Call Me Mabry

John Mabry stepped into the batters box in the top of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first base.  He already had three hits on the night–a single, double, and a triple in that order.  Hitting for the cycle is never easy, but Mabry couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in which to knock the ball out of the park and finish the feat in style.  The year was 1996 and the “juiced ball” era was beginning its peak with a league average ERA of 4.60 and luminaries such as Jay Buhner, Todd Hundley, and Brady Anderson socking over 40 HR.  It was a balmy night in pre-humidor Coors Field, where the Rockies would give up a stunning 122 HR on the season (and hit 149 of their own).  The pitcher was Mike Munoz, whose career is a testament to both the time period in which he played and the ballparks in which he was moored (Coors and Arlington.  From 1989 to 2000 Munoz managed to pitch in 453 games despite a career ERA of 5.19.  Munoz was a lefthander, sure, but Mabry never had much of a platoon disadvantage.  In fact, in 1996 he crushed lefties to the tune of a .351/.382/.536 line.

After falling behind behind 2-0, Munoz grooved a pitch to Mabry and Mabry connected, crushing the pitch over the wall in right field. Just like that, John Mabry made baseball history.  He didn’t just hit for the cycle; he hit for the natural cycle. Single. Double. Triple. Home run. In that order.  Only fourteen players have ever hit for a natural cycle, making it a rarer feat than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play.

The Cardinals still lost the game.

There’s no more precarious position than the hitting coach of an underperforming team.  It’s not entirely fair, but the hitting coach has become something of a designated scapegoat for fans, media, and even teams themselves to heap all the blame of a faltering season. The reasons for this are clear enough.  There are three prominent coaching positions on any baseball team: manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach.  Teams are reluctant to fire their managers mid-season, and pitching is seen (perhaps incorrectly) as requiring patience.  Batting, however, is violent and quick.  Each at bat lasts only a couple minutes (unless Clay Buchholz is pitching) and ends with a definitive result.  Batters don’t often get injured while batting, and are known to have more control over the result of batted balls than pitchers. For these reasons, it’s easy to think that a change in batting coaches might fix a team whereas swapping pitching coaches might just disrupt the rhythm of a staff.

The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals present a particularly formidable challenge for a hitting coach.  In 2013, the Cardinals led the National League in runs scored on the strength of one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history.

The 2013 Cardinals numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t just historic; they blew away the previous records and resulted in a split (versus bases empty situations) so huge that it will likely never be approached. I don’t particularly like the idea of taking an entire year of stats and declaring them meaningless, but projecting anything from the performance of the offense in 2013 is useless. You might as well be positing halfway through the 1941 season that Joe Dimaggio would never go hitless again.

Unfortunately, that’s what everyone has done. The Cardinals came into 2014 as favorites to retake the pennant, largely on the strength of the pitching but without much concern over a lineup that was losing one of its best hitters (Beltran), gaining one of the streakiest batters in the game (Peralta), and wasn’t nearly as good as it performed in the first place.

John Mabry had a rather unusual career as a player.  1996 was the only season he received more than five hundred plate appearances, and he put up a line of .297/.342/.431, which is respectable for just about anyone other than a firstbaseman in 1996. He had a couple more years clustered around ’96 in which he received 400 or so PAs. But other than that, he spent his fourteen season career as a bench and platoon guy.  That, by itself, isn’t strange except that Mabry was a corner OF/1b who played in one of the biggest offensive environments in baseball history and he was a rather unremarkable hitter. A career .263/.322/.405 line isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, either. Guys like him don’t usually stick around, since corner OF who can slug a little are some of the most fungible players in baseball. Most GMs probably think they have a RF who can manage a 90 OPS+ somewhere in their minors right now.

There are a few reasons Mabry was different. First, there was the impression he could play third base. He couldn’t, but still managed to be sent out there for 800 or so innings, in which he had .905 fielding percentage on the balls he could actually reach.  This perceived utility gave him a leg up on the Thomas Howards of the world. Second, Mabry had a hell of a sweet swing. Effortless yet strong, Mabry looked like he knew what he was doing, even when he struck out. He was Will Clark or Mark Grace without the results, but that’s often enough to get you onto a major league bench over a dozen similar guys. Third, Mabry was a classic clubhouse guy. Whenever he was in the lineup, you could guarantee that the announcers would talk about his intangibles, his willingness to play any position (he even pitched on two occasions), and his place as a role model for younger players. His future in coaching was a topic of speculation as early as 2004 during his last stint with St. Louis, three years before he would retire.

John Mabry is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting. The Cards are scoring 3.74 runs a game, good for third worst in the NL and fifth worst in baseball. They have scored fewer runs in more games than the Royals and the Phillies. The team’s OPS is .680. They look listless and lifeless at the plate, though struggling will do that for any lienup. And so, of course, people are calling for Mabry’s head.

In general, I’m reluctant to shift the blame from underperforming players to the coaching staff. Matheny and company deserve the heat for bad lineups, strange bullpen usage, and double switches that do nothing but cripple the heart of the order. But there are usually far more believable culprits-luck, age, regression-when it comes to poor performance. What could Mabry possibly be doing to turn Allen Craig into a pumpkin or to sabotage every prospect called up from Memphis? The idea is rather absurd, and it’s never seemed quite right to lump all the responsibility on the hitting coach.

So I won’t say that firing John Mabry is the answer to the Cardinals woes. But there might be enough to start asking the question. One stat I’ve left out above is the Cardinals’ home run totals. So far, through 66 games, the Cardinals have only hit 36 home runs. Barry Bonds started 2001 with a 66 game stretch in which he personally hit 38 home runs. Different era and Bonds was a freak. But god damn. The Cardinals slugging percent is at .360 as a team, third worse in the majors behind some pretty awful Mets and Padres squads, both of which have hit more balls out of the park.

What’s more, this squad shouldn’t be so anemic. You’ll never confuse Craig or Holliday with Mark McGwire, but they aren’t slap hitters, either. Matt Adams has been hurt, but he’s still had over 200 PAs to knock some pitches over the wall. So what’s going on? Just for a thought experiment, let’s look at some HR rates

In 2011, his breakout year, Allen Craig smacked 11 HR in 200 ABs, for a rate of one per every 18 at bats. In 2012 this number dipped slightly, to one HR for every 21 ABs. Not a big change, and arguably can be written off to the changing run environment. Then, in 2013 Craig’s HR power disappeared. He hit one HR every 39 ABs, but was still quite productive, in large part due to an almost unbelievable .474 BAbip with runners in scoring position. This season, Craig has hit one HR for every 42 ABs, his BAbip cratered, and he’s just now working back from a terrible slump that consumed the first part of the season.

Of course, Craig was injured and those injuries are clearly the most likely reason his power was sapped. So let’s look at Matt Holliday. In 2012/2013 he hit a HR for every 23 ABs. This season, it’s once every 59. Matt Adams 2012/2013 hit a HR every 20 ABs. For what it’s worth, throughout the minors he hit one every 18 ABs. In 2014, he has three HR in 194 at bats, a rate of one per 65 ABs.

I want to briefly stick with Adams for a moment, because he had a great few moments early in the season, in which opposing teams put a hard shift into play expecting him to pull the ball and he blooped it the other way instead. It was funny the first time, and still the second, but as it continued to happen you couldn’t help but wonder if he was letting the shift beat him after all. Adams had been a power threat and suddenly he was 2013 Allen Craig, relying on BAbip and misplayed balls turning singles into doubles.

Aside from Craig, Holliday, and Adams there aren’t any other good examples because no one else ever really hit for much power. Carpenter is hitting ever fewer balls out of the park than expected, but his totals last year were modest anyway. And then there is Jhonny Peralta, who leads the team with 10 HR, but if we’re theorizing that this is something that can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, Peralta hasn’t been with these guys long. Also if I’m letting myself go down this rabbit hole, it’s worth pointing out that four of those HR were in the first couple weeks of the season.

So what am I suggesting here? That John Mabry is coaching the team to not hit home runs? No, because that’s silly. I don’t particularly like it when coaches and managers talk about how they don’t need the long ball to win (because it’s not true) but I don’t think anyone would coach HR power out of a player. But I do wonder if adjustments meant to improve, such as working with Adams on going to the opposite field, are leading to unintended results. Last season the Cardinals had such an inordinate amount of success “hitting it where they ain’t” with runners on that it looked more like a viable strategy than it really is. I think we’ve come to the point where I hope that John Mozeliak and the front office are at least asking for these questions. Find out what’s been going on at BP and in video sessions, and just make sure that Mabry and Matheny aren’t taking the wrong lesson from 2013 (and the only right lesson from 2013 is that baseball can be real god damn weird).

John Mabry’s final season as a player was a month-and-a-half-long stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies, the victim of his natural cycle all the way back when Bill Clinton was finishing his first term. His swing was as graceful as ever, though slowed by age, and it was clear it was time for him to move on.  He played the majority of his 30 inning at third base, even though at age 36 he really couldn’t play the position. He had four hits, including a HR, in 39 PAs and then he was released. He became a spokesman for a chain of stores selling hunting supplies, then a color commentator, and then a coach.

He finished 2007 with a .466 OPS, which is better than Daniel Descalso’s 2014.

 

 

 

The Hollow Manager

When Mike Matheny was hired to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, he had never managed a game above the little league level. Or at least that’s how the story goes. I can’t find any verification that he ever managed a game at the little league level, either.  Most of the articles from around the time of his hiring describe him as an “assistant little league coach”, which seems to put him a level below the guy who decides whether the team gets to go out for ice cream after the game.  But it doesn’t matter.  Even if Matheny was making the lineup and pitching changes for the 12-and-under TPX Warriors, he came into MLB with no meaningful professional experience.

At the time, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing. I still don’t, at least in theory.  When Mike Matheny was just rumored to be a candidate, I wrote this blog post discussing his surprising appearance among a list of expected names. I defended his potential hiring, because he’s always been a good clubhouse guy and I thought it was ridiculous to pay a ton of money for a good “tactical” manager because unlike on most sports, the tactical moves a manager can make are limited enough that anyone can probably learn to do them.

Maybe I was half right.

We are now two months into Mike Matheny’s third year as manager of the Cardinals and I think I need to start a change.org petition to expand the field of “profanity” so I don’t have to repeat myself so often. I honestly haven’t watched enough other teams lately to say, definitively, that Matheny is the worst tactical manager in baseball, but I’d believe it.

This might sound harsh or spoiled, since the Cardinals were in the World Series last season, but I don’t think it’s wrong. I stand by my earlier assertion that managerial tactics aren’t that important, so even the most bumbling manager isn’t going to implode a good team, which is why (along with some astronomically weird situational splits) the Cards were still incredibly successful last year. However, a bad manager can cost a team a couple wins over the season with his late-innings substitutions, and that number might just be important to a team on the cusp.

Despite everything I hoped, Mike Matheny never learned how to manage. Perhaps even worse than that, though, is that he did learn what managing should look like. Years of playing under Tony La Russa taught him several lessons: a manager meddles with the lineup. He looks at platoon matchups and player history, and makes substitutions that keep players fresh and puts them in the position to succeed. A manager isn’t afraid to cut back the playing time of a star or prospect who is struggling, hurt, or not giving his all.  He is quick to make a pitching change, but will let a starting pitcher he trusts work out of a jam.  And late in the game, he will use the double switch to control the lineup.

Tony La Russa did all these things and, while sometimes I would disagree with him, for the most part he did them well. The Cardinals experienced unbelievable success under La Russa, and Mike Matheny was around for a lot of that. So he emulates La Russa. He repeats the actions he has watched with precision but without purpose, like a teenage boy who has seen every Jackie Chan movie and thinks he can fight because his moves look the same in the mirror.

Over the last two months, the Cardinals have rarely utilized the same lineup two days in a row, rare for most teams but a staple of the La Russa era. But these changes were haphazard, never moving the struggling Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig out of their established roles, or based on sample sizes so small they would make even the stingiest caterer blush. Like La Russa, Matheny gives plenty of playing time to his bench, but never in a manner calculated to see them succeed. A few weeks ago, Bernie Miklasz detailed his usage of Daniel Descalso, who has gotten most of his time at SS, and in high leverage situations, both of which set him up for failure. Descalso isn’t a contact hitter or a shortstop, but he is constantly dropped into those roles at critical moments.

Matheny has treated several rookies on the team with the JD Drew and Colby Rasmus special, reducing playing time in favor of established veterans and Matheny favorites. I never liked TLR’s approach with Drew and Rasmus, but I at least understood where he was coming from. They were stubborn, set in their ways, and often looked like they weren’t hustling because they’d had every level of the game handed to them on a platter. TLR forced them to earn at bats they had already earned because he thought they needed the adversity. But using that tactic on Kolten Wong, who seems to grind and hustle as much as the grittiest fan favorite? I’m reminded of Mr. Burns on the Simpsons, demanding Don Mattingly trim his sideburns time after time.

And then there are the pitching changes. Despite going to the pen often, Matheny still hasn’t figured out how to use Randy Choate, who has faced righthanders about as much as lefthanders in 2014, echoing the 2013 World Series, which is basically Exhibit A in the case that Matheny doesn’t understand why La Russa came walking out of the dugout so often.

Maybe the biggest sign Matheny doesn’t understand what he is doing, though, has been his use of the double switch. These days hardly a game goes by without an important piece of the offense getting pulled in the late innings so that Matheny can rearrange the lineup. And with the team battling a shaky bullpen in low scoring games, it’s left them high and dry on multiple occasions.

Remember the infamous twenty inning game of 2010?  Position player Joe Mather took the loss in a brutal 2-1 battle of attrition against the Mets. Tony La Russa was ravaged by fans and the media for a double switch that pulled Matt Holliday from the lineup and allowed the Mets to pitch around Albert Pujols for the latter half of the game (and took out one of the team’s best bats).

We haven’t had a twenty inning game yet in 2014, but Matheny makes similar thoughtless double switches so often that it’s no longer remarkable. And worse, sometimes they’re done without any reason. On Thursday, Wong was removed from the game simply to push back the pitcher’s spot from 9 to 2, even though the pitcher wasn’t due to bat in the next inning. There was no tactical advantage in the double switch at all and, as a result, Shane Robinson was sent up at a critical moment rather than Wong.

Of course, this problem would be remedied with a better bench—lately the bats coming into the game aren’t much better than the pitchers they are theoretically replacing—but you should never be switching out guys in the 2-5 spots in the lineup unless there is a decided tactical advantage to doing so.

Mike Matheny knows what a manager is supposed to do, but he still hasn’t learned how or why. He plays the part, but only because he’s memorized the lines. It worked for two years, thanks to one of the best front offices in the game and a heaping portion of luck. But if the Cardinals continue to struggle this season, it’s only a matter of time before everyone grows tired of his hollow Tony La Russa act.

 

Allen Craig is Fine. Probably.

NOTE: Allen Craig is out of the lineup tonight versus a left-handed starter, which is crazy because this season he’s been like the CIA in the 1980s: all he can do is hit lefties. Maybe he’s hurt and this is all a moot point. Or maybe Matheny is just going to Matheny and there’s no explanation.

I doubted Allen Craig for a long time. I thought his 2011 was a flash in the pan, a right-handed version of 2006 Chris Duncan, boosting a championship team up on his shoulders when they needed him, before the league could figure him out. Even after 2012, when put together an almost full season slash line of .307/.354/.522, I thought it was only a matter of time until the clock struck twelve and he turned into a couple of mice dragging a pumpkin around the basepaths.

Craig reminded me of so many other players before him. Some people call these guys “quad-A” talent, to indicate that they are too good for the minor leagues but not good enough to hack it in MLB. I’ll put a finer point on it, because there are several types of quad-A players. I’m not talking about the Brad Thompsons or Tyler Greenes but a specific species of player that has tormented fans ever since stats went mainstream.

I’m talking about minor league sluggers. They are usually a year or two older than the competition, either because they were drafted out of college or they’ve been in the organization longer than you remember. You don’t remember when they joined the organization because they weren’t drafted in the first couple rounds or they weren’t highly touted international signings or because they joined as minor league free agents. They don’t play any position very well so they usually end up at first base or right field, but somewhere on their Baseball Reference page they’ve got some minor league innings at 3b or CF because scouts claim their bat won’t carry them at a corner. But those scouts have to be crazy, because these guys are smashing AAA pitching and you just read Moneyball and we’re not here to sell jeans.

I’ll call these guys “Kilas”, after their patron saint and Platonic ideal Kila Ka’aihue, who spent years in the Royals’ Omaha affiliate doing his best Albert Pujols impersonation, seemingly ignored by a Major League team content to give at bats to Ross Gload, Scott Podsednik, and the death rattle of José Guillen. When he finally got his shot at the Majors, Kila struggled to a career .221/.305/.382 line over about 450 plate appearances.

Every team has a Kila at one point or another, and every fan base rallies around him. You can hear them on the radio, you can read them on the message boards, and if you’ve got a co-worker who read some of Baseball Between The Numbers, you’re probably never free of it. “Bring up Kila.” “Have you seen John Rodríguez’s slugging percentage?” “Can’t wait to see what Izzy Alcantera can do in Fenway.” “Cut Tino, bring up John Gall!”

So I thought Allen Craig was a Kila. He had all the warning signs. He was never considered a serious prospect, he didn’t have a position, he isn’t terribly athletic, and his tools were limited to the power/eye combo that doesn’t always translate from the minors. I was wrong. Craig had better plate coverage and contact skills than I expected, allowing him to overcome the problem that faces most Kilas, which is the inability to handle a league (mostly) full of pitchers who can locate their pitches on the corners of the zone. Even once I figured this out, I was stubborn and I kept expecting a crash that never came. By the middle of last season I finally accepted that Craig could be a Major League hitter. I stopped waiting for the crash and let myself enjoy the hits.

I’m not writing all this now, with Craig slumping harder than Nintendo’s marketing department, to say that I was right before. I’m not bragging about being right on Craig, because I’m a Cards fan and I always want to be wrong when I’m doubtful of a player. Rather, I just want to give some background for what I’m about to say:

Allen Craig is going to be fine. He may never be what he appeared to be in 2013, but that shouldn’t come off as a surprise. Anyone evaluating the Cardinals offense should probably treat 2013 like season four of Community and just assume what we think we experienced was just the result of fumes from a gas leak. We’re probably never going to see an entire team hit .330/.402/.463 with RISP again in our lifetime, and we’re certainly never going to see it from a team that hit .236/.297/.356 with the bases empty. Allen Craig was arguably the biggest beneficiary of the 2013 gas leak, putting up a line that looks more Ted Williams than Torty: .454/.500/.638

Craig probably won’t be the same hitter we saw in 2011-2012 either, as his home run power has seen a dramatic drop since his first full season. Whether this is the byproduct of nagging injuries or a conscious attempt to trade fly balls for line drives, I’ll leave up to your imagination. There is no way to know for sure, at least not until Peter Bourjos pulls an Edward Snowden and releases tapes from the batting cages before seeking asylum in Chicago.

So why am I optimistic about Craig? First, his BAbip is floating around .225, a hundred points below his career numbers. A big part of his slump has been terrible luck. So far this season he’s hit 64 balls on the ground and only 8 have squeaked through for hits. That’s only good for a .125 BAbip, when his career numbers on ground balls put him at .258. Twice as many hits on just grounders would go a long way to reversing the slump. Second, and on a related note, Craig is hitting way more grounders in total. His gb/fb rate in 2014 is 1.56, almost twice his career rate and high enough that even Ichiro Suzuki might give a respectful nod.

So Craig is hitting twice as many grounders as would be expected, and grounders are producing half as many hits as would be expected. Unless there is a hidden injury here or Craig suddenly has turned into the Kila I feared, unable to cover the inside corner of the plate, expect his numbers to bounce back. He might not make another All Star game, and it might not be enough to stave off Oscar Tavares, but don’t go writing him off based on a month and a half of bad luck just because it follows a year of the stupidest good luck.

Report: Angels GM Demanded Unicorn in Exchange For Erick Aybar

Sources inside the St. Louis Cardinals front office have confirmed that talks to expand the Freese-for-Bourjos trade to include Angels shortstop Erick Aybar stalled late last week after Jerry Dipoto requested a unicorn in exchange for the 29 year old infielder.

“Mo thought it was a joke,” one scout said.  “You know, just playing around with how desperate we were to fill the position.  We all had a good chuckle back in the office, but then we realized Jerry wasn’t laughing with us. The other end of the phone was dead silent.”

Once they realized that the Los Angeles General Manager of Anaheim was serious, the front office began considering euphemistic definitions that could explain the demand.  “We moved on,” the scout continued. “And thought he might be asking about a hard throwing lefty, like Kevin Siegrist. Those guys are pretty hard to find.  Maybe he wanted Yadier Molina, a catcher that could hit and play defense at an all-star level. We weren’t going to trade Yadi, but we checked to see if that’s what he meant.”

The Cardinals moved on to non-baseball definitions  of the word unicorn, offering up a creative artist who can do extensive computer coding and a single woman interested in multiple-partner sexual encounters. Eventually even John Mozeliak had to admit that there was only one plausible explanation for the continued lack of response from the Angels front office.

“We thought the only thing left to think: they really were asking for a horse with a fucking horn growing out of its head.”

An extensive search of Midwestern ranches, racetracks, and farms finally yielded hopeful results for the Cardinals.  The team was able to acquire Bo, a nine year old stallion with a fibrous tumor on the upper right side of its head that, at the correct angle, appeared to be a horn. Bo only cost the team a few hundred dollars and a set of season tickets, and for a brief moment Mozeliak thought he could pencil Aybar into the 2014 Cardinals lineup.

Then word came back that Bo had failed his physical exam in Anaheim. The reason for the failure was relayed to the team in a curt, one sentence note that accompanied the creature back to St. Louis:

“This is a horse.”

The Cardinals promptly signed Jhonny Peralta for his demands and never looked back.

When reached for comment, the Angels front office would neither confirm nor deny past negotiations surrounding Erick Aybar, but issued this statement:

“Looking at available shortstops, it is not unreasonable that a player of Aybar’s caliber would command a high price on the trade market. We are looking at many options, but we believe that a fair return would have to include a mythological creature that is entirely devoid of sin.”

The Beltran And The Sea

Carlos Beltran was and outfielder who hit from both sides of the plate with a Marucci maple bat and he had gone fifteen years now without taking a ring. This was not for lack of effort. In the first six years he been in Kansas City where he learned to regard their logo, a crown, with a certain sense of irony. But after six years he traveled to Houston then New York then St. Louis and he proved his worth every October. But each year he would come home with his fingers bare.

In his first years in baseball he was really very fast. He stole bases and went stood out in centerfield. He was so fast that he flattened Mike Cameron with just his running speed. But now he was an old outfielder. His knees were crooked and his arm ached when he pulled it back for a throw. Everything about him was old except the crack of his bat which was the same tenor as a thunderclap and was bold and undefeated.

“Carlos,” Miller said to him as they climbed the stairs of the dugout. “I could go out there with you. We’ve won some games.” Beltran had taught Miller about baseball and the boy loved him.

Beltran looked at him with confident eyes. “If you were my player, I’d take you,” he said. “But you are Matheny’s and there are match ups.”

“He hasn’t much faith.”

“I know,” Beltran said. “But haven’t we?”

They sat on the bench and many of the other players made fun of Beltran. Others looked at him and were sad. The successful players of Boston and St. Louis already won their rings and displayed them in glass cases with wooden plaques and now only looked to add to their glory.

“Carlos,” Miller said. “Can I get your batting gloves for you? If I cannot play with you, I would like to help in some way.”

“You brought us here,” Beltran said. “You are already a man.”

“This is your sixth post season series in St. Louis. Do you think that is a lucky number?”

“Six is a serious number,” Beltran said. “How would you like to see me bring in a ring dressed out with six hundred diamonds? Think perhaps I can?”

“Keep your bat warm, old man,” Miller said. “Remember we are in October.”

Keep my bat warm, Beltran thought. He hoisted the maple stick on his shoulder and, swinging it back and forth with a certain menace, he stepped onto the field. There were other players at other positions stretching and sprinting on the grass and Beltran could hear the roar of the crowd cheering for them but not for him. Beltran stopped in in the on deck circle and waited.

Beltran watched as Matt Carpenter faced the pitcher. Lester was left-handed but Beltran was ready.

This is the World Series. Beltran’s at-bat will be only one at-bat in all the at-bats that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other at-bats to come will depend on what Beltran does in this at-bat. It had been that way all year. All of baseball is that way.

He had no mysticism about baseball though he had played it for so many years.  Most players had superstitions. Beltran had facts. He did not wear a phiten necklace because of its magnetic properties but because its color gave his eyes a certain comforting warmth. He did not eat an entire chicken before each game for luck but to be strong in October for the truly important home runs. He did not tap his bat to hear its sound as a ritual. It was a science. The sound of a good bat is different than the sound of a bad bat. Beltran did not use a bad bat.

Carpenter fouled a pitch back towards the on deck circle. The ball rolled towards Beltran. He knelt down and picked it up.

“Baseball,” he said. “I love and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Beltran  would have liked to come to the plate with a man aboard but the next pitch retired Carpenter. It was a cutter out over the plate and Carpenter should have taken hold of it for a drive but this was baseball. Baseball is a game of skill and a game of luck. The wind always blows harder in your face than at your back. Beltran knew that better than anyone. But he did not dwell on that.

After fifteen seasons without a ring Beltran knew he was not a lucky player. It was good to be lucky. Ryan Theriot was lucky. Pete Kozma was lucky. It was better to be exact. Every at-bat is a new at-bat. When the luck came Beltran ‘s way he would be ready for it.

Beltran stepped to the plate for the first time in a World Series game. He would not be defeated.

Experiences in Old Sports Games: Not Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball

I’m late on making this post because I threw out what I wrote last night.  The subject of my post was going to be Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball for the Commodore 64, both because I can’t stop picking baseball games and because I was using the post as an excuse to rant about Mike Matheny.

See, for a long time I disliked Tony La Russa.  In 2000, he started Rick Ankiel against the New York Mets in the NLCS, giving him a little-needed second chance to implode.  In 2001, he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman and it arguably cost the Cardinals the division.  I realize it was foolish to get so hung up on a single bad move, but using Tabaka there may still be the single worse bullpen call I’ve ever seen (bringing in Boggs on May 30 of this year comes close).  So after 2001 I was done with La Russa and couldn’t wait for him to leave.  Of course, he didn’t leave, the Cardinals won a shit-ton, and my hatred of La Russa lessened all the way to the point that I finally want him back.

This is the 17th result for a google image search for "Jeff Tabaka", which says everything about his career and also the result of bringing him into that game.

This photo of Lance Berkman is the 17th result for a google image search for “Jeff Tabaka”, which says everything about his career and also the result of bringing him into that game.

Basically, the post I had written up Thursday night was only half about Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball. I discussed how it innovated the presentation of fly balls within the game.  Rather than render every hit as a ground ball, or use a shadow texture to indicate the height of the ball, the interface marked the spot the ball would eventually land.  This made fielding much easier, and allowed for a greater variety of hit types.  This innovation and the fantasy draft, like the bullpen innovations of Tony La Russa himself, was imitated by everyone who came afterwards and is now a standard part of the genre.

Tony La Russa also innovated the use of the conga line on the basepaths.

Tony La Russa also innovated the use of the conga line on the basepaths.

The other half of my post was about how I missed La Russa, and how sick of Mike Matheny I was.  This was coming off games 4 and 5 of the NLCS, in which he put on a bad managing clinic.  It was like watching Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough: the performance was so terrible that if I wanted to teach someone how to be godawful, it would be shown in class on day one.  However, after last night I just couldn’t go through with the post.

Denise Richards could play a nuclear physicist in the same sense that Matt Adams could play shortstop.

Denise Richards could play a nuclear physicist in the same sense that Matt Adams could play shortstop.

It’s not because my mind has changed about Matheny.  I still think he’s lost out there and carried by a very talented team and front office.  Most managers are.  But it seemed light the pinnacle of Being A Spoiled Cardinals Fan to put down so many words about the manager’s mistakes on the same day that the team advanced to the World Series.  My team is about to appear in the fourth World Series out of the last ten, and I wasn’t about to write a post critical of the team while that was happening.

Yeah this looks like the face of a guy who would make the ~1,500 words I wrote on Thursday completely meaningless.

Yeah this looks like the face of a guy who would make the ~1,500 words I wrote on Thursday completely meaningless.

So in place of the post I was going to put up yesterday, I’m just going to end on a picture of Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran celebrating a World Series trip together, posted on twitter by Beltran’s wife, @ivanalenin.

wainbelt

Even if you hate the Cardinals, you should be cheering for Beltran to get a ring.  He’s arguably the best post-season hitter of all time, and while he shouldn’t need to bolster his Hall of Fame credentials, the truth is he’s going to need as much help as he can get.

A Modest Proposal: The Three-way Tie

Currently, the St. Louis Cardinals lead the National League Central by two games over the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds. Due to the latest turn in Uncle Bud’s Wildcard Ride, all three teams are guaranteed to make the playoffs, but only the division winner will automatically advance to the NLDS. The other two will play in a single Wildcard game to reach the division series. With the division coming down to the wire, everyone wants to talk about the worst-case scenario–or the best case scenario if you’re a Braves or Dodgers fan–a three-way tie that forces the NL Central teams into a brutal series of single game showdowns.

I have a better idea for resolving this potential problem. I think that everyone can agree that the Braves and the Dodgers are the real bad guys here, so how about we show some Central solidarity and solve this problem with some creativity.

One game. Three teams.

How is this possible? Well, to quote the classic 1997 film Air Bud, “Ain’t no rules say a dog can’t play basketball.” Each team will face both of their opponents in a single game. Each team will get a full nine innings on either side of the ball. It just won’t be at the same time.

Instead of halves, each inning will be divided into thirds. Home field and batting order will be determined by record against the other two teams. Best record plays at home, bats last. Second best record will bat in the middle third of the inning. Worst record will bat first.

Currently, the Cards have a .526 record against the Pirates and Reds, the Pirates have at .514 record against their opponents and the Reds have a .457 record. So the game would take place in St. Louis, Reds would bat first, then Pirates, then Cards. The Pirates pitchers would throw to the Reds batters in the first third of the inning, the Cardinals pitchers would throw to the Pirates batters in the middle of the inning, and finally the Reds pitchers would face the Cardinals batters. This way, each team faces one another. The team pitching would always bat in the following third of an inning, and then get a third of an inning to rest.

Winner of the three team game takes the division, then the team with the second most runs gets home field advantage for the play-in game. Given that each team has to outscore the other two to win the division, everyone will be equally motivated, even though each team’s batters are facing a different opponent than their pitchers. The only problem that could theoretically come up is if in the bottom of the ninth the Pirates are winning, the Cards are batting, and the Reds are pitching to preserve the Pirates lead with no interest in the outcome of the final third of the inning because they’ve already lost the division.

In this very unlikely situation, the Pirates will just have to hope that the Reds pitcher will be sufficiently motivated to become the first player to record a save for an opposing team because, hey, that’s pretty historic.

So let’s do it. Save some time. Three teams. One game. Twenty seven half innings. Baseball.

Rob Johnson Fined For Describing His Promotion As “Double Bagging”

Mere hours after being promoted to back up St. Louis Cardinals backup catcher Tony Cruz, the team levied an undisclosed fine against veteran Rob Johnson for inappropriate remarks made to the press about his role on the Major League club.

When asked how much playing time he expected to get, and why he believed that the Cardinals thought they should carry three catchers on the roster, Johnson compared the added protection of an extra backstop to the practice of wearing two condoms at once, colloquially known as “double bagging.”

“Baseball is just like ****ing on Craigslist,” Johnson said just after exiting the plane from Memphis. “You don’t just plow some **** you never met without a condom, and you don’t go into a game without a second catcher.  If you’re not safe, some bad **** is gonna happen at home plate.  And what do you do when the only piece of *** who responded to your 2:30 casual encounters post looks extra nasty, but you gotta be at the park by 4:00? You don’t just kick her out of the back of your half-ton like you’re some kinda royalty. You go, but you go extra safe.  You wrap your **** up twice, just to be sure.  Looks to me like the NL Central just got extra nasty, so the Cards decided if they’re gonna **** it, they gotta double bag it.”

The team immediately issued a response to Johnson’s statement, noting that his remarks were “not in the spirit of the St. Louis Cardinals organization” and “an affront not only to fans, but to his teammates.”

Manager Mike Matheny echoed the team’s condemnation of the veteran catcher.  “I don’t know who he thinks he is,” Matheny said.  “I won’t have behavior like that in my clubhouse.  He should head right back to Memphis if he thinks that this team supports casual sex, profanity, or any form of birth control other than the will of the Lord.”

Jake Westbrook was similarly disgusted by his new teammate, noting that he would be a bad influence on all the young pitchers, especially Kevin Siegrist, who Westbrook believes has not reached puberty.

“Craigslist?  The only Craigslist I need is Allen Craig’s list,” said Cardinal first baseman Allen Craig, pulling out a well-worm piece of paper.  He then proceeded to muse wistfully about how he hadn’t “seen Amber since the night of the fire.”

Other teammates weren’t so quick to criticize.  “I think he sounds cool,” said reliever Seth Maness. “Like that guy from my high school who owned a van. Well, I think he went to my high school. I never saw him in classes. But he definitely had a van.”

When asked just how “nasty” he thought the NL Central race was getting, Johnson became agitated. “It’s like a warm can of Keystone Ice left open on the bar,” he told reporters.  “You don’t wanna  drink it because, ****, it’s not even full.  So you know someone else put their mouth on it. But the bartender is in the back taking a **** or something and you’re pretty sure you’ll smell any cigarette butts floatin’ on the top before you taste anything, so you risk it.

“That’s how nasty the NL Central is.”

Even outside of baseball, Johnson’s comments have caused controversy. The American Medical Association issued a statement, clarifying that the use of two condoms did not protect any better against pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.  Noting that it is superfluous and reduces the overall effectiveness of the protective method, the AMA likened using multiple condoms to wasting a MLB roster spot on a third string catcher.

Ty Wigginton Releases St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals era is over for Ty Wigginton. Today, the veteran announced that he had given the team its unconditional release.

Wigginton, 35 and only nominally capable of playing the field, had signed the Cardinals in the offseason to provide him with a roster spot and occasional playing time.  He appeared in only 47 games for the team and had a cumulative OPS of .431. Unfortunately, the Cardinals didn’t meet his expectations.

“This was really a miscalculation on our part,” Wigginton’s agent said. “We thought that we were signing the Cardinals of the early and mid 90s. You know, a mediocre team without any real playoff hopes, where my client would fit in.  But the Cards kept winning, and they kept putting my guy in to bat in critical spots, and we realized that it just wasn’t working out.”

Signs of trouble appeared early on in the deal, when on April 7 the Cardinals gave Wigginton a start at third base.  Wigginton’s fans levelled heavy criticism at the team over the misuse of their player, noting that even with David Freese injured, he should have at least been behind Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Ryan Jackson, Allen Craig, and Joe Kelly on the 3b depth chart.

The rift between the veteran hitter, who hit .156 as a pinch hitter in 2013, and the team, which currently holds a .609 winning percentage, only intensified as the Cardinals emerged as a contender.  Wigginton was reportedly unhappy with GM John Mozeliak’s decision to send down embattled reliever Mitchell Boggs, and voiced his displeasure by spending more time on the bench and less time in the lineup. He’d hoped that the organization received his message, but when the Cardinals began decreasing the playing time for shortstop Pete Kozma, it only emphasized how different their goals were.

With the Cardinals retaking the NL Central lead over the weekend, Wigginton knew what had to be done. “I respect the months of service the Cardinals organization has given me,” Wigginton explained in a prepared statement. “But it’s time I let them go.  It’s just not fair to my fans, who don’t want to see me bat in important situations.”

While the Cardinals are now free to sign or promote any bench player they wish, Wigginton is still on the hook to receive the remainder of the five million dollars he agreed to take when he joined the team.

Ecuador Weighs Ryan Jackson’s Request For Asylum

This Wednesday, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño held a press conference to confirm that his country had received a request for asylum from Memphis Redbirds shortstop Ryan Jackson. He then read portions of what he said was Jackson’s letter to Ecuador’s president:

“I, Ryan Jackson, member of the St. Louis Cardinals organisation, write to you to request asylum from the Republic of Ecuador because of my continued confinement to the minor leagues and/or bench despite sustained success and a clear need at the major league level.”

“Having exhausted all other possibilities, I have determined that I am being held as a political prisoner. During spring training, Mike Matheny overheard me telling Matt Adams that bunting a runner to second base actually decreases run expectancy. Since then, I believe the organization has issued a secret kangaroo court order for my indefinite detention and prominent members of the team have called me a traitor or worse: the next Tyler Greene.”

“I am not a Tyler Greene. I made a conscious decision to expose grave misconceptions about the value of sacrificing an out to get someone into so-called ‘scoring position’. As a result of my political opinions and exercising my rights of free expression through which I showed a fellow rookie that position players should never be asked to lay down a bunt, this organization has turned against me. They are the true Tyler Greenes.”

Patiño stated that Jackson compared his case to that of Colby Rasmus, another member of the Cardinals organisation who successfully sought refugue in Canada two years ago. Like Rasmus, Jackson believes that he has been given every opportunity to fail. Unlike Rasmus, Jackson notes that he hasn’t even been given a single opportunity to succeed.

Jackson’s letter made several references to current Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, who is currently hitting .252/.296/.319 in 274 plate appearances. “Kozma’s OPS is the eighth worst among qualified batters in the NL,” Jackson told the Ecuadoran President in his plea for asylum. “Meanwhile I have an on-base percentage near .400 in AAA. I’m out-hitting Oscar Tavares.”

The Foreign Minister then addressed reporters himself, telling them that Ecuador would decide how to proceed based upon the values enumerated in the Ecuadoran Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1988 edition of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

“We will examine domestic law, international law, and Runs Created,” Patiño said. “But not Win Shares. Never Win Shares.”

In recent years, Ecuador itself has come under fire for suppression of free speech and government control of the media. Opponents of President Rafael Correa have suggested that his administration has no place criticizing the personnel decisions of United States baseball organizations.

Patiño, however, sees it differently. “In Ecuador, we respect the privacy and values of our citizens. Government-run media allows us to protect our people from offensive content such as American propaganda, violent protests, and Ty Wigginton at-bats.”

For the moment, the Ecuadoran government has made no decision on whether to grant Jackson’s request for asylum. “While the injustice is great, we do not really need a shortstop at this time,” Patiño explained. “We are primarily looking for outfield help, and his bat doesn’t profile well to a corner.”

Currently, Ryan Jackson’s whereabouts are unknown, but reports have surfaced that he has already fled Memphis and may be hiding out in Moscow after a hasty plane flight from the United States.

When reached for comment on Jackson’s status, Russian President Vladimir Putin was tight lipped. “I cannot state anything specifically about Mr. Jackson,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “But hiding in Russia without my permission is like baseball: you only get to go home after you have been sufficiently hit around.”