Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
On Wednesday evening the Miami Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays agreed to a 12 player deal that will send Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio north of the border in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Jeff Mathis, Henderson Alvarez, and a package of prospects. The size of this trade is somewhat staggering, as is the amount of salary the Marlins have been able to lop off over the last 4 months in the wake of last offseason’s unsuccessful spending spree. This particular deal isn’t quite as large as the Boston-Los Angeles waiver deadline deal, but Toronto is still agreeing to assume nearly $200 million in contracts while taking a big risk in talent. The prevailing narrative that’s currently being written around the baseball-sphere is that this is business as usual for the Marlins whereas the Blue Jays are primed to turn into an AL East powerhouse after making such a splashy move. But I disagree with that sentiment and I don’t believe that’s how things will turn out, and here are a couple of reasons why:
Perhaps no team in baseball outside of Boston has had a more disappointing and distressing season than the Miami Marlins. Following an offseason spending spree that netted shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell, starter Mark Buehrle, and manager Ozzie Guillen, (hell the team even made Albert Pujols an offer that was reported to be above $200 million) the Marlins appeared to be in perfect position to re-brand going into their new ballpark. Gone were the nickle-and-dime practices that had plagued the franchise since it’s inception. Instead, the Marlins brass decided to open their pocketbooks to acquire marquee talent in order to drive up interest in the crowded Miami market.
Unfortunately that strategy also fell flat on its face, as the Marlins find themselves among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 26th in runs scored while ranking 22nd in fewest runs allowed. In fact, the Marlins have been so bland, they even had their TV series on Showtime, The Franchise, cancelled after only 8 episodes. Miami now heads into a tumultuous 2013 offseason with a ton of uncertainty and few options to be had. Reinforcements probably aren’t on the way, as the front office enters yet another cutback phase, looking to drop the payroll to somewhere around $80 million. Let’s take a look at what lies ahead.
With baseball’s all-time leader in pickoffs, Andy Pettitte with 99, returning to pitch for the Yankees this season it’s a good time to take a look back at the history and origin of the pickoff move. My source for the history of the pickoff move and from where all quotes were extracted is the excellent book A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball by the award winning Peter Morris.
The pickoff move has been in recorded existence since the 1800s when in 1860 “the Brooklyn Eagle recorded: ‘(Mattie) O’Brien played finely, both pitching and watching the bases; in the latter respect he kept his opponents well on the bases when they reached them. He caught (Frank) Pidgeon napping at first base in capital style.’” Since baseball in the 1860s was still played by pitching the ball underhanded, a pickoff would not resemble anything like baseball today. “Much of the interplay that now exists between pitchers and base runners did not exist. Most base runners began to take modest leads, and pickoff tosses accordingly became scarce in the 1870s” according to Morris. A pickoff became a rare sighting and until the 1880s the move was considered an unused novelty.
By the 1880s, overhand pitching had taken hold of baseball and would help reintroduce the move into the sport. The pickoff began to take shape and look similar to what we now know of today. Windups began to evolve to hold base runners with “the most extreme approach employed by Philadelphia’s Con Murphy. Although Murphy was a right-hander, with a runner on first he stood facing the base runner until he suddenly pivoted and threw to the plate.” Another famous early pickoff artist was Matt Kilroy, a left-hander who employed an illegal move in today’s game. He “made the same step forward as though he was going to pitch, but would shoot the ball underhanded to first base, instead of ‘putting it over the plate.’” In today’s game once a pitcher moves toward the plate he must follow through with the pitch, otherwise it is considered a balk.
Other forms of pickoffs inevitably developed, such as pickoffs to second, ambidextrous pickoffs (which “was surprisingly frequent in the days before it was common for pitchers to wear gloves” via Morris), and the fake to third, throw to first pickoff variant. The first real step taken toward slowing a running game and implementing the modern pickoff was in 1889 when Tim Keefe pitched out of the stretch. This would change baseball completely, and today every single pitcher from Little League to the Big Leagues is taught to pitch out of the stretch. The pickoff would undergo very little change or invention until the 1960s.
By the 1960s base runners were begin to dominate baseball as they never had before. Managers were learning the benefits of stealing a base tended to outweigh the risks. In 1962 Maury Willis stole 104 bases, which hadn’t been done since 1894. Teams were stealing on average ten more bases a year than in the previous decade. Something needed to be done to slow down base stealers.
The slide step, which had been sparingly used in the 1800’s made a comeback. This involves a right-handed pitcher quickly removing his back foot from the rubber and wheeling around and throwing to first. According to Morris, Pud Galvin in 1891 is credited with inventing a crude version of the move. According to most text it is difficult to tell who refined the move, as it seems most of the league started employing the tactic around the same time.
One of the best right-handed pickoff moves in use today belongs to James Shields. He caught 12 base runners last season, a huge total, and only allowed 6 steals on 11 attempts. Nobody ran on him and his move, shown here, involves him sitting in a low stance in order to see the runner as best he can. Shields then removes his back foot from the rubber while wheeling around and firing low and to the outside corner of the base. Its the gold standard for the sidestep.
In the last two decades, as further response to the increase in base running, lefties began refining an old technique as well. Mat Kilroy’s old technique of faking to the plate and throwing to first was brought back to life by guys like Jim Kaat and particularly Andy Pettitte. Mark Buehrle is another modern master of Kilroy’s ploy. The modern version of the pickoff entails that a pitcher bring his leg directly up and then move it toward first base. If the pitcher moves his leg back or forward in any way he must go to the plate or be called for a balk. Pettitte and Buehrle in particular are excellent at the feign because they can keep their eye on the plate while throwing toward first. This pickoff move also controls the opponent’s running game, allowing more time for double plays to be turned and stealers to be caught. Base runners need to keep small leads and stay alert against pitchers like these, unless they want to be cut down in their prime.
Part two of the turnaround teams series. In the last 6 seasons, and 16 of the 17 in the Wild Card Era, a team has made the playoffs after posting a losing record the previous year. 2012 should be no different and when the playoffs expand, whether that be this season or next, look for the trend to continue.
Change is the theme of the season down in South Florida. With new uniforms, an eccentric new ballpark, an outspoken manager, and a newfound willingness to spend, the re-branded Miami Marlins plan to make noise in 2012. All the cash spent in Miami this offseason was able to net a pretty impressive group of players in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. Miami added these new faces to a very talented and young core including Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison, and Anibal Sanchez. This is a team that could do some damage coming of off a disappointing 72-90 season which saw both Ramirez and Johnson end the season early on the disabled list. At the very least the Marlins should be able to finish around .500 and make the NL East the deepest division in baseball. If all the pieces fall in place just right under new manager Ozzie Guillen, the Fish could be looking at big things in 2012.
On offense the Marlins are going to have an excellent mix of power and speed. At the top of the lineup are two of the fastest players in the game, in Emilio Bonifacio and Jose Reyes. Ozzie Guillen, has said he would like to start his lineup with the two speedsters, and he is an aggressive manager who like to run when he has the horses to do so. The White Sox in 2010 stole the 2nd most bases in the majors, with Juan Pierre leading the way. Both Reyes and Bonifacio have the potential to steal 40+ bases. The heart of the order should provide plenty of pop, with Stanton a threat to top 40 homers, Morrison a threat to hit over 30, and Gaby Sanchez a threat to go deep 20 times. If Hanley Ramirez can get back on track he should hit more than 20 homers as well and could hit for more than 30. Florida was the 8th worst offense in baseball last seasons and that should no doubt improve with full years from Ramirez and Reyes, as well as the continued improvement of the young players. This offense will rank as one of the 5 best in the National League and keep Miami in any game.
The Marlins’ pitching staff was also mediocre as well last season but should get a monumental boost from the free agent acquisitions of Buehrle and Bell, as well as a full season of ace Josh Johnson. Johnson is one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball. Two years ago he led the entire league in ERA+, with an astronomical 180, and last season he was destroying hitters in his first 9 starts with a miniscule 1.64 ERA (234 ERA+!!). When healthy, Johnson is one of the 2-3 best pitchers in baseball. If Miami can get a full 30 starts out of their ace they should finish no worse than .500.
The pitching staff will also benefit from the frighteningly consistent Mark Buehrle. 4 of the last 5 seasons the former White Sox ace had finished with an ERA+ between 115 and 130. He’s the only pitcher in baseball to make 30 starts in the last 11 seasons. And with a move to the National League, he should see a slight improvement in his numbers, and post another ERA below 4.00. He immediately slides into the #2 spot in the rotation and pushes Anibal Sanchez down a peg, to his more natural #3. Sanchez is a high strikeout pitcher with a walk rate around 3 per 9 innings. He has been just above league average the last 2 seasons and will more than likely continue to do so as he enters his age 28 season. If Ricky Nolasco, who hasn’t posted an ERA+ above league average since 2008, and Carlos Zambrano, who is the most combustible player in baseball, can hold together the bottom of the rotation, the Marlins could have a top 10 pitching staff.
No matter what happens in 2012 for the Miami Marlins, the team will be fascinating to keep tabs on. Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano are highly volatile and could explode at any time. The ballpark is going to be a psychedelic South Florida experience equipped with a massive 50-foot tall homerun display and fish tanks behind home plate. The lineup should score in bunches and suffocate pitchers with the amount of pressure the running game can supply. Josh Johnson is fantastic to watch, and a threat for a no-hitter when he is dialed in. All of the pieces could add up to a division title or they could slide into 4th and combust.
I’m more inclined to think the former, and I believe that the Marlins will be back in the playoffs in some capacity this season. What happens if they get that far is anybody’s guess but this is a talented team that could do serious damage in the playoffs.