Major League Baseball fans everywhere should be a bunch of happy campers today. We’ve been blessed by the Baseball Gods with a star-studded World Series match-up between the American League champion Detroit Tigers and the National League champion San Francisco Giants. There is MVP and Cy Young hardware all over the place in this series. We have the presumptive 2012 MVP winners in Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey, seated to your left (although there are MVP arguments for other players, Mike Trout in particular). Over in that corner you have the 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander. Turn around and you can catch a glimpse of Barry Zito, the 2002 Cy Young winner. Just strolling in the door is Tim Lincecum, the winner of the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young awards in the National League. It’s ridiculous how many big names are in this series, and we haven’t even mentioned the perennial All-Star types like Prince Fielder and Matt Cain. Every single playoff series, except for the ALCS, has been remarkably balanced and has gone the distance this year, and with two evenly matched competitors set to take the diamond tonight, you can expect more evenly matched world-class baseball. Here’s some of what you should be keeping your eye on in the games to come.
With a dominate 9-0 victory yesterday against the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants became just the 6th team in baseball history to overcome a 3 games to 1 deficit in a League Championship Series. Matt Cain helped lead the way, throwing the 3rd consecutive shutdown start in a row for Giants. Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval rapped a couple more hits a piece, and the baseball Gods smiled once again on the zany Hunter Pence, who’s gutty efforts have come to define San Francisco’s comeback mentality. When all the smoke had cleared and Matt Holliday’s infield pop up was sitting safely in the glove of NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro, the celebration was on in San Francisco. By edging out the Cardinals for National League supremacy, the Giants improbably clinched their 2nd World Series berth in 3 seasons, and they have given themselves a shot at another ring. I’ll look ahead to the World Series tomorrow but for now I want to analyze how San Francisco was able advance pass the Cardinals against the odds, and it all goes back to the mid-season pickup of a 36-year-old journeyman shortstop.
When Johnny Cueto exited stage left after striking out lead-off hitter Angel Pagan, the prevailing sentiment concerning the Cincinnati Reds was that they were in big trouble. Their staff ace had just left an enormous, tone-setting playoff game with back spasms, which meant that Cincinnati’s excellent bullpen would have to carry a large load, which can be unsettling going forward. You never want to waste bullets when you don’t have to, and the Reds were going to have to use a majority of their bullets. To make matters even worse, opposing Cueto on the bump was Giants’ ace Matt Cain, the owner of a 16-5 record, a 2.79 ERA, and a perfect game. Things couldn’t possibly have appeared any worse for the Reds, that is, until Dusty Baker decided to show the world what he has learned over the past couple of seasons.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee has been one of the most durable, successful, and all-around excellent pitchers in Major League Baseball for the past 4 seasons. He’s got one Cy Young Award on his mantle, and can boast about 2 other top-5 finishes. But the 2012 season just hasn’t gone the way he expected it to. Lee has slipped a little bit this year, seeing his ERA rise from 2.40 (161 ERA+) a year ago all the way up to 3.83 (107 ERA+) this season. As you would expect, as his ERA and ERA+ dropped from elite a year ago to slightly above average this season, so it makes logical sense that his win total would drop as well. But for Cliff Lee to be the proud owner of a meager 2 wins is a little absurd, especially when you consider the fact that he has lasted fewer than 6 innings in just 1 of his 21 starts, while posting a quality start 60% of the time in general. Both numbers would lead you to believe that Lee had a record around the .500 mark, maybe a little better if he was lucky and his offense scored a lot when he pitched, and maybe a little worse if he was undone by poor defense or little run support. But Cliff Lee hasn’t just had bad luck, he’s having a historically bad run of luck, equivalent to a black jack player watching the dealer turn over 21 after 21 until the player is forced to walk away.
San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum has been a downright lousy pitcher through 9 starts in 2012. His ERA stands at an unsightly 6.04 and he has given up more hits and walked more batters per 9 innings than at any other point in his career. On Sunday Lincecum couldn’t even get to the 5th inning against the Oakland A’s, the worst offense in the AL, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks. It gets even worse for Lincecum, because the A’s were also missing one of their few productive batters, Yoenis Cespedes, and they also could not use a designated hitter, as per their norm. So is this just a minor hiccup for the former 2-time NL Cy Young winner? Or, as the scouts have long predicted, is Lincecum’s small stature and unique delivery finally catching up to him as his arm slows down, allowing hitters to zone in on his pitches? And is any of this fixable, or is Lincecum no longer the ace of the past?
Lincecum is still currently 3rd in the National League in strikeout rate and 7th in the league in total k’s, but otherwise the rest of his numbers have fallen off. His command of the strike zone, which has been excellent throughout his career, has plummeted in 2012. He is walking a career high 4.7 hitters per 9 innings, even worse than his rookie campaign. That rate has him 2nd in the National League in total walks allowed, despite pitching only a modest 47.2 innings so far. Timmy is also allowing a career hit 9.6 hits per 9, meaning opposing offenses are getting plenty of scoring chances. Until either his hit or walk rate improves, Lincecum will struggle to work deep into ball games.
The diminutive ace’s velocity has also been down during the 2012 season after experiencing a slight drop a year ago. Its normal for pitchers to lose velocity as they age, and Lincecum is truly struggling without his usual plus fastball. His velocity this season has been a pedestrian 89.9 mph, down from the 92.3 he averaged in 2011. He also throws the pitch at an abnormally low rate, only 38% of the time, essentially making Timmy a junk baller, who relies on his changeup a bit too much. For comparison, during his Cy Young seasons, Lincecum used his fastball more than 55% of the time, even breaking 65% during his 2008 campaign. This is causing some major probems, because hitters are now batting .270 off Lincecum this year.
There is still some good news however. Lincecum’s breaking pitches are still baffling hitters as well. His slider is missing bats 20% of the times he throws the pitch, and batters whiff at his changeup at an elite 18% rate as well. Early in the season Lincecum was hesitant to throw his slider, even saying he was scrapping the pitch to help his arm during Spring Training, but with his struggles the pitch has slowly been brought back out and with great success. Advanced statistics like fielding independent pitching FIP still love Lincecum, ranking him well above league average, due to his high K/9 rate.
Some of Timmy’s issues will also work themselves out. He’s stranding only 59% of all base runners, 16% below his career norm. Opposing hitters also have a .353 BABIP against Lincecum, which is about 60 points higher than the league average. He also has the advantage of pitching in the NL West, home of some of the biggest ballparks in the entire league.
As long as Lincecum stays healthy the rest of the season, he should be in line to receive 20-22 more starts. If he can do a better job of preventing base runners his 6.04 ERA will inevitably drop, and his performance will improve, making him a solid mid-rotation pitcher. The days of him blowing hitters away with a 95 mph fastball are long gone, and so are the days of him winning Cy Youngs. Matt Cain has already passed Lincecum in the Giants rotation and it isn’t long until Madison Bumgarner drops the former staff ace down to the #3 in the rotation.
The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!
The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.
There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.
The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.
About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.
Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.
The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.
Around the League
-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.
-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.
-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.
-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.