August 2012

A shocking blockbuster

When the Boston Red Sox finalized the deal with the Dodgers over the weekend I was shocked! At this time of year, we will hear rumors of all kinds of trades that are just that: rumors.

I was shocked first by the fact that the Dodgers would take on all that money in the contracts of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. The only one of that group that has performed well enough over the last two years to justify the money they were being paid was A-Gon. Crawford has been hurt much of the time he was in Boston, and when he was healthy he hadn’t been close to being the player he was in Tampa. He is going to be no help this year in LA, as he is having Tommy John surgery and will miss the rest of this year and the beginning of next season.

I fully expected the Dodgers to spend a lot of money this coming offseason, but to start by taking on these contracts did surprise me. I think Beckett will be a different pitcher in LA. I think he was sick of being in Boston and dealing with the garbage that had nothing to do with baseball, like the problems with players and the manager, Bobby Valentine. It is no secret that the players were not getting along with the
manager. Reports of texts that had been sent to ownership by players expressing their dislike for Valentine had surfaced.

That brings me to the most shocking part of this trade. It has always been said that when a team is not playing well that you can’t fire the team, so the manager is going to be the one that pays the price for the poor performance of his players. But in this case, it appears for the first time the organization has fired the players and kept the manager!

Does this mean that Valentine will be back next year in Boston? No, I don’t think it means that at all. They fired pitching coach Bob McClure recently, and I think come the end of the season, there are going to be more changes in the on-field staff. With rumors that Mike Scioscia could be let by the Angels and Terry Francona being the name thrown around as the man to replace him, it would not surprise me at all to see Scioscia being the manager in Boston next year.

One thing is for sure: the Red Sox in my opinion will be the team that looks the most different from the start of the 2012 season at the start of 2013. With all that being said, I do believe now that the Dodgers will win the NL West.

Let’s cut it out with some of the cut fastballs

In our game today, the new pitch that I think far too many pitchers have fallen in love with is the cut fastball. There is a reason for this. Mariano Rivera! Mo has pitched 17 years and become the all-time saves leader by basically throwing one pitch, the cutter, as he discussed in these video interviews the past year with my MLB Network colleagues Harold Reynolds and Bob Costas:

So after seeing his success and his thoughts on the cutter, naturally you will have other pitchers who want to learn to throw it. There is one really big problem with this thinking: Mo’s natural delivery of the ball is to cut it. He has to think to throw a straight four-seam fastball. I have seen some very good pitchers try and use this pitch and get beat around the ballpark. The cutter can be a very good pitch if — and this is a big if! — the pitcher has absolute command of it. There are very few pitchers who have that kind of command of the cutter.

When you don’t have absolute command of it? It simply becomes a batting practice fastball. One big reason pitchers have gone to this pitch is the pitch count. It is a pitch that is designed to be put in play, which in theory is a good thing; balls put in play earlier in the count saves on pitches. The problem with this theory is that balls put in play find holes. If I have a pitcher who has an above average fastball and can locate it at 96 or 97 miles an hour, why would I want him to cut that pitch off to get a little bit of movement that he can’t control and have that pitch be thrown at 90 miles an hour? The answer is, I wouldn’t. People might not realize the difference of only five or six miles an hour, but a hitter most definitely does.

I am going to use my favorite left-handed starting pitcher to illustrate my thinking. Jon Lester has the ability to throw the ball 97 mph with location. He also has a good slider. He is a guy who can overpower hitters. Yet in the last two years he has gone to throwing more and more cutters. If we look back before 2011, he was a guy who was a power pitcher. Low hits per inning, high strikeouts per 9 innings. From 2008 through 2010, he threw 621 innings, struck out 602 and gave up 561 hits. He was 50-21 over that span. In 2011 and through today, he has thrown 348 innings, given up 324 hits and struck out 311. His record over that span is 21-19. You will look at those numbers and say that isn’t that big of a difference. But it is, depending on when you are giving up those hits and when you are striking guys out.

Before this year, his highest BA-against over the last seven years was .257; this year, the league is hitting .277 against him. In 2009, with runners on second base, Lester had a total of 16 1/3 innings pitched and the league hit .140, and he had a 1.65 era and 20 strikeouts. In 2012, he has thrown 10 2/3 innings with runners on second and the league is hitting .311, while his ERA in that situation is 11.81 and he has only nine strikeouts.

This is not because Jon has lost his stuff. It is because he is throwing a cutter he can’t command as well as he can his four-seamer and there is at least 5-mph difference between the two pitches. I believe if Jon went back to just his four-seam 96-mph fastball and slider, we would see what I still view as one of the best left-handed starters in the game.

What pitchers need to realize is that there are two pitchers in the game today who throw true cut fastballs: Mo and Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers. But their cutters are natural. If you watch the game closely, the ball is cutting the second it leaves their hand and keeps boring in on lefties and away from right handed hitters.

So unless you can command it at will, you are only speeding the hitter’s bat up!

Trout making a difference in LA

Mike Trout‘s call-up to the Los Angeles Angels could be the biggest difference-maker in all of baseball. Right now he is hands down the Rookie of the Year in the AL, but I don’t think we can stop at just Rookie of the Year. I believe right now this guy is the MVP of the American League .

Trout is 20 years old, and making the game look like it is just a video game. His numbers alone will earn him Rookie of the Year. Going into last Saturday’s game, he was leading the AL in runs scored, stolen bases and batting average. He also has 19 home runs and 57 RBI.
Before he was called up to the big leagues, the Angels were 6-14. They are since 51-36. If I’m doing my country math right, that is a 23-game swing in the standings.

Anyone who has listened to me or read anything I’ve written knows that I don’t believe that an MVP can be a player who only effects the outcome of a game on one side of the ball. I think they have to change the outcome of games on both sides. Defensively, Trout may be the best center fielder in the game right now.

I am not a big believer in comparing present day players to past players. The game has changed too much to do that. The size of ballparks today; the mentality of pitchers; the fact that if a pitcher even throws a ball inside anymore they get warned by the umpires. Those are all things that make it impossible to compare today’s players to past players.

I’m also not a guy who is ready to hang the Hall of Fame-bound tag on a player after less than a full year under his belt. But as for this year and the 84 games he played before Saturday — and the 84 runs he has scored to go along with his power numbers from the lead-off spot — in my opinion, if the season ended today, Mike Trout is the AL MVP. An MVP not only has great numbers, but he makes the guys around him better, and at 20 years old, Trout has done both.

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