Thursday, May 31, 2012

Defensive Shifts More Popular Than Ever

          The Cardinals Used the Williams Shift During the 1946 World Series

During Monday's Cardinals game against the Braves I noticed a couple of exaggerated shifts. When Dan Uggla came to bat, the Cardinals had second baseman Tyler Greene playing behind the second base instead of at his normal position. Uggla then hit a ball that most likely would of been fielded if Greene was positioned at his normal spot. You could almost hear Lance Lynn say, "what the fuck was that?" I read his lips and that was exactly what I was thinking. A couple batters later Eric Hinske was up to bat, and Greene was positioned in shallow right and Rafael Furcal was shifted over. This time it worked, and Greene made an excellent catch to get Hinske out and get out of the inning. Unfortunately two runs scored that inning, but the Cardinals ended up winning the game.

The Cardinals front office has given manager Mike Matheny spray charts which detail what areas of the field where batters get their hits. Monday was the first time Matheny had tried using it. Matheny said he tried it because the Braves hit the Cardinals hard earlier this month and was looking for an edge. Matheny said he would only use them occasionally, and infield coach Jose Oquendo isn't a big advocate of them. Defensive shifts have been part of baseball for a long time, but they have become more exaggerated in recent years. Rays manager Joe Maddon frequently uses them. However, good hitters will adapt to them and hit the ball to the opposite field.

I've seen alot of shifts over the years, mostly on left handed batters. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, and Ryan Howard seen the shift quite a few times during their careers. Earlier this year, Ortiz bunted for a hit because the shift was on. During the 2009 World Series, Johnny Damon stole second and was able to steal third too because no one was covering it. The Phillies had the shift on and it burned them that time.

The most famous shift is the Williams Shift. Indians shorstop/manager Lou Boudreau came up with it during the 1946 season after Williams clubbed his pitching hard. The third baseman moved over to shortstop. Boudreau played short and moved to the second base position, with the second baseman moving over toward first base. The first baseman hugged the foul line, and the right fielder did as well. The center fielder moved to right center, and the left fielder moved to left center. Boudreau was trying to get in Williams head with the defense, and with such a great hitter its didn't work all the time. A bunt would of been an easy hit, but Williams was to proud to bunt when the shift was on.

The Cardinals played the Red Sox during the 1946 World Series and Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer decided to use the shift on Williams. In his only World Series Williams went 5 for 25(.200) with no home runs and one RBI. However, Williams was beaned in the elbow five days before the Series started in a exhibition game. That was probably more of a reason for his struggles than the shift.

I would think that professional hitters will adapt to all of the shifts that are becoming more prevalent in the game. Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler used to say, "he would hit 'em were they ain't". Keeler played over 100 years ago, but the logic still makes since today. While the shifts may work to your advantage sometimes, they can also burn you.

            An Example of the Shift during the 1946 World Series

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Orioles Up, Red Sox Down in AL East

The American League East is typically a tough division and this year is no exception. The Yankees and Red Sox have been the traditional powers of the division, finishing 1-2 eleven times since 1995. The Rays became a power in this division four years ago and continue to be with one of baseball's strongest farm systems. The Blue Jays are usually decent, but never good enough to overtake the top teams. Since winning the division in 1997, the Orioles haven't had a winning season since. This year, every team is at least .500 so far. With an unbalanced schedule these teams will beat up on each other, but its very possible both wild card teams will come from this division in the first year of the new playoff format.

After almost two months of play, the Baltimore Orioles sit in first place with a 29-20 record. I mentioned earlier they haven't had a winning season since 1997. I'm sure people in Baltimore have to be excited, but this team was not expected to contend this year. In 2005, the Orioles sat atop the division at the All Star break. However they fell apart in the second half, and had to deal with the Rafeal Palmeiro positive PED test fallout. This year's teams is much different, led by star center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, and shortstop JJ Hardy. Jones was recently locked up to a long term deal. They also have a much better manager than they did in 2005 in Buck Showalter.

Showalter has a track record of turning teams around. When he became the Yankees manager before the 1992 season, they were horrible and were on one of the worst stretches in franchise history. They challenged for the division title in 1993, had the American League's best record in the 1994 strike season, and made the playoffs in 1995. Showalter was fired after losing in an exciting Division Series against the Mariners, and the Yankees won the World Series in 1996 under Joe Torre.

Showalter later became the Arizona Diamondbacks first manager. They won 100 games and made the playoffs in their second season. However, Showalter was let go after the 2000 season. Strangely, the Diamondbacks won the World Series the next year. The Texas Rangers hired Showalter before the 2003 season and they struggled despite having MVP Alex Rodriguez on the team. A couple months before the 2004 season, the Rangers dealt A-Rod and his massive contract to the Yankees. The 2004 Rangers made a strong push for the postseason, but fell short. Showalter left the Rangers after 2006, and they eventually became a World Series team a few years later.

Showalter took over a miserable Orioles team in August 2010 and they went 34-23 down the stretch. The Orioles dissapointed in 2011, only winning 69 games and finishing in last place. This year, the Orioles have been one of baseball's big surprises. I'm not saying that the Orioles are a shoo-in for the playoffs, but they are a much better team than they were in the past. They improved their pitching, and new acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen. Their bullpen has been solid, led by closer Jim Johnson. In my opinion, highly touted prospects Brian Matusz and Zack Britton need to reach their potential for the Orioles to sustain success. They have a pretty good offense, so their pitching needs to stay solid to be in the playoff race in September.

The Red Sox have been a dissapointment the last couple of years, and this season isn't off to a good start under new manager Bobby Valentine. Thier collapse down the stretch last year led to manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein's departures. Their were rumors about Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz drinking beer and eating chicken in the clubhouse during games they didn't pitch. This year, big money free agents Lackey and Carl Crawford haven't played at all. Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis are also hurt. Valentine has also angered Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia over some comments made about Youkilis. Beckett was recently questioned about golfing on a day off after he hurt himself and pitched poorly.

I don't think Bobby Valentine is the right manager for the Red Sox. I think he's an overrated manager with a giant ego. He also creates alot of drama around teams he manages. I don't think he has the same effect that Showalter has on the Orioles or Joe Maddon has on the Rays. If Boston continues to struggle this season, Valentine's tenure their could be a short one. Still, every team in this division feels like they have a legitimate shot at the postseason. One thing for certain, the AL East is alot more exciting this year than in year's past.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Why Tyler Greene Should Be the Everyday Second Baseman

Second base has been a revolving door in St. Louis for quite some time. Tommy Herr was the last All Star the Cardinals have had at the position, and that was in 1985. Since Herr was traded during the 1988 season, the Cardinals have had many second baseman come through. Jose Oquendo, Luis Alicea, Gerinomo Pena, Mike Gallego, DeLino DeShields, Joe McEwing, Fernando Vina, Bo Hart, Tony Womack, Mark Grudzielanek, Aaron Miles, Ronnie Belliard, Adam Kennedy, Skip Schumaker, and many others have manned the position with varying performances. This season, three different players have gotten starts at second; Schumaker, Daniel Descalso, and Tyler Greene.

So far, second base has been a three headed carousel. Greene has recieved the most playing time, getting 22 starts. Descalso has been the starter for 14 games and Schumaker has started 9 games at second. I think its safe to say Tommy Herr will remain the last Cardinal second baseman to make an All Star team this year. 2011 first round pick Kolten Wong will eventually take over this position in the next year or two, and he might be the one to bring stability to the position. However, there isn't much on the trade market this year and there will not be much on the free agent market in the offseason either.

Schumaker is the most consistent of the three, but he is a below average defender at second. Skip isn't a natural second baseman though, he's better in the outfield. Skip became a second baseman by necessity in 2009 after the Cardinals released Adam Kennedy. Tony La Russa thought Schumaker could play second, and to Skip's credit he's worked hard at it. Skip always plays hard and is a .290 career hitter. While he is a .290 career hitter, Skip is pretty much a singles hitter. He doesn't have much power, doesn't draw many walks, not the fastest player on the basepaths, and despite his best efforts a below average defensive second baseman. He kills righties, but is a career .212 hitter against lefties. Mike Matheny has recast the Schuman as a utility player this season. He is serviceable as a second baseman, but needs someone to split time with him for the reasons I listed above(defense, struggles against lefties).

Descalso is the best defensive player of the three. He was one of the finalists for the Gold Glove at third base last season despite not being a fulltime player. Descalso's big weakness is his bat, and he has looked lost at the plate this season. Last year, Danny D came up with some big hits and finished with a respectable .264 average. This year, he is down to .213. I don't think Descalso is a bad at the plate as he's performed so far, but I don't think he's a starting caliber player in the majors either. Descalso's most likely going to be an utility infielder in the majors. He's more like an Aaron Miles type player with better defense.

Greene has been up and down from St. Louis and Memphis the last few seasons. He never really got a chance to play on a consistent basis in the majors until this year. He made his debut in 2009, but only had 359 plate appearances in the three seasons prior to this one. Although he was demoted several times, Greene kept his head up and worked hard on his game in the minors. Last year Greene hit .323, had a .422 OBP, with 14 home runs, 43 RBIs, and 19 steals in only 66 games in Memphis after being demoted. Greene has struggled in previous stints in the majors, and fans have had various opinions why. Some people think Greene is a 4-A player, meaning a player who dominates Triple A but can't perform in the majors. Other people think Greene needs consistent playing time for him to maximize his talents.

Former manager Tony La Russa never seemed to be a big fan of Greene, and he has got a fresh start with Mike Matheny. Greene seemed nervous in the past, and didn't look as confident as he has this year. Like it has with Mitchell Boggs, I think Matheny has had a positive effect on Greene. Greene is one of the most athletic players on the team, and the fastest guy as well. He has some pop in his bat as well, and on Monday hit a game winning home run. Greene hit a 100 mph pitch off of Padres pitcher Andrew Cashner. ESPN's Buster Olney said that was the fastest pitch a major leaguer has homered off of since 2009. I think Greene could hit 15 to 20 home runs in the majors if he was a fulltime player.

According to baseball, Greene is 5 for 13(.385) with a walk and a home run in late and close situations this year. Greene only played sparingly last year after being recalled in September, but when he did play he came through. He had a pinch hit double that scored a run in the 11th inning in a key game against the Phillies late last year. In a late season tie game against the Cubs last year, Greene was put in as a pinch runner. He then stole second, went to third on a bad throw from the catcher, and scored the game winning run. Greene has had a knack for coming up with some big plays other than the game winning home run he hit on Monday.

I can understand why some people have been frustrated with Greene. He hasn't fully maximized his talents. He has had some lapses on defense, including botching a hard hit ball by Alfonso Soriano that lost the game earlier this year. Greene has worked hard on his defense, and has improved on that lately. He is better going to his right than left, mainly because he's a natural shortstop. Greene also struggles against righties and inside pitches, but kills lefties and outside pitches. He's still only batting .239 this year, but he does have a .466 slugging pct.(pretty good for a middle infielder). Greene has been putting in some extra work with hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry. He has hit alot better in May, hitting .264 with a .328 OBP, and a .566 slugging pct.

Greene has also stole 6 bases so far, and led the club with 11 last year despite only playing in 58 games. For his career, Greene is 22 for 23 on stolen base attempts. The only time he has gotten out was on that botched hit and run play at the end of the Milwaukee game earlier this year. In the minors, Greene was 144 for 166 on stolen base attempts, so he has pretty good baserunning instincts. If given a chance to play a full season, I think Greene could steal 30 to 40 bases.

I'm not sure if Greene is going to make it as a major league starter or not, but I'm alot more optimistic lately than I was in the past. Matheny has given him a second chance this year, and Greene has been taking advantage of it recently. At age 28, its time to see if he can cut it or not. I'm hoping he's going to be a late bloomer like David Freese. With the injuries to Allen Craig and Jon Jay combined with Carlos Beltran's knee problems, Schumaker will be needed more in the outfield. If Greene can maximize his talents, he could be a big help for the Cardinals. He has a mix of power and speed, and has the potential to be a dynamic player in the big leagues. It looks like he's going to get a chance to be a fulltime player, and hopefully he will take advantage of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Big Puma Out Indefinitely, Matt Adams Debuts



Last weekend, Lance Berkman suffered a knee injury during a routine throw to first. Originally feared to be an ACL tear, team doctors think it is a torn meniscus in his knee. Today Berkman will have surgery to repair his meniscus and will get his ACL checked again for damage. Berkman will at least miss 6 to 8 weeks if things go well, and could miss the rest of the season if they don't. Berkman hinted at retirement if his ACL was torn. Hopefully it isn't, it would be a bad way to end a fantastic career.

Its a shame to lose the Big Puma to injuries, especially after all the injuries the Cardinals have dealt with recently. Currently, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Chris Carpenter, Kyle McClellan, and Scott Linebrink are on the DL. On Tuesday, Matt Carpenter hurt his oblique and was placed on the disabled list as well. Carlos Beltran has also battled through some injuries, although not serious enough for DL time. The only good news is that Jay and Craig are due to come back at the end of the month. The Memphis Redbirds roster has been raided lately with Adron Chambers, Brandon Dickson, Matt Adams, and Stephen Hill coming up in the last couple of weeks.

In the first post Albert Pujols season, Berkman was expected to start at first and Craig to back him up. The Cardinals wanted to give Adams another year in the minors, and bring him up in September. With Berkman and Craig hurt now, the Cards had no choice but to bring up Adams. Now Matt Carpenter is out with a oblique injury, so its Adams job for the near future. Adams was tearing it up in Triple A Memphis this year. He was batting .340 with 9 home runs and 27 RBIs in 37 games.

Adams was considered the Cardinals first baseman of the future coming into this year after having a monster year in Double A Springfield in 2011. Adams hit .300 with 32 home runs and 101 RBIs last year with Springfield. Adams has rose through the system quickly since being drafted in the 23rd round in 2009. In his minor league career, Adams batted .318, slugged .558, had a .366 OBP, hit 73 home runs and 268 RBIs in 336 games. After having a terrific minor league career and at age 23, its safe to say that Adams is ready for the big leagues.

I have a feeling that Adams is in the big leagues to stay. He looks like a masher and from what I've seen he looks good on defense as well. If he hits anywhere close to how he did in the minors, there is no way he'll get sent back down. Until Craig and Carpenter come back, there isn't another good option at first. Mike Matheny could play Yadier Molina at first on his day off, and has talked about possibly playing Daniel Descalso there as well. After three games in the majors, Adams is 4 for 12(.286) with 2 walks, a double, and a RBI. The only thing he needs to work on is not swinging at balls out of the zone. That is a trait that will come with time and experience.

Despite how a teams plans in the offseason, you never know how a season will play out. I didn't expect Berkman to be limited to 13 games and to suffer a serious injury. I doubt the front office expected both Craig and Carpenter to be hurt at the same time. There is no telling how long Berkman will be out, and if he will play again this season. Although the front office prefered Adams to stay in Triple A this year, he is needed in the majors. Its not like Adams hasn't earned his promotion, he was batting .340 in the minors. Labeled the Cardinals first baseman of the future, it looks like that future is now.

Coming Tommorrow: Why Tyler Greene Should Be the Everyday Second Baseman

Monday, May 14, 2012

With Rivera Hurt, Who's Baseball's Best Closer?

Not only has Mariano Rivera been the best closer of his generation, he has been the best reliever baseball has ever seen. While Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner rivaled him for years, they were never quite at Mo's level. John Smoltz and Eric Gagne had a few pretty good years as well, but didn't last as long. Rivera and his cut fastball has dominated baseball over the last 18 years. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL and doctors found blood clots in his legs last week. Rivera may never pitch again. Its a bad turn of events for Rivera, but he's a first ballot Hall of Famer for sure and will join relievers Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage in the Hall someday.

For his career, Rivera is 76-58 with a record 608 saves, 2.21 lifetime ERA, and a 0.99 career WHIP. In the postseason he's been more dominant. Rivera is 8-1 with 42 saves, 0.70 ERA, and 0.76 WHIP in postseason play. Rivera was as important to the Yankees winning 5 World Series championships as anybody else on those teams. Earlier in his career, his cutter would break many bats and is still a very hard pitch to hit.

The Giants Brian Wilson is also out for the year, as is the Royals Joakim Soria and the Reds Ryan Madson. The Tigers Jose Valverde has been lights out the last few years, but is off to a slow start. Joe Nathan isn't quite the pitcher he used to be with the Twins, but is closing games for the Rangers now. Jon Axford of the Brewers had a huge year last year, but is off to a rough beginning this year. The Indians Chris Perez leads the AL in saves, but his ERA is currently almost at 4.00. The Mariners Brandon League and the Pirates Joel Hanrahan have been solid the last year plus, and it took both awhile to blossom into solid relievers. The Orioles Jim Johnson is off to the best start of any closer this year, but is in his first season in the role.

Right now, there are three relievers who could make the case for being the best in a watered down field of closers. Jason Motte became the Cardinals closer down the stretch last year, and played a big role in the championship run. Motte was shaky in his rookie year in 2009, but has developed secondary pitches since then. Since 2010, Motte has been lights out and is off to a good start this year. Motte also averages 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. However, Motte only has 18 saves during his career, and five more in the postseason. Its hard to proclaim him best closer already, but he's moving up the list and is likely to make his first All Star team this year.

Jonathon Papelbon left the Red Sox after last season's collapse and signed a deal with the Phillies in the offseason. Paps was dominant between 2006 and 2009, making 4 All Star teams and was the closer of the 2007 championship team. He had a off year in 2010 and was up and down in 2011. This season, he's been pretty sharp. Papelbon has one of the better career resumes after Rivera, saving 229 games with 2.33 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP for his career.

Finally, Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has to be considered one of the best in baseball right now. Since debuting in late 2010, Kimbrel has saved 58 games with a 1.87 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. He did fade late in the year last year for the Braves, but their whole team did. Kimbrel was named NL Rookie of the Year in 2011 after leading the league with 46 saves. Kimbrel's teammate lefty Jonny Venters is just as dominant, posting a 1.91 ERA since his debut in 2010. I'm not sure who is the best closer currently, but the Braves do have the best back end of the bullpen in the game right now with Kimbrel and Venters.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hamilton Hits Four Homers in a Game

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton accomplished a rare feat yesterday when he hit four home runs off Orioles pitching. Overall, Hamilton went 5 for 5 with 4 home runs, 8 RBIs, and a new American League record of 18 total bases in a single game. Hamilton is only one of 16 players in baseball history to hit 4 home runs in a game. Hamilton is the first player to accomplish this feat since Carlos Delgado did it for the 2003 Blue Jays.

Its not a surprise that Hamilton did this, he is one of the most talented players in the game right now. He joins a club that includes Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays, Chuck Klein, Lou Gehrig, and Ed Delahanty. Power hitters of the past like Gil Hodges, Rocky Colavito, Joe Adcock, and Bob Horner have also hit four homers in a game. More recently, Delgado, Shawn Green, and Mike Cameron have accomplished this feat. I also remember when Mark Whiten hit four homers with the Cardinals in 1993 against the Reds. Whiten had a good year in 93, but was traded a year later. 1993 was a career year for Whiten, and he was never as good after that.

Hamilton is also eligible for free agency after the season. The Rangers are reluctant to give him a long term deal because of his history of drug addiction and injuries. He did have a relapse this winter in which he went to the bar, but I don't think its as big of a deal as it was made out to be. The Rangers have been talking about extending him to a five or six year deal instead of a ten year deal like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto got this past offseason. Even with a clean slate of health and no personal demons, a ten year deal is unwise. Hamilton is about to turn 31, and we have already seen what kind of start Pujols got off to after signing his megadeal.

There will be plenty of demand for Hamilton if he does reach the free agent market. He is off to a hot start, batting .406, slugging .840, with 14 homers and 36 RBIs. He's on pace to have a better season than his 2010 MVP year. The Rangers have already extended second baseman Ian Kinsler and pitcher Derek Holland before the year. They also spent a ton on Japanese import Yu Darvish. Catcher Mike Napoli is also a free agent after the season. Right fielder Nelson Cruz and Micheal Young are both eligible for free agency after 2013. However, the Rangers have the revenue to lock up Hamilton if they choose. They may have to part with some of the other players to do so.

Cardinal Notes: This weekend the Cardinals will retire former manager Tony La Russa's number 10. La Russa will be just the 12th Cardinal to recieve this honor. Chipper Jones will also be making his last appearance in St. Louis this weekend(barring playoffs) since he's retiring at season's end. In some sad news, Lil Musial(Stan's wife) died last week. The Musials were married for over 70 years.

Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten Accomplished this Feat in 1993

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Redbirds Sharp in April

There was alot of talk before the season that the Cardinals would take a step back without Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. While its tough to lose that much, the Cardinals won the World Series as a team last year. New manager Mike Matheny has the respect of the veterans and is off to a good start in his first month as manager. Entering May, the Cardinals are 14-8 and 3 games ahead of the second place Reds.
They still have a good offense without Pujols, and are second in the National League in runs scored.

The Cardinals pitching has been excellent despite Chris Carpenter starting the season on the DL and Adam Wainwright trying to find his form back. Lance Lynn has been dominant in the rotation in Carp's absence and will be tough to remove from the rotation. Lynn is 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA in 4 starts so far. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, and Jaime Garcia are all off to good starts as well. Matheny reached out to Mitchell Boggs during spring training and boosted his confidence, telling him he believes in his stuff. So far, Boggs has been the Cards best reliever. Kyle McClellan is back in the bullpen, and will likely be a key guy in the pen this year.

Matheny has also been more aggressive on the basepaths than La Russa was. They've stole 16 bases in 21 chances so far and are on pace to steal far more than the 57 bases they stole all season in 2011. I've also seen more hit and runs than in year's past. Carlos Beltran has already swiped 5 bases, and the Cards should have multiple guys pass the teams leader last season. Tyler Greene led the club last year with 11 steals despite being in the minors half the year.

David Freese has started were he left off last season, batting .333 with 5 home runs and 20 RBIs. Freese's 20 RBIs is 3rd in the National League right now. Rafael Furcal is off to a good start after a career worst season in 2011 in which he posted a .298 on base pct. In April, Furcal's OBP is up to .384 and is a much better leadoff hitter than last year. Newcomer Carlos Beltran has been a big pickup, his hitting, basestealing, and fielding has really helped the Cardinals out so far. Jon Jay is off to a hot start as well, batting .400 and should be OK now after hurting himself crashing into the wall last week. Yadier Molina had a career year offensively in 2011, and could duplicate that this year. He is batting .316 with 4 home runs and 15 RBIs so far.

Lance Berkman strained his calf earlier in the year stretching out a triple, and should be back in a week or two. Matt Carpenter has filled in his absence and played well. The Cardinals have said that Allen Craig could come off the DL today, and would likely take Carpenter's playing time away. Shane Robinson might be the odd man out due to having minor league options, although he's played well off the bench. Erik Komatsu has to stay on the roster all year since he's a Rule V pick, but it will be a challenge to keep him up. Greene is out of options, and Daniel Descalso is a valuable utility guy. Descalso and Greene were supposed to share second, but both have been hitting poorly. Skip Schumaker has took alot of the playing time at second since he's came off the DL. I would imagine that Matheny is going to go with the hot hand at second, and it will likely be a three way carousel all year.

Its early yet, but it looks like the Cardinals are transisting well to the Matheny era. They look like a strong ballclub, and their defense and baserunning is much improved from last year. The bullpen is better than it was a year ago, too. Jason Motte has blown one save, but I think he'll have a strong season this year. This also looks like a team with a chip on its shoulder to prove it can win without Pujols. Matt Holliday hasn't turned it on yet, Craig is just coming off the DL, Wainwright's hasn't been as sharp, and Chris Carpenter's been out and I think all four will make big contributions later in the year.