Flying Fish

August 29, 2006

No, nothing to do with that annoying Seattle fish market lot businesses like to show you training videos of. The real flying fish are the Florida Marlins, battling against the odds and many an experts’ pre-season prediction (as well as non-experts like myself). Their recent four game sweep of the Brewers has made it eight wins on the spin and they head into a series in St Louis two games out of the wild card. Nobody predicted this would happen.

Pouring a cold cup of reality on to proceedings, it has to be said that the Marlins have been helped by the overall mediocre standard in the NL this season. To still be in the wild card hunt without a .500 record (before today’s game they are 64-66) is fortunate to say the least; however that’s no concern of Florida at the moment. And of course, wherever it put them in the standings overall, the Marlins would have gladly taken that record if offered it before the season started. Many doom mongers were predicting one of the worst losing records in Major League history with a dreaded 100 loss season seemingly a foregone conclusion. To say they have been proved wrong would be an understatement.

Still, it’s hard to know how to react to the Marlins this season. It’s great to see a young group of players having a good season, but how do you cheer for a team owned by Jeffrey Loria? The fact that Joe Giradi seems destined to leave the club at the end of the season says it all.

In a system of thirty franchises, quite how a team can be allowed to off-load virtually all of their players during the winter to save money is beyond me. The Fish slashed their payroll from $60 million down to just under $15 million. It’s fair to say that Florida are receiving a lot more in income than $15 million this year from the central pot of money that is distributed to all the organizations, plus the “luxury tax” cash etc. The Marlins may have lost money over the past few years due to poor attendances and such, but that doesn’t make it right. Like many organizations, the Marlins are essentially on the blackmail path, trying to secure public money to build a new stadium. Essentially they are making a mockery out of MLB while wilfully pocketing millions.

What really stands out at the moment is that $15 million can apparently get you near the wild card. The Braves are sitting 2.5 games behind Florida, while spending six times as much for the privilege ($90 million). The Cubs are paying nearly $95 million for a 54-77 record, albeit with important parts of that payroll spending much of the season on the DL. So much for the Commissioner’s claims that small market teams cannot compete.

Well, teams can compete if they cash in on all their good players and can then fill their roster with lots of promising youngsters (on the MLB minimum wage). Rewarding someone for cheating baseball fans is the name of the game. Sadly this seems to be a theme in MLB: don’t spend money, perform badly, and you too can get the top draft picks while cashing in the benefits of revenue sharing.

Doesn’t really fit with the dog-eat-dog world that is America. Sounds a bit more like the “old boys network” of Britain (“Just finished exploiting Montreal have you Jeffrey? Jolly good old boy. Why not have a crack at Florida as well dear fellow? Pip, pip. Trousers down etc!”). Still, I’m not sure why the other old boys are willing to put up with it. Maybe it will be addressed along with the Collective Bargaining Agreement this winter?

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5.5 games back

August 25, 2006

No great insights into the cultural differences between Britain and America today (to make a change).

Just a brief note about the American League standings. Closing in on 130 games being played and there is an amazing symmetry in the AL at this moment. All three division leaders (the Yankees, Tigers and A’s) have a 5.5 game lead before tonight’s games. Does that mean they all have an equal chance of making the play-offs? Probably not. There are lots of variables that come into play, whether that be injuries or their respective schedules for the rest of the season.

The Yankees look to have taken a firm grip on the East and will be hoping for some reinforcements in the next couple of weeks in the form of Matsui and Sheffield (if “selfish Sheff” can be bothered that is). Meanwhile the Tigers are on a downward curve and have the White Sox and the Twins breathing down their necks. I don’t see them giving up their top spot, but there could be a few panics along the way.

As for my A’s, well somehow we are still leading the way. To say it has been a patchy season would be an understatement; the relative weakness of the AL West this season has proved a godsend though. Our pitching and defense has been extremely effective, our batting has by and large been woeful. Our luck with injuries has defied belief at times.

Thankfully just as August starts with an A, the A’s always start in August. There are still more questions than answers. Will Rich Harden return to the mound this season? Will Bobby Crosby ever stay healthy? Is Houston Street going to be fine when he comes off the DL? Is Loaiza for real? Not to mention the slightly longer term questions of whether Frank Thomas is going to cash in (elsewhere) on his good 2006 and which team’s games am I going to have to avoid so that I don’t suffer the pain of seeing Barry Zito in a different uniform (I’m guessing the Yankees – it’s always the Yankees!).

Anyway, the point is, each division is being lead by 5.5 games and I thought it was worth noting. You be the judge!


Another Royals disaster

August 24, 2006

The box score from last night’s Indians-Royals match-up tells as cruel a baseball tale as you are likely to read. Smashing ten runs in the first inning would make many supporters confident that a glorious victory was on the cards. The sad thing is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if many of the 12,671 attendees retained a dash of pessimism at the time. Royals fans have suffered for long enough to know that a small positive sign is less likely to herald a moment of joy than lead to another disaster.

Losing a game when you are 10-1 up after the first frame is bad enough, but the Royals right now are able to lose in a way that other teams just can not match. Cleveland began to chip away at the deficit and by the middle of the sixth inning had moved to within one run. Yet just when everyone thought the Royals were going to let it slip, back they came. Three Kansas City runs in the bottom of the sixth had seemingly stemmed the tide. “No embarrassing defeats at our expense today”, they thought.

Rather than slamming the door on a charging Cleveland lineup, the Royals had merely set themselves up for a more painful fall. Fast forward to the top of the ninth where the Royals have a four run cushion and only need three outs to wrap up the game. Victory would be a mere formality for most home teams. The Royals are not “most” teams though. Cleveland put the four runs they need on the board to force the game into extra innings, and a depressing inevitability descended on Kauffman Stadium.

Top of the tenth: Cleveland score two runs.

Bottom of the tenth: no reply.

Final score: Indians 15, Royals 13.

MLB.com have enhanced their scoreboard recently by allowing the user to click on any inning of any game. Doing so allows MLB.TV subscribers to join the action at that exact point. Royals fans may want to take advantage of this function. Click on that first inning “10”, or even that sixth inning “3”, and enjoy the moment. Press stop and forget about the rest of the game. No Indians comeback. No embarrassment.

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.


Not bad for a sixteen year-old

August 22, 2006

An interesting story popped up on the MLB section of the ESPN website on Sunday:

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2555073

According to reports, the San Francisco Giants have given a 16 year old third baseman (more accurately baseboy I guess) a $2.1 million signing-on bonus. The lucky lad is from the Dominican Republic and is called Angel Miguel Villalona. Apparently the Giants beat a host of clubs, including the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Mariners, to his signature.

The general idea of giving draft signings a load of cash has always seemed a bit strange to me anyway. Footballers might pocket a fair few quid for signing with a new club but only when they are actually established professional players. Handing out seven figure sums to players who might not play in the Majors for two or three years (if they make it at all) seems amazingly risky. The law of the market takes over though: if you don’t pay it, someone else will.

This move is far from without precedent of course. Adrian Beltre was a very similar case: a third baseman signed from the Dominican Republic as a 16 year old. Beltre’s deal proved to be controversial. As explained by Dayn Perry in the excellent “Baseball Between the Numbers” book (from the Baseball Prospectus team), top agent Scott Boras argued that Beltre’s contract was invalid. Perry states that according to MLB rules, Beltre was too young to sign a contract at the time. As he appears to have been the same age as Villalona is now, maybe the rules have changed? Anyway, the Dodgers agreed a new (more lucrative) contract with Beltre to bring an end to the dispute in which Boras wanted his client to be made a free agent. Beltre had several disappointing seasons before his monster year in 2004 that prompted the unsuspecting Mariners to give him a $65 million contract. To say he is “earning” $12.9 million this season is only accurate in a strict sense.

The tale of Brien Taylor is also worth considering when looking at Villalona’s deal. Like Beltre he was represented by Boras, and Dayn Perry also makes reference to him in the above mentioned book. In his essay “What happened to Todd Van Poppel?”, Perry recounts how the Yankees signed the 18 year old straight out of high school as the number one pick in the Amateur draft in 1991. Largely due to the now infamous negotiating skills of Boras, the Yankees moved from their signing-on offer of $850k (itself a large figure for the time) to eventually agree a fee of $1.55 million. This was by far the biggest signing-on fee received by an amateur at the time. If you are relatively new to MLB and wonder whether you’ve just missed this guy (now 33 years old) then don’t worry. Taylor didn’t pitch a single Major League inning. His struggles were primarily a consequence of injuries sustained in a bar room fight in 1993. Such an incident can certainly be put down as bad luck for both the player and the Yankees, but at the same time it shows how easily things can go wrong (particularly for youngsters with a considerable amount of money in their pockets and a considerable amount of adulation going to their head).

Villalona sounds like a tremendous talent and any baseball fan would want him to stay on the right path, to work hard and fulfil his potential in years to come. Staking $2.1 million on it is either very brave or very foolish. Time and fate will be the judge.

At least it makes a change from the Giants spending millions on geriatrics.


Coors Field Conspiracies

August 20, 2006

Home field advantage is a common theme throughout sports. Local knowledge can help you get an edge over your opponent, whether that’s knowing how to play centre field in Minute Maid Park or how a pitch will play on day four in a Test Match at the Oval.

Familiarity is said to breed contempt, but it also brings comfort. Arsenal began a new era in a new stadium yesterday and it will be interesting to see how long it takes them to settle in after ninety three years at Highbury. Man City showed in their first season at the City of Manchester stadium that leaving a well-loved home isn’t easy and a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa wasn’t exactly the fairytale beginning Gooners had hoped for. That being said, the St Louis Cardinals have a 35-24 record at the new Busch stadium so far this season (compared to 30-33 on the road). Maybe keeping the same name helps?

When it comes to home field advantage it’s hard to think of a more extreme example than Coors Field. Colorado is a unique place in the Major Leagues, as Baseball-reference.com explains:

“air pressure in Denver is about 15% lower than at other parks that are near sea level. Reduced air pressure reduces aerodynamic forces on the baseball by the same amount. That results in less movement on breaking pitches, making them easier to hit, and less drag on balls in flight, letting them fly further”.

The Rockies tried to counter some of these effects in 2002 when they installed the “humidor”. This may sound like a Dr Who alien who uses jokes as a means of paralysing his victims, but it is in fact a room at Coors field in which they store their baseballs. Due to the relative lack of humidity in Colorado, the baseballs were apparently drying out while in storage before being used in games. They can now create a stable environment in the humidor to replicate the conditions in Missouri, the home of Rawlings who manufacture the baseballs.

The shift at Coors Field from a batters bandbox to a relative pitchers paradise has done more than raise a few eyebrows. Debates have raged about the legality of the humidor and whether allowing the Rockies to mess around with the balls is ethical. Ever since the team’s inception many people have tried to answer the question of how you create a competitive team in the Coors Field environment. The Rockies are implying that you can’t, and the humidor is merely creating a balanced playing field rather than giving them an unfair advantage.

Part of the Rockies’ problems in recent years has been their fixation on the Mile High environment, rather than the environment itself. A good team will win games whatever the conditions and would be able to capitalise on the Coors Field effect just by being more familiar with the surroundings than their opponents. Now, the argument against this is one of reputation and perception. The Rockies have struggled to attract quality pitchers, ostensibly because they fear their career ERAs will be blown apart (along with their hanging breaking balls).

Paying over the odds for Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2001 (combined contracts worth $180 million) didn’t exactly work out. Then again they serve to enforce my point; you need good players and both were overrated and overvalued. Hampton for instance finished 2002 with a 7-15 record and a 6.15 ERA before being shipped to Atlanta. Other potential signings may look at this and think “I’m not going near Coors Field”; however Hampton’s ERA was better at Coors than on the road in 2002.

As of today the Rockies are only four games behind Cincinnati in the NL wild card race. Part of their success has been due to the improved showings of their starting pitchers compared to previous seasons. For instance:

Jason Jennings – Career ERA = 4.70, 2006 ERA = 3.34

Jeff Francis – Career ERA = 4.67, 2006 ERA = 3.38

Aaron Cook – Career ERA = 4.56, 2006 ERA = 4.09

And more importantly, while Cook’s 2006 ERA at Coors (4.07) is virtually identical to his overall figure, Jennings (2.83) and Francis (2.96) have been considerably more effective at home than on the road.

So have the Rockies perfected the humidor effect in 2006 after four years of use? Possibly, but not necessarily in regards to improving their own performance. Talk of conspiracies has filled the thin Denver air recently with opposing players publicly questioning the strange goings-on. Jeff Cirillo even suggested the Rockies are using different sets of balls; one set for them and one for their opponents. Cirillo’s comments suggest the key with humidor is the impact it has on the visiting teams, but not in the way he claims.

After several years struggling with the psychological block of “how do we compete in Coors”, maybe the Rockies have found a way to turn the problem on to their opponents. Thanks to the humidor, now it’s the visiting team who are finding it difficult to concentrate in the thin air.

Whatever the truth, with or without the humidor, Coors Field is undoubtedly unique. In the increasingly corporate and generic world of professional sports, that should be celebrated.

Further reading

There’s a great article all about Coors Field and the recent controversies on the New York Times website:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/17/sports/baseball/17humidor.html?ref=sports


Red Sox – Yankees weekend

August 19, 2006

Like most non Yankees/Red Sox fans, having “the greatest rivalry in sports” constantly being thrown in my face has made me somewhat immune to the “charms” of this contest to a certain extent. The prospect of five games in four days left me bracing myself for another barrage of media hype.

However, this time it’s slightly different. Thanks to the AL Central, there is a good chance that whoever misses out on the AL East crown is going to face an early season exit.

From a neutrals point of view, having the Yankees take the first two games in a day-night double header yesterday was probably the best thing that could happen. Much like the Cardinals earlier in the week, the Red Sox will be desperate to stop their rivals leaving Fenway with a series win under their belts. At the very worst Boston will want to take two of the next three. Coming back from an 0-2 start in series against the Yanks is tough, but the Red Sox have form in this respect as any Boston fan will gladly tell you (they don’t take much prompting either in my experience).

The Red Sox and Yankees have one more series this season in the Bronx following this weekend’s marathon meeting. It may be that results against their other divisional rivals make all the difference in the end. Judging by the last few days, the Red Sox can count on the support of the Orioles and the Blue Jays. Baltimore responded to a Boston sweep last weekend by taking two of three from the Yanks. The Blue Jays meanwhile bizarrely took pity on Boston’s current dearth of left-handed hitters and let them have Eric Hinske for next to nothing. Toronto’s winter spending spree sure looks a sad attempt to win the off-season right now.

(Incidentally, two other things stand out from the Hinske trade. Firstly, how come teams can acquire players despite the trading deadline passing on 31 July? Is it just a technical con trick like that used in the Championship where teams loan players after 1 September on the basis that they will then just buy them when the transfer window opens again? Secondly, isn’t it a bit strangely trusting of teams to agree to a deal when they don’t know which player they are going to get in return?)

Anyway, the next instalment kicks off at 18:20 GMT this evening and despite my normal ambivalence towards the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, I will be tuning in via MLB.TV.

Final point of the day: is losing both games in a day-night doubleheader to the Yankees at Fenway more embarrassing for a Red Sox fan than losing a day-night doubleheader to the Royals is for an A’s fan like myself? Probably not, so there’s a crumb of comfort for the Red Sox Nation this morning.


Cards and Reds: 17 August 2006

August 17, 2006

You could certainly tell that we are entering the business end of the season in the New Busch stadium just now. The Cards have slowly seen their early season lead in the standings disappear with the Reds chasing them down. This recent three-game series between the two teams has been a nail-biting affair due to the stakes being so high. There may be another seven weeks of the season or so to go, but you got the feeling that both teams wanted to put a marker down; a signal of intent for the rest of the way.

Scott Rolen’s single has just brought Chris Duncan home in the bottom of the ninth to give the Cards a hard-fought 2-1 victory. On paper a 2.5 game gap might not look much greater than a 0.5 game lead; however psychologically it is huge for St Louis.

The Reds will certainly not be too disheartened. Losing a series in St Louis 2-1 isn’t the end of the world for them. Although they won’t get another chance to take games away from the Cards this season, the pay-off is that they will have one less major National League contender to face in their pursuit for the NL wild card. And if the Cards slip up, the Reds will want to be there to take advantage.

Playing at home put that extra bit of pressure on the Cards and they knew that allowing Cincinnati to stroll in to town and walk out in first place was not a scenario they wanted to face. With six of their next nine games being against the struggling Cubs, and with Mark Mulder making what they hope will be his final minor-league rehab start tonight, St Louis have reason to believe that this will be the time for them to take control.

Attempting to end this post with any sort of firm prediction on what lies ahead would be risky, but that’s what makes the race so exciting. There are a lot more twists and turns to look forward to, casting many heroes and zeroes along the way. Does the wild card reduce this at all? I don’t think so. Maybe St Louis or Cincinnati will be able to ease off in the final few games knowing that they will make the play-offs whether they finish first or not. That doesn’t look likely though, partly because the NL is all much of a muchness (Mets excepted). I can understand the idea that “all or nothing” creates an extra element of excitement in a pennant race. Still, I prefer to see as many teams as possible having something to play for and right now most of the NL will feel it has a chance if they can get on a run.