September 2010

Red Sox Instrux 2010

I swear, every time I go to a baseball game, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. I go to baseball games with the sole purpose of interacting with at least one player, but it’s not like I have some strategic plan that I follow each time I go to a baseball game. To be honest, going to baseball games has become kind of a stressful experience (in the absolute best of ways) for me because I never know what to expect going in. The outcome is certainly worth the uncertainty.

The Fall Instructional League is essentially a rookie league populated by guys from the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, and the Lowell Spinners (short season Signle-A ball). In other words, there are a lot of draft picks. This is absolutely raw, unrefined baseball talent, and this league serves to refine essential baseball fundamentals. Many of the draft picks signed late, so they have little to no experience in professional baseball–maybe nine games in the Gulf Coast League (a rookie league).

Here is a brief look at the 2010 Red Sox Draft:
First Round:
-Kolbrin Vitek (20th overall)
Compensatory Picks
-Bryce Brentz (36th overall)
-Anthony Ranaudo (39th overall)
Round 2
-Brandon Workman (57th overall)
Round 3
-Sean Coyle (110th overall)
Round 4
-Garin Cecchini (143rd overall)
-Round 5
-Henry Ramos (173rd overall)
Round 6
-Kendrick Perkins (203rd overall)
Round 7
-Chris Hernandez (233rd overall)
…Round 10
-Jacob Dahlstrand (323rd overall)
Round 11
-Lucas LeBlanc (353rd overall)

The only guys who weren’t at the Fall Instructional League on Sunday when I was there were Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman. Workman was to arrive the next day for a slightly different strength conditioning program.

There was very little information regarding the Fall Instructional League. There were some rumors regarding who would be there. Casey Kelly, Ryan Dent, and Ryan Westmoreland all confirmed via their Twitter accounts. An actual roster was posted a few days before the league began by Sox Prospects. This helped me out because I was able to do some basic research, and perhaps more importantly, figure out where these practices (and games) were taking place. The only thing it didn’t tell me was what time everything was taking place. I basically had to blindly assume that the practices would start some time between nine and ten. All I could hope was that I was not embarking on a five hour round trip for nothing.

As I drove into the Red Sox Minor League Complex–a place I had not been to for five months–I noticed a sea of red uniforms a couple of fields over. The grueling two-and-a-half hour drive over boring alligator alley suddenly became a small price to pay.
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I was absolutely enthralled from the moment I set foot upon the complex. The majority of the players were gathered on one field, focused on an intricate drill that focused on what I would call situational fundamentals. The coaches would yell out a situation. “One and two with two outs,” for example. The pitcher would pretend to throw home, and then the coach would hit the ball somewhere. It was up to the players to adjust accordingly, and make the call as to what should happen.

The coaches would get angry if the players weren’t communicating with each other. The players would switch out nearly every play, and then would wait in line until next time. This was far from fundamentally sound. In fact, first base was overthrown more than once, and the cutoff man was occasionally missed. This observation is not meant to criticize–far from it. This observation made me realize the point of this league: to refine the fundamentals. As I said before, a lot of these guys have little to no experience with even the lowest level of professional baseball. This league is to prepare them for it.

On the other fields, the pitchers were working on pick-off drills. This was perhaps my favorite drill of the day because I had never seen anything like it. Even though I have heard from more than one pitcher that pitching from the stretch is something that is far from natural, I had no idea that this was how they learned. I assumed that it just came from in-game practice, but these guys were working on both how they turned and their pick off throws. It was absolutely fascinating.

I was very patient when it came to talking with players. I did not want to be rude and interrupt their practice, so I waited until they were at least en route to another field. I was familiar with names, but unfortunately I was not as familiar with faces. I decided not to risk embarrassing myself by addressing somebody by a name that was not his own, so I ended up asking for everyone’s name. I hope that they weren’t offended that I didn’t know exactly who they were or what they had done up to this point. Most of them were extremely friendly. I suppose the chocolate peanut butter cupcakes didn’t hurt.

The first guy I talked to was Garin Cecchini. I did not get a chance to talk to him for a long time because he was en route to another drill. He said he was really happy to be there, and I could tell that he was absolutely thrilled. He had only played about nine games in the Gulf Coast League, so he was clearly there to get more experience under his belt. He was wearing a brace around his knee, and I noticed that he was experiencing some pain during the infield drills. He said that he had had surgery recently, but he felt fine. I’ll ask him more next weekend.

Then I talked to Lucas LeBlanc. He hasn’t played in any GCL games because he signed so late, but he had played in a summer league. He was committed to LSU following the draft, but chose to play professionally. He said that he still had some angry voice messages and text messages saved on his phone. He had no regrets, and he said that he was really happy with his decision so far.

I had the longest conversation with Sean Coyle, and we spoke for about five minutes. He is a utility infielder, but projects to play second base in the organization. He likes to hit first or second in the batting order, and is confident with his speed on the base paths. He is projected to go to Greenville next year, and played very briefly in the GCL. I asked him the biggest thing he has learned so far and he said to just stay relaxed. He said that he anxious a lot this year (understandably so) and that he just needs to relax and take it easier. He also mentioned that he had played in summer leagues for the past four or five years with wooden bats, so the transition hasn’t been too hard. His brother is currently at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is one of the schools I’m applying to.
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I missed a couple of the players going in after batting practice, but some stayed behind to kill a snake and tie it to a bat. Miles Head was kind enough to pose for a picture with his prize.

The last guy I talked to was Bryce Brentz. He is a pretty funny guy. Since he was drafted out of college, I also brought up the difference between aluminum and metal bats. He said something to the effect of that the outfielders are able to position themselves better when it comes to hits off wooden bats. That’s something I had not heard before.

On my way home, I f
ound it kind of odd that I had bought an audio recorder the day before, yet I didn’t use it once that day. I didn’t even ask for a picture with any of these guys. I guess it just did not feel right at the time, and I’m glad that I didn’t. Sunday was a day for me to put myself out there, and merely introduce myself to the players. It would have been awfully awkward to whip out a recorder and tape these informal interviews. I’ve decided that I only want to use the recorder during a formal interview or a press conference. Otherwise, I feel like the presence of a recorder would take something away from the conversation.

Overall, I was impressed–not with their fundamentals, but with their attitudes. From what I could tell, they were all very driven and ambitious. I could tell that it was absolutely surreal for the guys who didn’t have professional experience yet. I’m sure this feeling wares off after a while, but it was just a pleasant ambiance to be a part of.

They have a game against the Twins (at the Twins) next Saturday, and I will be going back. I plan on scoring the game, and I will sit next to somebody with a radar gun and track pitches. I would also like to conduct a formal interview with one of them (or all of them), if they oblige. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to look into the strength conditioning program as well. 

I am also hoping to get a chance to say hello to Ryan Westmoreland, who is also rehabbing. I didn’t see him on Sunday because I think he had gone in relatively early. I think it is absolutely remarkable that he is there, but I have to say, I’m not surprised. The second he got out of surgery, he pretty much had himself convinced that he was going to be back on a baseball field, and he has worked hard to make it happen. Judging from his tweets, he seems absolutely thrilled to be there, and that’s all that matters.

The Triple Crown

It is often said that baseball’s most prestigious feat is the elusive perfect game. After all, only 20 have been pitched in all of baseball’s history–18 in the modern era. To retire 27 batters consecutively is certainly majestic, and it guarantees baseball immortality. Many perfect games have been thrown by notoriously dominant pitchers–Monte Ward, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Catfish Hunter, to name a few. Their reputation almost demanded one. However, for some pitchers, their perfect games are the only redeeming factor in an otherwise disappointing or mediocre career–perhaps Kenny Rogers or Dallas Braden.

I would like to argue that there is an even more illustrious feat in baseball; one that has not been accomplished since 1967: 43 years. The largest gap between baseball’s perfect games was 34 years. The feat that I speak of is baseball’s triple crown, in which a hitter must lead his league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. It has only been done 16 times in baseball’s history, 13 in the modern era. The last man to win the triple crown was Carl Yastrzemski.

No one has ever pitched a perfect game twice. It is probably nearly statistically impossible. Two men have received the triple crown twice. The Cardinals’ Roger Hornsby in 1922 and 1925, and the Red Sox’s Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947. This is precisely what makes the triple crown even more impressive.

A perfect game does not guarantee a Cy Young Award. It is nearly unheard of for a player not to win the MVP if he has also won the triple crown. After all, MVP considerations are heavily affected by those same three statistics. To every rule and theory, there is always an exception, and Ted Williams is the exception to mine: In 1942 and 1947, he came in second place for MVP votes, losing to Joe Gordon and Joe Dimaggio, respectively.

A perfect game is one game; there are 161 others. To win a triple crown, the hitter has to be consistently superior in three outstandingly difficult categories. Every player who has won the triple crown in the modern era is currently immortalized in Cooperstown. Pitchers who throw a perfect game are perfect for 27 outs. Those who win the triple crown are spectacular 4,374 outs.

With a couple of legitimate Triple Crown contenders this season in Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera, I wanted to try and figure out why there has been such a disparity in Triple Crown winners since Yastrzemski last did it. I decided to look at and compare various eras within baseball’s modern era (since 1900) and I think I have come to a reasonable conclusion.

It surprises me that there were any triple crown players in the dead ball era (1901-1919), which was defined by small ball. Pitchers were allowed to use altered balls and trick pitches, and starting pitchers completed their games more than half the time. Then again, it doesn’t surprise me that the two men to hit for it were Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb.

The Lively Ball Era (1920-1941) followed in which a rubber-core ball was universally used, and trick pitches were prohibited. Pitcher’s completed their game less than half the time, and the average amount of runs scored per game was nearly ten. Also, in 1930, the National League’s batting average as a whole was over .300. Five men hit for the triple crown in this era: Roger Hornsby (twice), Chuck Klein, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Medwick.

Then came the Integration Era (1942-1960), catalyzed by Jackie Robinson. Many players were involved in World War II, which some argued diluted the level of play. Two players hit for the triple crown: Ted Williams (twice) and Mickey Mantle. The changes in this era went beyond the game itself, but I’m assuming the pitching was able to adjust to the new rules established in the Lively Ball Era.

The Expansion Era (1961-1976) followed, which came with an enlarged strikezone, and predictably, a reduction in offensive output. Only Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski hit for the triple crown in this era, and no one has done it since. Perhaps the defining characteristics of the eras that follow offer some explanation.

The Free Agency Era (1977-1993) was characterized mainly by outrageous contracts. About one-third of teams used artificial turf which took emphasis off of the home run ball and resulted in more extra base hits.

The era that I have lived through–the Long Ball Era (1994-2005)–has been characterized by a remarkable increase in home runs. This is attributable to not only steroids, and parks more conducive to home runs.

I’m not sure what era baseball has transitioned into since 2005. Some say the steroids era (though testing was implemented in 2004, so that isn’t really valid). With no-hitters, and even perfect games, becoming more of a commodity, I’d like to call it the era of the pitcher, but this might just be a unique year.

It does not really make sense that no one has won the triple crown since 1967 if offensive production has sky-rocketed. I think that the use of steroids have had an obvious effect on the statistics. It’s no longer one person dominating the league for a year. Many players are capable of hitting copious amounts of home runs and RBIs and hitting for a high average. It seems like guys are continually beating each other out. At the end of the season, Carlos Gonzalez might be leading in batting average, Pujols in home runs, and Votto in RBIs–and the disparity might only be one or two points.

I would like to see one of these guys hit for the triple crown, especially now that baseball has transitioned out of the steroids era. It would not have felt right had someone hit for the triple crown in the steroid era because nearly nothing was pure. I see Pujols, Votto, Gonzalez, and Cabrera (the main AL contender) as pure baseball players that embody what baseball is supposed to be about. 2010 has been an amazing year for baseball. We have seen no-hitters, perfect games, a perfect game that should have been, and a triple crown would be the icing on perhaps the most exciting baseball season I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

September: The Hunt for Red (Sox?) October

I think that I speak on behalf of many baseball fans when I say that my favorite day of the year is Opening Day. Because, well, there’s something about opening day. I have a second favorite day of the year, though: September 1. In fact, September might just be my favorite month of the season.

Towards the end of August, it becomes quite clear which teams are in the hunt for October. The month of September is all about the final push. I see it as the most crucial month of the season. However, that doesn’t mean that the games in September are any more important then they were in, say, May, for example. I think what I’m trying to say is that each team is in a certain position at the beginning of September. What each team has done until that point has affected their respective playoff berth chances. Some teams have an almost definite chance at making it, some teams are on the line, some teams’ hopes are slowly, painfully dwindling away, and some teams simply won’t make it. From that point at the beginning of September, the outcome of each game will affect where you are in October: on the field, or watching from the couch.

I won’t beat around the bush here: the Red Sox have a very slim chance of making it into October. I know that there is nearly an entire month of baseball left, but statistically speaking, it is highly improbable. Not only would the Red Sox have to win nearly every game from here on out, but also, the Yankees and Rays would have to cooperate and lose some games, which they simply don’t do.

Regardless of whether or not the Red Sox make the playoffs, I will not consider this a wasted season, or even a disappointing season. Rather, I would consider it frustrating. The Red Sox are in no way, shape, or form a bad team. They are a very unlucky team. Everyone I have spoken with this season is absolutely flabbergasted by the copious amount of injuries. I’m usually not one to make excuses; in fact, I’ll be the first to admit if the Red Sox play bad baseball, which they sometimes do. However, when Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia–4/9ths of the opening day lineup–are out for the rest of the season, that certainly hurts. When Josh Beckett–the man considered by many to be the staff’s ace–is out for 10+ weeks, it doesn’t help.

I won’t blame everything on injuries though. I’m happy to speak of instances where the Red Sox haven’t played smart baseball. I’m not here for harsh criticism, I’m here for constructive criticism. When you have runners on first and second with no outs, there is no excuse for not bunting. Small ball wins games. You sacrifice an out to get two runners into scoring position. Also, the Red Sox have been absolutely sparse on the base paths. As soon as Ellsbury comes out of the lineup, we stop stealing! There have also been some mental slips on Francona’s part as well. One of the most obvious instances, in my opinion, was when he brought Clay Buchholz out for the eighth inning when he was over 100 pitches. Next thing that happens? A home run to tie the game. He has done that on many an occasion this year.

Francona also is obsessed with lefty-lefty match-ups. I have discussed this with @TheRealMBB many a time. We don’t hire Francona to read a book full of statistics. I can do that. We hire him to trust his gut. Baseball goes beyond statistics. You go with the guy who is throwing the ball the best, and that is final.

A playoff berth is improbable. But in baseball, things that are improbable tend to become probable more than often. Take yesterday (Sunday), for example. The Red Sox took a 5-3 lead into the top of the ninth. In fact, they had a two run lead in the top of the ninth with two outs, and their storied closer, Jonathan Papelbon, was on the mound. Be honest with yourself. When you were watching that game, you thought the Red Sox were going to win. There was no way the White Sox were going to come back and tie that game–let alone score four runs.

I always say that I like baseball because anything can happen. Literally. Anything. That came back to bite me in the **** yesterday. The Red Sox are 10 games back from first place. They are 7.5 games out of the wild card. Statistically speaking, it’s improbable. But as I said earlier, baseball goes beyond statistics. There is so much in this game that goes beyond baseball. Anything can happen.

There is another thing that I really like about September, though. Perhaps even more than the hunt for October: expanded rosters. This is where my projects come in and make a difference, just like I predicted all the way back in Spring Training. This is when I feel like a proud mother every time I get a tweet saying that somebody is en route to Boston.
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It’s surreal for me to see Dustin Richardson, Felix Doubront, Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava, Josh Reddick, Lars Anderson, and Michael Bowden (soon, anyway) on the roster at the same time. It’s even more surreal to realize that I’ve had a conversation with each and every one of them. I had the chance to tell them, in person, that I was impressed with what they had done in the minors, and that I knew that they were going to be good, and that I had faith that they would be up in Boston soon. I feel like a proud mother. There is nothing in this world that could top that for me.

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