May 2012

Umpires and accountability

Last week we saw that Charlie Manuel and umpire Bob Davidson were both suspended one game for an on-field altercation. It may have happened before, but I don’t recall ever hearing of an umpire being suspended for his part in an on-field argument.

To this I say, “It is about time!” There are many very good umpires in the game. There are also umpires who believe that fans have paid money to come watch them. The truth of the matter is, if an umpire is a really good umpire, you will never notice they are there.

I dealt with both over the course of my 11 years in the league. I was thrown out of a game at least once every year. And I would say that the majority of the time, it was my fault for arguing over balls and strikes.

But there are umpires who are very confrontational and look for any reason to get things stirred up. Bob Davidson is a good guy, but on the field he has always been known as an umpire that has “rabbit ears,” meaning that he is listening for anything to be said from the dugout disagreeing with what he may have called on the field.

There are a few umpires who are the exact same way. I won’t mention names. No matter what has been said from a dugout, an umpire should never engage with the dugout. His job is what is on the field in front of him.

There will always be players, coaches and managers who are going to question balls and strikes from the dugout. We all know that you can’t question or argue balls and strikes. The good umpires simply will say, “That’s enough,” to the dugout. Kind of a warning. But there are umpires who actually walk toward the dugout and start yelling at the dugout. These are the umpires who are baiting and looking for a reason to throw someone out of a game.

I will never argue for instant replay on balls and strikes. But it is getting to the point now that we are seeing so many bad calls on the field at bases that I am moving closer and closer to supporting instant replay for calls that are so badly missed in the field that it is affecting the outcome of games.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of two such plays in the last few weeks that were so blatant, it was hard to believe that they were missed. The first one being the play in the Dodgers-Rockies game where Todd Helton was pulled off the bag at first base to pick a ball out of the dirt:

People from the upper deck of the stadium could see that the runner was safe. Helton was at least three feet off the bag and yet the runner was called out. This can’t happen at the big league level.

The second was a play in a White Sox-Cubs game where the Cubs runner slid into second base safely and Gordon Beckham basically tackled him and forced him off the bag:

Cubs manager Dale Svuem came out and argued the call for five minutes and was thrown out of the game.

We have always heard the complaint that the games take to long. Well, adding an extra umpire in the booth upstairs that has a radio headset wired to the home plate umpire would save a lot of time, arguments and ejections.

People will ask how many times a manger can ask for a replay. Considering the number of calls in a game, I would say four. Much like the NFL, there has to be a consequence if the play is reviewed and the umpire’s original call was correct. That part is simple. If they ask for a booth review and the ump is right, they lose one of their four challenges. That way you won’t have mangers arguing bang-bang plays at first base. Because what you think you see from the dugout ain’t always what is seen on replay. The umpires get more of these calls right than they get wrong, by a long shot. Also I think any play that ends a game that is questionable automatically should be reviewed by the booth umpire. Hence, the Pirates’ loss last year in extra innings that wasn’t even close. The ump missed it, and the Pirates lost the game.

But back to the suspension of Bob Davidson. Making umpires just as accountable for their actions on the field as players and managers is long overdue. Umpires looking for a fight has no place in our game. Just as there is no place in our game for some of the actions of players. The Brett Lawrie reaction last week where he threw his helmut and he hit the umpire with it? That can’t happen. I don’t think for a second that he meant to hit the ump. But it did, and I was shocked that he only got a four-game suspension

In my opinion that was a case of the umpire baiting a young kid. Lawrie had a 3-1 count on him, the next pitch was blatantly outside, and Lawrie took off for first base without waiting for the call from the umpire. This is viewed by umpires as the player showing him up. So basically, if the catcher caught the 3-2 pitch, the ump was going to ring him up. Sure enough, the pitch was up and outside and the ump called him out on strikes:

That is unacceptable in my opinion. As an umpire, you have to take pride in what you do.

The best umpires are the ones who, if they blow a call on a pitch, will tell the hitter or the catcher that they missed it. That is telling the player that they are human, and can make mistakes. The bad umps think they are right on every call and will look for a fight. Those umps need to go. So I applaud the league for the suspention of Bob Davidson. Umpires must be held accountable just like players and managers.

The Art of Closing

In 2012 the closer position has been the least consistent position in baseball.

There are many so-called experts that claim anyone can close games. I am here to tell you that couldn’t be more false! I have played with guys that could go out in the seventh and eighth innings and dominate, but when put in the closer situation they couldn’t begin to do it.

Why is that? First, it is an understanding of the mentality of the hitter in the eighth inning, and the mentality of the hitter in the ninth inning.

I know I made a living throwing balls and getting guys to swing at them. The key to that is throwing strike one. Once you throw strike one to a hitter in the ninth inning in a one-run game, you don’t have to throw another one. All hitters want to be heros. So, as the closer, you can expand the zone. What makes a great closer is the understanding that the pressure is not on you as the pitcher. The pressure is on the hitter. You already have the lead as the pitcher.

The problem is there are pitchers who have great stuff, but don’t trust it in the ninth. Case in point: David Robertson in New York. His interview after Mo got hurt told me all I needed to know before he ever threw a pitch in the closer role. He said,”I’m not going to be Mo, but I will try my best.” What he didn’t understand was that he has been doing the harder job for years as a setup man.

The reason it is tougher to throw the eighth is because the hitters have the guys coming up in the ninth to pick them up, so they are more selective. In his set up role this year, Robertson had thrown 12 innings, walked one and given up seven hits, while not allowing a run. Then, in his first two save opportunities, he threw 1.2 innings, walked three and gave up four hits and four runs, blowing one of the two saves.

Why is that? He did not trust that his stuff was good enough. He came in and nibbled around the zone instead of attacking them. Like he did as a setup guy.

All over baseball, the closer role has been terrible . There has been 272 save opportunities. And only 145 saves. That’s 65.23 percent. This has to be fixed. Because a blown save and a loss will demoralize a club faster than anything in the game. But there are young closers who need to learn the art of closing and figure out that the pressure is on the guys with the bats in their hands. They are behind!

Rangers should re-sign Hamilton

Josh Hamilton is in his walk year with the Texas Rangers. The big question is should the Rangers resign him?

I answer that question with a resounding “Hell yes, they should resign him.”

Let’s look at his numbers so far this season, and if he stays on the pace he is on, what his numbers could potentially be. We are just shy of one-fifth of the way through 2012. Hamilton is hitting .395 with 15 homers, 38 RBI, 45 hits, and has has scored 26 runs. Of his 45 hits, 19 are for extra bases, and only four of thouse are doubles.

Hamilton is on pace to get around 570 at-bats this year. If he stays in the groove he is in, these are the numbers that we could be looking at at the end of the year: 225 hits, 130 runs, 190 RBI and 70 home runs. Now, is it realistic to believe he will stay this hot? No, its not. But he has been in the league for more than six years, and pitchers haven’t found a way to get him out consistantly.

The question that keeps popping up is, “Should he get Pujols and Fielder money?” I say,”Absolutely.” Hamilton has a knock on him for being often injured. There is a reason for that . He is 6-4, 240 pounds, and he plays the game like he is 5-10 and 180 pounds — meaning that he slides head first into bases and sells out on every play in the outfield to make the catch.

There are things in his game he needs to change. I have told him this to his face. The biggest thing being sliding head first into bases. He is too big to be the guy taking the pounding on a slide. The game has middle infielders whowill drop a knee down to take the bag away, that can lead to broken fingers, hands and wrists. Also the play that he broke his shoulder on last year was a play at the plate where he slid head first. When you are as big as he is, you should be the one issuing the pain. Especialy sliding into home. If he slides feet first, there are not a lot of fielders who are going to drop a knee on him at that size. I don’t know if you have noticed on TV, but Hamilton has clown feet. He wears a size 14 or 15 shoe! So I think he can change some things that are instinctual to him right now that will help keep him healthy and on the field.

The other part of this is his history. That shouldn’t be a concern to the Rangers. That can all be addressed in the verbage of the contract. Having spoken to Josh many times and having close friends who have dealt with the same kinds of demons he has dealt with, I believe that Josh and his spiritual beliefs will keep him on the path he needs to stay on.

Lastly, before Josh Hamilton was a Ranger, there were no World Series and Texas was basically a football-only state. That is not the case anymore. What he means to this team from a marketing standpoint is huge. He made a huge name for himself with his story, and made the Rangers a team that is a very close team in the clubhouse, and a team that is getting more recognition than the Dallas Cowboys nationally. It all adds up to this: sign Josh Hamilton before someone else comes along and takes him. Because that line will be long and distinguished!

April surprises

We have gotten through the first month of the 2012 season. Every season will have its surprises. These are my Top 5 Surprises of 2012 thus far, starting from Number 5 and moving toward what I think is the biggest surprise:

#5 The Kansas City Royals. After finishing 2011 strong, and the young talent that they brought up to the Majors having the success they had, I myself thought they would be a team that would be toward the top of the AL Central. Not a half-game out of last in the division through the first month. Young teams have to learn to win together and weather bad streaks. They had a 12-game losing streak in April, but I had the chance to talk to Eric Hosmer and they are still a positive bunch.

#4 The Baltimore Orioles were 14-9 in the month of April and sit in second place in the very tough AL East. Buck Showalter has them playing good baseball. The big question with this team is whether they can pitch well enough over the next five months to stay in the race. But right now they are ahead of both New York and Boston.

#3 the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were 16-7 in April and sit atop the NL West with a four-game lead in the division. This is a surprise because no one thought they would have enough pitching to compete with Arizona. This has a lot to do with two of their big bats getting off to great starts. Matt Kemp has picked up where he left off last year. I am not a big believer in batting average, unless there is damage as a result of that average. Well Kemp is hitting .409, has scored 25 runs, driven in 25 runs, hit 12 home runs and has a .485 OBP. In 88 at-bats. The only bad thing is, he only has two stolen bases. The really scary part of all of this offense in LA is that the guy hitting behind Kemp in the order — Andre Ethier — has six home runs. Ethier is only hitting .289 and he has 27 RBI already. That is hard to do, have guys that hitting next to each other in the lineup and they are 1-2 in the league in RBI.

#2 the Los Angeles Angels. One of the two teams in the off season that spent a ton of money, they landed the biggest free agent out there this winter and probably the best free agent pitcher (C.J. Wilson). Yet they sit in last place in the AL West. A big part of this is the fact that their bullpen has had nine save opportunities and has blown six of them. I expect they will be very active at the Trade Deadline to find a closer, if they don’t do it sooner. Many people picked them to win the AL West this year. I still felt the Rangers were the best team in that division. Through the month of April, the Angels sat eight games behind Texas.

This leads me right to the biggest surprise in all of baseball:

#1 Albert Pujols does not have a home run yet. This is mind-blowing to me. I know its a new league and there is an adjustment period. But anyone that knows this game at all would have figured that The King would have run into at least one during the first month. He is hitting .209 with eight doubles and 5 RBI! If we look at Prince Fielder, he is not off to a great start with his new team, the Tigers. He is hitting .294 with three home runs and 12 RBI, but he is hitting behind Miguel Cabrera, who has 21 RBI. So Cabrera is driving in runs, limiting Prince’s RBI chances. Let’s put this in terms of how significant Pujols’ start is. You think of power and RBI guys from the National League the last few years, and you think Pujols, Fielder and Ryan Howard. Albert has five more RBI than Howard, the same amount of home runs (zero), and Ryan Howard hasn’t played a game or had an at-bat yet in Philly, due to injury. Will this last for The King? No, it won’t. But hands down it is the biggest surprise in all of baseball through the month of April!

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