher in Justin Verlander and its best hitter in Miguel Cabrera.

Looking at their dominance over the past couple of years, I have to wonder whether they have a clue just how blessed they are – these are two of the few guys whom fellow major-leaguers would pay to watch, who consistently do things almost no-one else can even dream of. Most of the media has already chalked up Verlander’s projected two World Series starts as wins for Detroit, and you just know Cabrera’s going to win at least one game single-handed, right?

3. Hunter Pence’s beard is unworthy of a World Series winner.Image

The Giants’ outfielder, acquired in a deadline-day deal with the Phillies in July, has some horrible superstition thing
going on that prevents him shaving. Or he lost his razor, I don’t know. Either way I’m not sure I can take too many more close-ups of him fiddling with his barely-post-pubescent facial fluff. I’m only glad we don’t have to put up with endless chatter by TV “analysts” about Closer Brian Wilson’s beard, as he’s out injured. Somehow, some way Pence’s quasi-beard will be his team’s downfall.

In conclusion, it seems pretty apparent that this World Series is impossible to call, so I’ll call it: Tigers will win in 6 games.

Kobe Doesn’t Get It

A-Rod is in a mess. Hitting .130 in the playoffs this year and .164 in the last three postseasons, he was benched for a pinch-hitter in game 5 of the ALDS and didn’t make an appearance at all in game 3 of the ALCS (in which his replacement, Eric Chavez, went 0 for 3). This wouldn’t matter if the Yankees were winning, but they’re not. In fact, 3-0 down in the series as I write this, they may be out of the playoffs by the time this hits the press. The Detroit Tigers, with their sketchy bullpen and wobbly lineup, are grinding the Yankees down.

Kobe Bryant, the Mount Vesuvius of self-confidence and the Sultan of Superiority, has been trying to fix the situation with A-Rod and generously shared with the media the psychological pointers he’d given to his friend in private:

“You’re Alex Rodriguez. You’re A-Rod. You’re one of the best to ever do it.” 

ImageThis of course is true. A-Rod, in 18 years as a major leaguer, is a .300 hitter with 647 home runs and 1,950 RBI’s – ludicrous numbers, all of them. The grace, power and relentless hitting of his first 14 or so years constitute, in their own right, one of the best careers in the history of the sport.

But everyone knows this and so far Kobe’s stating the obvious, before suddenly he veers off the tracks and tumbles headlong down the embankment of veracity into the ditch of delusion:

“We’re different…but you’re talking about…he’s one of the best to ever play. I think really the difference is, sometimes he forgets he’s the best. … Where, I don’t.”

That would be 0 for 2 with a pair of strikeouts for Mr Bryant. You see, nobody in the NBA thinks Kobe is the best anymore. Everyone thinks he’s excellent, many think he is still great, and he’s got those 5 rings, but the best? Not for a few years.

A-Rod’s not been close to being the best for four years now. For a while that unofficial mantle sat on the shoulders of Albert Pujols, but he seemed to start ageing around the time he signed a 10 year, $240m dollar contract with the Angels. Truth is, A-Rod can’t catch up to serious heat inside, and can frequently be found waving at slow stuff outside. He doesn’t have the power that he used to (bye bye steroids), and he doesn’t see the ball early enough to hit for the average or on-base percentage that he used to. And he’s been battling injuries for several years. 

So all Kobe’s really doing is setting A-Rod up for a fall, especially if the Yankee sort-of-slugger buys into the lie that he’s just a few positive thoughts away from being the masher of old.

Now I know you need belief. You need to believe every time you go to the plate that you can and will hit that ball. That’s a very standard and utterly necessary form of self-delusion. But to work to convince yourself that you’re the best in baseball sets up a whole new series of unreachable expectations that were the bane of A-Rod’s first couple of years in New York, where his performance took a dive as he tried to prove to everyone the very thing Bryant’s lying to him about now.

 Kobe finished off by saying, “I think sometimes he kind of forgets that and wants to try to do the right thing all the time. Which is the right team attitude to have. But other times you really have to put your head down and say, ‘Hell with it’ and just do your thing.”

“Doing the right thing” was a reference to the lack of bitter complaint at being benched. So what should A-Rod really have done? Thrown the Gatorade cooler across the dugout to prove to Kobe, the media…whoever…that he hates being left out? Seriously? Maybe if he swung harder it would help? Or swung at everything?

 If A-Rod was a childish tantrum away from being great again, I’d be delighted for him, but he’s not. Unfortunately for A-Rod, his own personal mess has obscured the larger mess that is Yankees hitting in general. Who is asking about Robinson Cano, the Yankees’ best hitter who is currently 3 for 36 in the postseason? Or cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira, who’s 2 for 29?

What’s Kobe’s advice to them? Do they need to remember that they’re the best too? 

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