LAKELAND, Fla. -- One man is the ultimate workhorse pitcher of his generation, the other is a scientist who has spent his professional life trying to gain a greater understanding of why pitchers get hurt.
On one side, we have Justin Verlander, who theorized this week that many pitchers are breaking down in the big leagues because they’re "coddled" in the minor leagues.
On the other side, we have Dr. Glenn Fleisig, who respectfully argues the other side: that no pitcher is destined to wind up in an operating room some day.
There's no absolute right in this debate. There's no absolute wrong. What matters most is that six big league pitchers this spring are either about to have Tommy John surgery or have already had it -- and baseball is full of people with theories on why.
One of them is Verlander. He was busy dissecting his most recent spring start for the Detroit Tigers the other day when the talk turned to the parade of pitchers who have already gone down this spring. It's a trend that amazes him -- and everyone else.
"Yeah, crazy," he said, but he didn't stop there.
"You know, I've got my theories on that," he went on. "I think baseball coddles guys so much now that you delay the inevitable. I think the reason you see so many big leaguers blowing out at a young age is because they would have done it before. But now teams limit pitch counts so much, even at the major league level, that now a guy in his second or third year will pop, when it would have happened in the minors.
"Before," he continued, "when there wasn't such an emphasis on pitch counts, I think you kind of weeded that out. Then, guys would have surgery [in the minor leagues]. Then, they'd come back, and then, they'd get to the big leagues."
Verlander, obviously, has not been one of those guys. He has certainly never been "coddled." He has never spent a day on a major league disabled list. And since 2007, he ranks No. 1 in baseball in games started, pitches thrown and pitches per start. In fact, only one pitcher in the whole sport (James Shields) is within 2,000 pitches of him in that span.
"I think I threw a lot more pitches than a lot of young guys do now at an early stage in my career," Verlander said. "It's just the way that the game's changed. I was kind of right at that transition [point], and we had an old-school manager in Jim Leyland, who let me go out there and pitch, and I'm grateful for that. I proved to myself and to everybody that I could manage a huge workload."
Since 2007, he's one of just three pitchers who have ground out 200-plus innings every year. (Shields and Mark Buehrle are the others.) And in the process, Verlander said, he's essentially demonstrated to himself that it's possible to stay healthy despite that mammoth workload.
"In this game, you do what you're trained to do," he said. "If you train your body to go out there and throw 200 innings, you're probably going to do it. After my rookie year, the next year I pitched 200, and I haven't looked back since. If you have to, you just go out there and pitch. And you get there."
But when he was asked if he thinks there's a moral, for other teams and other pitchers, to his story and how he was handled, Verlander took a step back and acknowledged there are other factors involved.
"I just think it depends on how teams want to handle it," he said. "I don't think that my opinion is necessarily the right one. That's just my opinion, but I think [with] the amount of money in this game now, an organization can't afford to just run a guy out and just let him go. And if something happens, if a guy is gone for the year after 190-some innings, that organization would just be blasted. And you can’t afford to do that."
But that's not all organizations can't afford to do, said Fleisig, the research director at Dr. James Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute. What they really can't afford to do is to continue doing things the way they used to, before the science of biomechanics came along to show them there's a better way.
"First of all," Fleisig said, "I have tremendous respect for Justin Verlander. You and I are not Justin Verlander. We've never thrown 200 innings in the major leagues, or even one inning. So he has a different perspective than we have. But I also have a different perspective. I have science."
It's readily acknowledged in sports medicine circles that no one has spent more time studying Tommy John surgery and its causes than Fleisig. So he understands that Verlander's combination of skills -- his velocity, his ability to throw harder late in games -- is "almost unique to him. It's rare. It's true for him. It's not true for everyone."
And Fleisig's research tells him it isn't "coddling" that is leading to all these Tommy John surgeries. Its single biggest cause is pitchers who reach the point of fatigue but keep pitching until they've injured themselves.
"I agree that if a pitcher has poor mechanics and he pitches a lot, he's going to have a higher chance of breaking down than a guy with good mechanics," Fleisig said. "But I don't agree that if that's the case, you should just let him pitch and let's see what happens.
"With biomechanics, we can now identify who has poor mechanics, and there are a lot of progressive organizations that are now modifying kids' mechanics in the minor leagues after they're drafted and as they develop."
What those organizations are doing is attempting to fix those poor mechanics before they lead to more serious issues. And they're tailoring pitch counts and innings limits on an individual basis, depending on how pitchers respond.
It's a major step in the right direction, yet pitchers still get hurt -- at a rate that continues to defy comprehension.
"I share everyone's frustration with the number of injuries out there," Fleisig said. "That bothers me. We've made a lot of progress scientifically, but there's a lot more to be done. It's led to more pitchers pitching with more velocity, but it's also led to more pitchers being pushed beyond the body’s limits."
So Fleisig, along with a number of other astute, inquisitive people both in baseball and in sports medicine, continue to look for answers. It's a quest well worth undertaking, but there are days, as the Tommy John surgery list grows ever longer, when everyone wishes they could just look for more Justin Verlanders.
"I totally respect his perspective," Fleisig said of Verlander. "He knows what his body feels like. But he's unique. Basically, he's a sample size of one."
The Miami Marlins might have two-thirds of their dynamic young outfield under control for the rest of the decade. But Ozuna, the third member of this trio, is a Scott Boras client. And Ozuna said Thursday that when he has talked with Boras about the merits of signing an extension, the agent told him: "Don’t hurry."
A day after news filtered through the Marlins’ clubhouse about Yelich’s pending seven-year, $49.5 million deal, Ozuna was asked how much he and Boras talk about the merits of signing a long-term deal to stick around Miami.
"We talk a lot," the Marlins’ 24-year-old center fielder said. "But he says, 'Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Worry about how you hit and play the game. Don’t worry about your career and your money.'"
Ozuna, who reached the majors in 2013, said he has essentially placed this decision in the hands of Boras, whose younger clients rarely sign long-term contracts that would require them to give away free-agent years on the back end. Ozuna said that if Boras could negotiate "a good deal," he would agree.
"But if he say no, I can wait," he said.
Because Ozuna spent nearly a full season in the majors in 2013, he would qualify for arbitration as a Super-2 player next winter. So his earning power is about to rise considerably. He said he’d "heard from a couple of people" that going to arbitration is "good." So he’s more than happy to see where he stands a year from now.
"Let’s see what happens next year," he said. "I don’t have something in my head about arbitration. Go play the game, and that’s it. If I have a good season and we get a championship, that’s what I want. And see what happens."
Ozuna, Stanton and Yelich are often talked about as being possibly the best outfield in baseball. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the three combined for 8.1 Wins Above Replacement last season, the highest total by three starting outfielders for any team in the big leagues.
Yelich turned 23 over the winter, so he will now be under team control through his age-29 season. Stanton is only 25. And his new 13-year, $325 million deal means the Marlins would control his rights through 2028, unless he opts out after 2020.
"That’s good for them," Ozuna said. "I’m so happy for them."
Asked if his two outfield mates will now be paying for a lot of his meals, thanks to their newfound earning power, Ozuna laughed.
"Yeah," he said. "They have to."
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Three years ago, they blew their team up after a spending spree that went all wrong. Two years ago, they lost 100 games and ran through 22 rookies on the journey to the bottom of the NL East.
So who out there saw these Miami Marlins coming?
Who saw these 2015 Marlins not just spending money but spending money like Donald Trump?
Who saw them signing Giancarlo Stanton to the largest contract (13 years, $325 million) in the history of North American pro sports?
Who saw them then turning around and locking up their left fielder, Christian Yelich, so he could play alongside Stanton, if all goes right, for the next seven years?
Most of all, who saw them talking about contending, about a future that could very well include a rendezvous with October? But they are. And they should.
“We understand what the number is to make the playoffs,” their manager, Mike Redmond, said. “That’s the goal, man.”
By “the number,” he means the number of wins it will take. That number figures to be at least 10 more than the 77 games the Marlins won last year. That would be coming on the heels of a 15-win jump a year ago, the largest by any team in the National League.
So let’s think through what they’re trying to do here: Win 15 more games one year than the year before, then take another double-digit leap the following year? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, just one team in the division-play era -- the 2007-08 Cubs -- ever did that in back-to-back full seasons.
So what the Marlins are aspiring to do isn’t merely hard. It’s historically hard. But history doesn’t seem to scare them. The Nationals don’t seem to scare them. The challenge definitely doesn’t seem to scare them.
“If we get a championship,” center fielder Marcell Ozuna said without much prompting, “that’s what we want. We’ll see what happens.”
But is this team really ready to fish for October? Here are five reasons it isn’t preposterous:
We wrote just a few days ago about the ongoing debate in this sport over who has the best young outfield in baseball -- the Marlins or Pirates. Well, there are no hanging chads clouding the voting on this in South Florida.
Bet you didn’t know that the 8.1 wins above replacement accumulated by Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna the past season were the most by any three outfielders on any team in baseball. If you’ve watched those three guys at all, you know there’s nothing misleading about that WAR total.
Stanton almost won an MVP award. Yelich won a Gold Glove, finished second in the league in pitches per plate appearance and was compared by his manager this week to a young Joe Mauer. Ozuna pounded 23 homers in a huge ballpark in his first full season in the big leagues. And none of them is older than 25.
“The right fielder [Stanton] might hit 50 homers,” one NL scout said. “The center fielder [Ozuna] might hit 30 to 40. The left fielder might win a batting title, and he’s got as good an idea at the plate as any young hitter in baseball. That’s three really exciting guys to build around.”
The face of the franchise
We live in an age when the good, old-fashioned masher has become almost as endangered a species as the Siberian tiger. But not in Miami. Because that’s where Stanton continues to whomp baseballs that clear tall buildings, scatter concession-stand lines in the concourse and break scoreboards.
“I saw him hit a ball in BP the other day that went over the building in pretty much dead-center,” new second baseman Dee Gordon said. “It was amazing. There’s no chance I would ever do something like that.”
How about if he got to try it from the mound, Gordon is asked. “Still no." OK, what about from second base? “From the warning track would be my best shot,” Gordon said, barely joking.
On the outside, there might still be concerns about how Stanton will respond to the fastball he took in the face the past September. But there are no more concerns within the Marlins after a spring of watching Stanton do his thing.
“If anything,” president of baseball operations Michael Hill said, “what’s come out of it is he’s not drifting as much at the plate. He’s not chasing as much. He’s swinging at more balls in the zone, so he’s hitting more balls hard. And when he hits the ball hard, good things happen.”
It’s crazy to think Stanton pulled even with Dan Uggla last year for the most career home runs in Marlins history (154) -- before he turned 25. He’s younger, in fact, than every one of the top five finishers in the AL rookie of the year voting. So when his manager and his hitting coach, Frank Menechino, predict he’s going to get better, we probably shouldn’t be laughing.
Just as importantly, Stanton has reacted to signing that historic contract by “taking ownership” of this team, general manager Dan Jennings said. More and more, the day he signed that deal is beginning to feel like a franchise-changing event.
“There’s no doubt, he was the sail to the ship,” Jennings said. “He hoisted it. And we caught air and took off.”
The new guys
The skeptics might never believe that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has a serious commitment to building a winner. And it’s very possible that “no matter what you do, you can’t change their opinion,” Jennings said. But he and Hill both say they’ve been empowered by Loria to, in Jennings’ words, “make baseball decisions that affect this organization for a long time.”
So what they’ve done since the end of the past season goes way beyond the long-term deals with Stanton and Yelich. There have been trades for Gordon, Mat Latos, Martin Prado, Dan Haren, Aaron Crow, David Phelps and others. There have been free-agent signings of players such as Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki.
If this group stays healthy and Gordon can embrace the patience at the plate preached by Menechino and the defensive tweaks implemented by infield guru Perry Hill, this team is clearly better.
The Marlins appear to have upgraded at first base, second, third and the rotation. Prado, Morse, Haren and Ichiro have brought professionalism and positivity into a mostly young mix. But now this team has to make it all work on the field.
“We don’t play on paper,” Jennings said. “We play in the dirt. But the guys who are here are not here by accident. They’re here for a reason.”
The secret weapon
It has been 10 months since the ace, Jose Fernandez, went to see his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon. It will be another three to four months before the Marlins expect to see him back on the mound, sometime between mid-June and mid-July.
But when he returns, if he’s anything like the guy who won the NL pitcher of the month award in April, it isn’t hard to imagine what that means -- if this team can stay in contention without him. What Madison Bumgarner meant to the 2014 Giants, Fernandez could very realistically mean to a Marlins team that found itself in, say, the NL wild-card game in October.
“We’ll see,” Redmond said. “We’ll see when he comes back. But it’s got a chance to be exciting. That’s for sure.”
There’s not much in baseball more painful than a 100-loss season. But in baseball, as in life, something good can always come from something bad. Redmond is convinced much of the optimism of 2015 grew from the nightmare of 2013.
“I said it then, and I still say it now, that there were going to be a lot of good things that came out of that year,” the manager said. “And there has been.”
Because the results of the games were just about meaningless, the Marlins were able to bring Ozuna, Yelich and the shortstop, Adeiny Hechavarria, the big leagues that year. Henderson Alvarez made huge strides and threw a no-hitter. Fernandez won the NL Rookie of the Year award. Steve Cishek grew into a legit big league closer. A lot of things happened that led to the 15-win jump last year and the big dreams this year.
It seems almost unfathomable for a team to make the expedition from 100 losses to October in just two years. But it turns out it’s not as rare as you’d think. According to Elias, four teams have done it in the division-play era -- the 2008 Rays being the most recent -- and the addition of the second wild card makes it even more doable now.
But now comes the hard part. Now they actually have to do it.
“As we say down south, it ain’t the sugar that makes the tea sweet," Jennings said. "It’s the stirring. So we put the sugar in. Now they’ve got to stir it around.”
LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was a day when Stephen Strasburg spun four shutout innings and talked about how much it has meant to him to start for the Nationals on the past three Opening Days.
Sorry, Stephen. Once again, it was not a day when his manager, Matt Williams, was taking the bait when asked if he was ready to name his Opening Day starter.
“Somebody’s got to start Opening Day,” Williams said Tuesday, when the matter came up for the first time in the past 30 seconds. “We’ll make that decision.”
There are lots of folks who believe that he already has made it. And when the name finally comes out of his mouth, it’s going to be that of a fellow who’s about to start collecting $210 million from this team during the next decade and a half.
But no matter how many times he is asked, Williams isn’t ready to answer. Not yet anyway. And the funny thing about that is, it would be pretty much impossible for him to get that answer wrong.
He could name Max Scherzer, who has net capital wealth and Cy Young Award trophies going for him.
Or Jordan Zimmermann would be a fine choice, considering he was merely this team’s best pitcher last year.
Or there’s Strasburg, who has started three of these openers in a row and would be happy to mention that his team has won all three of them.
Or, to be honest, not only would the Nos. 4-6 starters on this team -- Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark -- not be horrible choices, but they’d probably be better than the Opening Day starters for a half-dozen other major league teams.
But nope. The manager wasn’t saying, wasn’t tipping his hand, wasn’t even giving hints. For that matter, he wasn’t even deviating from his oft-told spin on why it’s taking so long.
“It’s not a difficult decision,” Williams said. “I just know from last year that we had a plan. And Doug pulled a lat muscle last year, and we had to change those plans. And then we had a pitcher [Gonzalez] scheduled to go the third game, and he got the flu. So you just never know.
“So we’ll evaluate as we get longer down the line here,” he said. “And we’ll let everybody know when it’s the appropriate time. To jump out there and say something now is probably not appropriate to any of them. And you don’t know how everybody is going to get through the rest of the spring. So a decision will be made. And we’ll announce it when it’s the appropriate time to do so.”
Well, there are only 20 days left until Opening Day, so the appropriate time is clearly drawing closer. But the choices will remain the same. And those choices are so good that we asked if he could actually pretty much do this by throwing darts.
“No,” he said, with only a very slight laugh. “No. It’s not that simple. No, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. The thing that’s comforting for us is that all our guys really compete. And they want to have that ball whenever it’s given to them. So that’s a great thing.”
The guy who took the ball on this day was Strasburg. And after he’d finished punching out five Tigers (all on off-speed stuff) in four innings, he was asked about what it had meant to him to start the past three openers.
“It’s something,” he said, “that I think you tell your kids about some day.”
On the other hand, you don’t tell your kids that the manager is working on a streak of 24 spring training days in a row of not revealing this season's choice. But based on how Williams danced around those probing questions Tuesday, we like his chances of making it 25 days in a row.
“It’s not like we’re avoiding any questions or answers at this point,” said Williams. “We just have to evaluate our guys. We’ll try to make the best decision that we can.”
So there you go. You might think it’s easy managing a team with aces lined up from here to Silver Spring. But as Williams made perfectly clear Tuesday, it just might be more challenging than it looks.
His box score line Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies crammed a lot of messy developments (seven hits, two walks, two homers and six earned runs) into 3.1 innings. But Masterson was the first to remind us -- and himself -- that spring training is a fantastic invention on days like this.
"I enjoyed this outing," the Boston Red Sox right-hander said, with complete sincerity. "I think it was my best outing, as far as getting some solid work in like I'm supposed to in spring training."
He arrived on the mound in the first inning and "didn’t feel good," he admitted. He couldn't find his arm slot, couldn't locate and served up two singles, a Ryan Howard double and a Jordan Danks home run to the first eight hitters. So that wasn't good.
But spring training is all about adjustments. And in the third inning, Masterson thought he found his arm slot, commanded his stuff a lot more precisely and righted the ship until he tired midway through the fourth.
"So I was happy to make those adjustments and get back to where I need to be," he said, after taking the loss in an 11-4 defeat to the Phillies, "even though people see umpteen runs and a million homers."
Over Masterson's first two appearances this spring, in the wake of signing a one-year, $9.5 million deal as a free agent this winter, he allowed just one hit and no earned runs in five innings, while striking out four. But by the time his old Indians teammate, Cord Phelps, finished his day with a three-run fourth-inning homer, Masterson's once-pristine Grapefruit League ERA inflated to 6.48 on Sunday. Oh, well.
But Masterson has been around long enough to learn an important lesson about spring training: It's almost never a predictor of future performance.
"I was even saying to somebody else, 'Man, last year I sliced and diced in spring training, and it [his season] wasn't very good,'" he said. "The year before ... everyone hit homers, and I did great. So it just means I'm working, going through some stuff, and honestly, I was just really excited about how things progressed."
Masterson also knows, though, that trying to convince fans that he'd just had a positive, exciting outing, while giving up six runs, might not work so hot.
"Convince them? No. I mean, they're fans," he chuckled. "I mean, I was trying to convince myself. I'm still a competitor, and it's supposed to be like, 'You're working. No, you're progressing. You're this and this.' And I'm like, 'I know. But it stinks when you see a guy hit a homer off you.' But that's the hard part.
"You know, as a hitter, you're going out there and you might strike out, you might roll over one, and that's the thing. But as a pitcher, this is when you're getting your work in. So yeah, you'd like to be A-plus, knocking people out. But unfortunately, this is when you get your work in, and everyone gets to see it. So when you're a little bit off, everyone gets to see how off you were."
• The Red Sox had their roughest pitching day of the spring, with Masterson, Dana Eveland and Wade Miley allowing 11 runs, 15 hits, five walks and three homers. Left-handed bullpen candidate Tommy Layne was the bright spot, spinning a 1-2-3 eighth with two strikeouts.
"We struggled with command," said manager John Farrell. "Inconsistent velocity. We're at that point in camp where you see some variation in arm strength. Could be a little bit of dead-arm [syndrome] as we're getting to our third and fourth time on the mound. So we've had better days. But I think these are those growing points in camp that you've gotta get through physically."
• Like Masterson, Miley also came into this game with a 0.00 ERA over his first two appearances, but never got into any rhythm in this outing, allowing six hits, three walks, a Ryan Howard homer and four runs overall in three innings.
"I wasn't very effective," he said. "I didn't make pitches. I put myself in some very bad situations, and especially against lefties. I didn't do a very good job against their lefties."
• Daniel Nava started at first base and went 2-for-3, including a home run off Phillies starter Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Nava is 4-for-17 (.235) this spring, but has a .381 on-base percentage and .529 slugging percentage after seven games. And Farrell praised his ability to consistently "put up good at-bats" this spring. Nava is fighting, seemingly as always, for playing time in the outfield and at first.
"In a sense, he and Allen [Craig] are in similar positions from either side of the plate," Farrell said. "But in our home ballpark, Daniel's range in the outfield allows him to play right field more comfortably than Allen. So both will be in that type of role."
Asked if there is room for both Nava and Craig on the roster, Farrell said: "The challenge [is] to get the at-bats consistently. But room, for sure."
• Masterson appears on track to start the third game of the regular season, also against the Phillies. But unlike some pitchers, he saw the positive in getting to face them first in spring training.
"You get your feet wet," Masterson said. "I think, as a pitcher, the more you face a team, in the overall sense, if you can execute what you're trying to do, the better you will be, because you see their response, what they like, what they can do. And you're able to make the adjustments first. And then they have to adjust to what you adjust, and you just go from there."
• Masterson on his first time pitching to Blake Swihart this spring: "Good. I like 'ol Blake Swihart." Masterson said Swihart tried to console him after his early struggles, "just trying to talk me through the early couple of innings. And I'm like, 'I know. I'm not doing very good.' But even in spring, he's showing he cares, and he works hard. I love his personality.
"You guys all talking about him getting traded to Philly?" Masterson then asked the assembled media. "You're like, 'Is this a really big game for you today? Yeah, you were raking in spring today. You will be a Philadelphia Phillie.' ... I love it."
• The Red Sox have now lost three games in a row after a seven-game winning streak. They return to Jet Blue Park on Monday for a 1:05 p.m. ET game against the New York Mets in which the Mets are scheduled to roll out both Matt Harvey and top prospect Noah Syndegaard. Joe Kelly will be Boston's starter, with Edward Mujica, Alexi Ogando and Junichi Tazawa also scheduled to pitch.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For the 1,377th day since he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2011, Blake Swihart was not traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels on Sunday. But that didn't matter much to those of us in the media biz looking to perpetuate the never-ending plot line that suggests that'll change one of these days.
So there was Swihart on the Red Sox lineup card Sunday, facing the Phillies in the Phillies' home park. And there was his manager, making sure we all knew, before anyone actually asked, that the schedule just worked out that way. Yeah, really.
"No," said John Farrell, "this isn't a showcase."
But a sizable delegation of Phillies execs watched intently from behind the plate nonetheless. And Farrell couldn't help but notice the attractive life-size photo of Hamels he got a chance to stare at on his ride down the elevator to the clubhouse.
And when a media throng started heading Swihart's way before the game, let's just say the consensus best catching prospect in baseball didn't need to check with the media relations department to discern what this was all about.
"I think it's funny," he said, "just like you guys do."
The part of this that isn't so funny, of course, is the trouble the Red Sox have run into trying to do business with the Phillies, in a deal to acquire a certain ace starter whose name hasn't come up in, oh, three paragraphs now.
The Phillies, from all accounts, have taken the same position on this for a long, long time now. And that position is: If Swihart isn't in this deal, there won't be a deal.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have taken a slightly different position. They've told the Phillies consistently that Swihart isn't on the table, won't be on the table in three weeks, won't be on the table in three months and most likely won't ever be on that table.
So the two teams have made virtually zero headway on any potential Hamels trade, multiple sources say. And there's no sign that will be changing any time soon, no matter how many times us media rumor-mongers keep that eternal flame burning.
But on spring training days like this, when guys like Blake Swihart just happen to find themselves in the lineup against teams they've been linked to in 4.7 billion rumors, this was still a story ready to pretty much write itself.
And it's a story Swihart, not surprisingly, is slightly familiar with. Not that he makes it a point to read any of those accounts himself.
"Not that much," he said Sunday. "I hear it all the time, though. It's kind of hard not to hear it. At the end of the day, though, I play for the Red Sox, and I want to play for the Red Sox. I like being here, and I like playing here."
Asked if his family and friends are constantly relaying the latest Rumor Central tidbits on this saga, Swihart could only laugh.
"My mom and dad are all over Facebook worrying about that," he said. "I don't even have a Facebook. So I just let them worry about it and let them talk to friends. And I just play the game."
And that, obviously, is what he does best. All Swihart did last year, between Double-A and Triple-A, was hit .293/.341/.469, with 13 homers, eight steals (in nine tries) and a 45.6 percent success rate in throwing out runners who made the mistake of trying to steal on him.
He then breezed into his second big league camp this spring and picked up right where he left off. His 2-for-3 day Sunday hiked his spring slash line to .539/.600/.769. And what has opened even more eyes than his bat is the fact that even after he comes out of games, he spends the rest of the day in the dugout, picking the brains of coaches, veterans or human catching encyclopedias like Jason Varitek.
"He knows in his own mind that his opportunity is approaching," Farrell said. "When that happens, obviously, remains to be seen. But I just think he's gaining in confidence, he's gaining in strength. I think last year's experience at the Triple-A level was important for him to be dealing with some veteran pitchers and getting a little bit more insight into game-calling. And there's always going to be a maintenance part of his game.
"The receiving side of things is a work in progress, even though that's getting better by the day. He's a bright-looking young player. But there's still work to be done."
Nevertheless, the Red Sox haven't wavered on one theme: They want that work to be done with the Red Sox. And Farrell said that he and general manager Ben Cherington made it a point, before this camp ever started, to let Swihart know that.
"He's a Red Sox," Farrell said. "And we think he'll be a Red Sox player for a number of years."
But even though Swihart was the story du jour Sunday, Farrell made sure to mention a related development he's hoping no one loses sight of: There's another young catcher on his roster who's actually the starting catcher. Like right now.
"Even if Blake wasn't here, I don't know if I've ever been around a catcher as good as Christian Vazquez," the manager said. "Blake is the name that's always been in the rumors, because of what he potentially could be attached to. But the guy who is as good as anybody in the game right now, as far as catching, receiving and throwing, is Christian Vazquez."
It will be fascinating to see how this team eventually handles its glut of high-end young catching. But in the meantime, there's one thing we can say for sure: Neither of them is on the verge of getting traded for Cole Hamels. No kidding.
But the St. Louis Cardinals found out Wednesday that big brother -- or at least Major League Baseball -- is, in fact, watching this stuff as baseball phases in its new pace-of-game rules in advance of Opening Day.
After the top of the first inning of Wednesday’s Cardinals-Braves game at Champion Stadium, plate umpire Joe West called both managers, Mike Matheny and Fredi Gonzalez, out of the dugout. Matheny said the point of the brief meeting was to let them know that West already noticed a couple of hitters leaving the batter’s box between pitches -- and to remind them that’s now against the rules.
"I said, 'To be honest, Joe, we all know the rules, but nobody has really been pushing them very hard where we’ve been,'" Matheny said afterward. "'And I just figured you guys would let us know when somebody’s upsetting the apple cart. But up to that point, I’m not going to make guys overly conscious about it.'"
Matheny said he actually appreciated West taking the time to mention there was an issue and to point out hitters who need to change their habits, because down the road, this won’t be dealt with quite so casually.
"It’s good for us to know," Matheny said. "Just tell them to cut it out [because] the league will be watching."
The other big pace-of-game rule that very few players seem to be aware of this spring is that pitchers don’t have to wait until the between-inning timer ticks down to zero before they throw a pitch. In fact, they’re allowed to deliver that first pitch with 20 seconds left on the clock. But pitchers routinely have been staring at the timer until it reaches zero before going to work.
"Actually," Matheny said, "if they wait till zero, they’re in violation."
But Matheny thinks this is a matter for individual conversations, not major team meetings. And while he makes a point to say his team agrees "100 percent" with what baseball is aspiring to accomplish, he also believes it will be more important to address the new rules in a couple of weeks than instead of right now.
"We just haven’t made a big deal of it," he said. "Once we get our team closer to what it’s going to look like, we can talk about exactly how the rules are going to apply to the major league team.
"Right now, we’ve got a bunch of guys [who are going back to the minor leagues], and the last thing I want them worried about is the clock. You know, this might be their only chance to come out here and pitch. And it might be their first and last time that they get to pitch in this kind of environment. And I just want them to go out there and do what they’ve got to do. But we’ll have it all tightened up by the time we get going, or by the time we get to that last week of the spring."
The place he went hunting? That comfort zone where his curveball used to reside.
As recently as 2012, according to TruMedia, opponents hit .153/.194/.173/.367 against Price's curveball, with 45 strikeouts and zero home runs. But over the last two seasons, Price began to lose his feel for the pitch, allowing nine homers and a .720 OPS that was nearly double the 2012 opponent OPS against his curve. So it's no wonder that, according to Pitch f/x, Price's curveball usage dropped to a career-low 5.6 percent in 2014, down from 11.5 percent the year before.
Now he's aiming to get that pitch back to where it was.
"I know he worked on his curveball over the winter," said Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. "I feel it's improved. And I know he's really comfortable with it.
"It's something we had talked a little bit about last year," said Jones, who had only two months to work with Price last season after the left-hander was traded from Tampa Bay at the deadline. "And I think David knew he wanted to use his curveball more. He didn't use it as much last year as he had in the past. So I know he wanted to work on it. I've seen him throw a few this spring, and it's really good."
Price tried to fix the curve by altering his grip slightly. And so far at least, it's given him the ability not just to command it but to throw it at varying speeds -- which fits right into Price's larger quest to make himself a more complete pitcher. Other than his curveball issues, he says he felt as if he made his biggest strides yet in that department last season, even though his fastball velocity slipped from 95.5 miles per hour in 2012 to 93.3, according to Pitch f/x.
“I was fine with the way I threw the ball last year," Price said. "I felt like I turned into more of a pitcher. And I feel like I had taken those steps in 2011, '12, '13. I feel like every year I've progressed, in being a better pitcher. Not saying I was just a thrower before. But I definitely got it.
"I understood it when I was out there on the mound, what I needed to do: attacking different hitters and changing speeds, being able to do stuff that way. Trying to get that ground ball when I needed that ground ball. And just understanding different situations on the mound. I feel like I've taken big steps in all those categories. And it makes pitching so much easier."
Price actually got off to the slowest start of his career last year, and had an ERA as high as 4.42 in the last week of May. But in his final 11 starts before the Rays traded him, he went 7-4 with a 1.98 ERA, 99 strikeouts and just 67 hits allowed in 86.1 innings.
“That stretch I had last year was the easiest pitching had ever come to me," he said. "I felt like it was the most dominant I had ever been on the mound. I wasn't throwing 95, 96, 97 [mph] like I was in 2012. But I learned how to pitch. And that's something everybody is going to go through in their career. Nobody is going to stay that flamethrower for the duration of their career. If they do, they won't have a very long career. So I feel like that was a very good period for me to go through, to make sure I could adjust on the fly."
And now, as Price heads into his first full season as a Tiger (and last before he hits free agency), he's trying to adjust yet again.
"That's a quality of the great pitchers," Jones said. "They're never complacent with what they have. They're always trying to get better. And I think David definitely falls in that category. I know time will tell, but I think David's going to have a great year."
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When you've had yourself a magical October moment, life is never quite the same. And here's the latest, greatest living proof:
Last Oct. 12, in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Kolten Wong had his very own life-changing moment in October. Perhaps you remember it. He sure does.
What he did that night was something Albert Pujols never did, something Stan Musial never did, something Mark McGwire never did -- hit a game-winning, game-ending postseason home run for the St. Louis Cardinals. The videos show us it eventually came back to earth. But in Kolten Wong's mind, it never will.
"Just the memories I'm going to take from that are unbelievable," the Cardinals' second baseman said Wednesday, still riding the kind of wave very few people on earth ever get to ride. "To this day, it's still kind of surreal that I did that."
When you're 24 years old and you've been watching October baseball games all your life, those walk-off homers are something other people do. Not you.
Big Papi ... Derek Jeter ... David Freese. They do stuff like this. But not 5-foot-9 rookie second basemen. Not people like Kolten Wong.
So late that night, very late, long after he'd floated around the bases and remembered to touch home plate with the winning run, he found himself standing next to his fiancee, Alissa Knoll, a smile frozen on his face.
"What's wrong?" she asked the man in the trance beside her.
"I don't believe I just did that," he said.
And five months later, he still doesn't totally believe he did that. But he's learned something in these last five months. He's learned that moments like that leave an indelible impact. And not just on the guy who swung the bat.
He went home to Hilo, Hawaii, after the season. And he noticed something about his dad, Kaha Wong, his lifelong hitting coach and a onetime minor league super-utility man who played at Southern Cal with Randy Johnson and McGwire.
Turned out Kaha Wong just couldn't stop watching that walk-off home run flying through the Missouri night, via the miracle of YouTube. And who could blame him?
"At night, when he'd come home from work, he'd be sitting down watching TV," Kaha Wong's son recalled. "And then I'd see him with an iPad in his hand. Like he'd turn the volume off and I'd see him watching it. He loved it. And as a son, that's what you want. You want your dad to be proud of you. And for him to finally get that, that was pretty cool."
But it wasn't only him. It seemed at times, said Kolten Wong, as though the entire population of Hilo had hit that home run.
"Everywhere I went," he said, "everyone was coming up to me, telling me good job, asking for pictures. Little kids were coming up to me with my jersey on their back. It's pretty cool just to be from a small town and see how everyone gets behind you when you're on the big stage."
But moments like that aren't life-changing merely because they make you famous. They're life-changing because you never again go to the plate wondering if you have those talents inside of you.
"I think you look at two players -- between him and Michael Wacha the year before," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "Both guys kind of got thrown into everybody's living room overnight [thanks to October success] and all of a sudden became what everybody pictures as a fixture in the organization. And I know in their minds they still have a lot to prove. I just think it helps to put to rest that process of proving that they belong here."
Of course, Wacha's rise to stardom, a year after he'd taken a postseason no-hitter into the eighth inning in the 10th big league start of his life, was rudely interrupted last season by a rare injury to the scapula bone in his pitching shoulder. But he has looked both healthy and dazzling this spring.
And now Wong, in his big spring The Year After, has learned not to sweat the small stuff, like his 1-for-12 start at the plate in the slightly overrated Grapefruit League batting race.
"I'm excited," he said. "Excited to be out here. Excited to get going. Knowing that I can play at this level. I'm not worried if I can handle things. I'm not worried if I'm overmatched. I know I can play at this level. And I know I'm a big league baseball player. So definitely, my confidence level has changed for this season. And I'm definitely excited to play and have fun this year, and not worry about who I'm facing or the big name that's coming in."
But Wong's confidence, and the Cardinals' confidence in him, are more than just a product of one swing in October. This is, after all, a guy who hit 11 home runs after July 1 last season -- as many as Miguel Cabrera. And he was one of only four players in the whole sport who reached double figures in both homers and steals after July 1. Maybe you've heard of the others: Jacoby Ellsbury, Ian Desmond and Carlos Gomez.
Also, despite a gruesome .225/.276/.268 start that got him sent to the minor leagues in late April, Wong finished the season as one of just two second basemen in baseball with double figures in home runs and at least 20 steals. Brian Dozier was the other. And Wong was only the second Cardinals second baseman to do that since (ready for this name?) Frankie Frisch in 1928. The other was Delino DeShields in 1997.
Then came October, when Wong didn't just launch that long ball. His first seven hits of the postseason were all extra-base hits -- three homers and four doubles. And that tied a postseason record set 27 years earlier by Greg Gagne.
So Kolten Wong made an impression with three months of eye-popping work, not one freeze-frame moment. And his team expects that to resonate over the season to come.
"I think he just proved to himself, as much as everybody else, that he's got the potential to do some pretty special things," Matheny said. "He's got the good components of the speed, the power, the athleticism and just the excitement he brings as a player. And to be able to do that in October, when the heat's turned up and with all the outside distractions, that's got to be very encouraging."
Just one year ago, by his own admission, Kolten Wong tiptoed nervously through spring training, trying to prove he was a major league player. Not anymore. He's left his mark, on postseason history and on his own self-assurance. And he knows exactly how much that's changed everything about him.
Asked Wednesday whether his magical October had allowed him to do anything this spring that he couldn't do last spring, he flashed that ever-present smile one more time.
"Yes," he said. "Enjoy it."
Suppose the Detroit Tigers had to start the season with no Miguel Cabrera and no Victor Martinez. Maybe for just a couple of weeks. But maybe for longer. The prospect hung over the Tigers’ president, CEO and general manager like a polar vortex.
“It was not a refreshing feeling,” Dombrowski laughed about it Thursday morning, as not much more refreshing 42-degree temperatures and 20-mile-per-hour winds whipped through Joker Marchant Stadium, on the day Tigers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.
• He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if Cabrera, who is coming off ankle surgery, “put up the biggest numbers this year that he’s ever put up.”
• Martinez is making such good progress following knee surgery this month that Dombrowski predicted, confidently, “He’ll be ready” by Opening Day.
• And Dombrowski said that after reading all the dire predictions and projections for a team that has dominated its division for the last four years, he has concluded, “I don’t think people know how to look at our team.”
So why does he feel that way? Here’s how the GM explained his reasoning behind all those proclamations.
The two-time MVP is essentially right on schedule in his recovery from surgery last October to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his right ankle and to repair a fractured navicular bone at the top of the same foot, a surprise injury that the team wasn’t even aware of before the surgery.
The projected recovery time of six months would put Cabrera back in the Tigers’ lineup in mid-April, possibly sooner. But while he wasn’t ready to attach a date to the current prognosis, Dombrowski said Cabrera’s rehab has gone remarkably well, especially considering the extent of his injuries.
After the surgery, Dombrowski said he was “shocked” by the size of the bone chips and the bone spur that were removed, by the surprise navicular fracture and by the fact that Cabrera was still able to bop 52 doubles and hit .313/.371/.524 while playing in so much pain and discomfort.
“I said at the time, 'I don’t know how anybody would ever, ever question, one iota, Miguel Cabrera’s toughness, after what he’s gone through the last couple of years,'” the GM said. “With the core muscle [which Cabrera tore in 2013], I don’t know how he played with that. But then with what he went through this past year, I have no idea how he played with that either. I mean, he was the player of the month in the American League in the month of September.”
But now that Cabrera finds himself on the road to recovery from both of those major injuries, Dombrowski believes the people who think Cabrera is “on the downhill side” of his career before he even turns 32 are going to be in for a shock.
“I don’t buy that at all,” Dombrowski said. “The people who say that, they don’t know the extent of the injuries he played through the last couple of years. Look, I know he’s a big guy, and people talk about the aging process. But they don’t know his drive to excellence and to be a winner. So he plays through these types of injuries. But also, he wants to play at a high level until he’s 40. And he will work hard to do that. He will make adjustments if he needs to.
“I know that at 37 and 38, he won’t be the same as he was at 28 or 29. But if you look at history, even before this era [of performance-enhancing drugs], the premium hitters -- I’m talking about the best hitters -- many of them continued to hit until they were 38 to 40 years old. You start looking at the Ted Williams, the Stan Musials and the Hank Aarons. Well, Miguel Cabrera is in that conversation. So I don’t know why he can’t be a productive hitter till he’s 37, 38, 39. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he isn’t.”
Dombrowski made it clear he’ll be even more surprised if Cabrera doesn’t do some serious raking this year “because really, he hasn’t been healthy the last couple of years.” But the GM made it just as clear that the Tigers also need that to happen -- because Miguel Cabrera “is as valuable as any player in the game.”
As confident as he is in Cabrera’s eventual return to health, Dombrowski said he’s even more confident that Martinez will be fine by Opening Day.
After Martinez had surgery Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus, doctors projected his recovery time at four to six weeks. So “even if he’s on the long end of that recovery time, which would be six weeks, that would still give him the last two weeks of spring training” to get ready for Opening Day, Dombrowski said.
If Cabrera isn’t ready by the opener, that would at least make Martinez available to hold down first base until Cabrera is healthy. But unlike last year, when the Tigers occasionally let Martinez catch during interleague games to keep him and Cabrera in the lineup, you won’t be seeing Martinez in shin guards any time soon this year -- if at all.
“We don’t plan on that,” Dombrowski said. “We were even debating, as it was, how much we would have Victor catch. Who knows, later in the season. But we only play 10 interleague games [in NL parks], and three of them are the second week of the season, at Pittsburgh. So I’m sure he won’t be catching those games.”
And what happens if both Cabrera and Martinez suffer setbacks in their recoveries this spring and neither is ready to start the season? “To be determined,” Dombrowski said.
The Tigers' demise
Dombrowski said he tries to ignore all the skeptics who look at his team and ask, “Are the Tigers done?” But obviously, he hasn’t been able to ignore all that talk -- because he feels a need to respond to the folks who don’t “know how to look at our team.”
One reason, he said, is health. He ticked off all the significant players who are working their way back from major injuries: Cabrera, Martinez, shortstop Jose Iglesias, reliever Bruce Rondon and two of his most important starters, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
“Hey, those are six big guys,” Dombrowski said. “But my instincts have always been pretty good about those guys, when you talk to the medical people. You put those six guys in, and you put them in playing real well, that’s a lot different club.”
The other reason, he said, is that this team has had an unusual amount of roster turnover, dating to last year’s trading deadline. And he isn’t sure the critics have gone all the way back to last July in their evaluations of what the Tigers have set out to do -- particularly in the way they look at the starting rotation.
“I keep hearing that [new acquisitions] Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene are replacing [Max] Scherzer and [Rick] Porcello,” he said. “Well that’s not true. David Price is replacing Scherzer. That’s why we got David last July. So if people are saying that Simon and Greene are not as good as Scherzer and Porcello, that’s not what we’re asking them to do.”
So what he sees is a team that has, in effect, added key pieces like Price, Joakim Soria, Iglesias, Rondon, Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes -- none of whom were around last year at this time -- and he likes this group’s chances.
Now if the jury is out everywhere but Lakeland and Detroit, “I understand that,” Dombrowski said. But his strong words, on the day his 2015 edition reported to spring training, made it clear exactly what the architect of this team really thinks is about to unfold in the long, and hopefully warmer, months ahead.
But there’s one category in my survey that didn’t make it into the main piece. I asked the 35 executives who responded to nominate an event or story that they thought summed up the baseball winter. Those results are always highly entertaining. So I thought you’d enjoy seeing some of the responses:
TRANSACTION FEVER -– A half-dozen execs weighed in on the insane, almost exhausting pace of activity this winter, especially all of the major trades involving names as prominent as Josh Donaldson, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Ben Zobrist and Jeff Samardzija, among others. “It appears that the entire industry, with the exception of maybe three to five teams, is in a definitive win-now mode,” said one exec.
THE PADRES –- You might have noticed that the San Diego Padres had a few things on their plate. And it wasn’t just what they did. It was all the stuff they tried to do. One exec’s summation of what most amused him this winter: “The Padres pursuing every player on the planet.”
DAN DUQUETTE -– Last we checked, Duquette was still running the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball-operations department. But for two months this winter, that wasn’t such a sure thing, because the Toronto Blue Jays were openly trying to hire him as their team president (a job that Paul Beeston wasn’t aware was vacant, by the way), and Orioles owner Peter Angelos was openly trying to make that as difficult as possible. Has there ever been a tug-of-war over any executive that went that public and dragged on that long -– between teams in the same division, no less? It’s tough to remember one.
JAMES SHIELDS -- How the heck did it take this guy more than three months to find a team? That still amazes many, many people in the industry. Did agent Page Odle frighten teams away with his steep asking price? Did “something happen,” as several execs have suggested? Maybe a blowup between the agent and an early pursuer that never leaked out? A medical red flag, possibly? Or were Shields and Odle simply waiting around for a specific opportunity that never came? Whatever. When a free agent this attractive goes unsigned for this long -– and he isn’t a Scott Boras client –- it’s a source of endless fascination for one and all.
OTHER STUFF -– And then there was the vast potpourri of other entries that were literally all over the map but just as revealing. Here’s a sampling of those fun nominations:
• The passing of the commissioner's torch from Bud Selig to Rob Manfred –- and everything that entails.
• Joe Maddon’s opt-out escape from Tampa Bay that turned him into the face of the Chicago Cubs.
• Two years after Wil Myers and Shields were traded for one another, they wind up as teammates in San Diego. Amazing how the world spins.
• The Phillies finally getting the memo that it’s time to blow it up and start over. But apparently that’s going to take a while.
• The fascinating offseason approaches by three really bright front offices in Oakland, the L.A. Dodgers and Boston: What was Billy Beane up to this time? What do we make of the dawn of the Andrew Friedman era at Chavez Ravine? And was it a good idea for the Red Sox to introduce Hanley Ramirez to the Green Monster? We’re about to find out.
• The beginning of the íViva Cuba! era, with ramifications stretching from the White House to Yoan Moncada’s house.
• The realization by front offices everywhere that the age of parity is here. Other than the Nationals, wondered one GM, did any team really separate itself in any division? Um, no, actually. There might be 25 teams with legit playoff aspirations. And you can’t beat that.
• And finally, the tweet of the winter, from pitcher Andrew Heaney, who started the offseason as a Marlin, ended it as an Angel and spent a glorious half-hour or so in between as a Dodger before getting traded again. His unforgettable contribution to Twitter lore afterward:
Yup. It's that time again.
Time to use another Super Bowl as an excuse to write maybe my favorite piece of the entire year -- the one in which I get to hold that (cough, cough) paragon of parity, the NFL, up to the blinding light of reality and find (gasp) that pretty much everything the NFL has worked so tirelessly to make you believe (that every darned team has a chance to win every darned year) is a bigger myth than the Loch Ness Monster. Whoah. Who knew?
But, meanwhile, unbeknownst to humankind (or at least the portion of humankind that doesn't read the MLB page on ESPN.com), it's actually baseball that has created a playing field on which just about everyone has a shot to live the postseason dream.
It's even become downright hilarious that every year, when I write this opus, people who don't believe in actual facts start ripping on me as if I'm making this stuff up just because I cover baseball. So let us repeat:
Everything you are about to read is true. Factual. Indisputable. Much as the NFL would love to dispute it. So, ready for that truth parade? Here we go:
• First off, I'd like to thank the Patriots and Seahawks for playing this Sunday, because they’re making this way too easy for me to expose the fiction that permeates the popular wisdom about these two sports.
In football, that popular wisdom goes, "anything can happen." In baseball, on the other hand, it's, "the same teams win every year." Oh, really? Well, let's look more closely at this Super Bowl and see how true that is.
• Let’s start with the Seahawks, a team that hasn’t played in a Super Bowl since, whaddayaknow, the last one. If they win, they would uphold a rich tradition of repeat Super Bowl champs. They’d be the ninth repeater in the Super Bowl era and the fifth in the just past 35 years.
All right, ready for a list of all the repeat World Series winners in baseball over those past 35 years? Here we go:
Blue Jays 1992-93
Hold it. That's all? Yup. That's all -- even in a sport in which "the same teams win every year."
• Now let's move along to the Patriots. What a heartwarming story to find them in the Super Bowl, with or without their deflated footballs. Who ever would have guessed they've now played in nearly half of the past 14 Super Bowls (six of 14)?
Over in baseball, on the other hand, the only example you'll find of anything like that in modern times is (who else?) the Yankees, who showed up in six of eight World Series from 1996 to 2003.
Now I'm not going to pretend that the Yankees' dominance thing never happened. But (A) I need to remind you the Yankees' run also inspired an influx of more significant revenue sharing, which has changed the sport and B) even that streak was an aberration. I can verify that for you, if you'd like.
So how many teams besides those Yankees have played in six out of 14 World Series at any point in basically the past half-century? That would be none. It hadn't happened before that since the 1955-66 Dodgers and 1957-64 Yankees were doing it pretty much concurrently. Of course, back then. the same teams really did win every year. But there were also only 16 of them (at least when those streaks began).
Meanwhile in the NFL, aka the Anything Can Happen League, here's what has actually been happening:
• Boy, thank heaven the same teams don't win every year in football because -- oh wait, did somebody say the Patriots are in the Super Bowl?
Hey, of course, they are -- because over in the wide-open AFC, the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Ravens and Steelers play in pretty much every Super Bowl.
Go check this out if you don't believe me, but I swear this is true: Just those five teams have represented the AFC in the past 12 Super Bowls in a row. Yeah, 12. And 17 of the past 19. Seriously.
Luckily, the NFL has totally mastered the art of parity, so you Jaguars fans, take heart. Your fine squad can expect to stampede into one of these Super Bowls any decade now.
• But at least anything can happen in the rounds leading up to the Super Bowl, right? Except that -- uh oh, hold on a second -- it turns out that pretty much the same stuff keeps happening year after year. Just take a look at the NFL's final four playoff teams. How 'bout this group of upstarts:
The Patriots -- who have made the playoffs six years in a row and 11 of the past 12.
The Seahawks -- who have made it four of the past five years and nine of the past 12.
The Colts -- who have been a playoff team in 12 of the past 13 years.
The Packers -- who have been there six seasons in a row, seven of the past eight, 11 of the past 14 and 17 of the past 22.
So think about this. In a league in which (ahem) anything can happen, those four teams have made 21 playoff appearances in the past six years (the maximum possible would have been 24) and 40 times in the past 12 years (the max would have been 48).
Hmmm. I don't know why, but I'm guessing that if you look up "parity" in one of those online dictionaries, you won't find a link to this blog post.
• Well then, obviously, that parity is showing up in other ways. Yeah, that's the ticket. So let's search for it in the other four playoff teams in the NFL's final eight, among which we find (oh, noooo):
The Ravens -- a playoff team in six of the past seven seasons and seven of nine.
The Broncos -- a playoff team four years in a row and 11 of the past 19.
The Panthers -- a playoff team for the second straight year.
The Cowboys -- a playoff team for the first time since 2009 but also a playoff team in 13 of the past 24 years.
Wait. Really? Oops.
• Then again, that might have something to do with this: The NFL has eight divisions. And you know who won six of them? The same team that won the year before. And the two who missed -- the Bengals and Eagles -- were literally a bounce of the ball away from making it eight out of eight. Parity at its finest and shiniest, wouldn't you say?
• But finally, it doesn't seem fair to just look at this season when we have so many other parity-filled seasons to choose from. Did you know that if we look at the past 30 Super Bowls, you can find nine teams in the NFL that have played in, well, none of them?
And that more than half the teams in the sport (17 of 32, to be exact) have avoided winning any of them?
And that, no matter who wins Sunday, a mere eight teams will have combined to win 24 of the past 30 Super Bowls?
Gosh, you can't beat that for never-ending, unpredictable madness, can you?
• So how does the NFL's sparkling record compare with baseball's? Glad you asked.
First of all, there’s this: All but six baseball teams have played in at least one of the past 30 World Series, and 17 teams have won one. No matter how you do the math, at least 12 teams have divvied up the champagne in 24 of the past 30 World Series, even though the Yankees have won five of them all by themselves. How'd that happen in a sport in which the "same teams win every year?"
• OK, OK. I know what you're thinking: What about the Giants, who have won three of the past five World Series? And how is the AFC so different than the National League, in which the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies have represented the NL in the past seven World Series and nine of the past 11?
Well, obviously, it's not that different. It's not my thing to pretend it is. But I bet I can still make the case that baseball has at least as much parity as the Anything Can Happen League, and here's how:
• Let's start with how much turnover there is in the makeup of teams that reach the playoffs in any given year. Here's a little chart for you from the past six seasons, listing the number of teams that made the playoffs after missing them the year before (see table on right).
• So digested all that yet? I can help. This makes five years in a row in which baseball has flukily had a better percentage of new playoff teams than the National Parity League. No kidding.
And you'd have to go all the way back to 2005 to find a season in which more than half of the baseball playoff field was comprised of teams that had been there the previous year.
Want to compare percentages over those nine seasons? No, you don't. In the NFL, 58.3 percent of all playoff teams were repeaters from the year before. The percentage in baseball: 39.7. Oops.
• Over the past 10 seasons, 90 percent of the franchises in baseball have made the postseason. That's 27 of 30 (everyone but the Marlins, Blue Jays and Mariners.)
In the NFL over the same span, just 87.5 percent have made the playoffs. That would be 28 of 32 (everyone but the Rams, Bills, Raiders and Browns).
Yeah, that seems pretty close, except for one thing: The NFL has had nearly 40 percent more playoff spots available to be won in those 10 seasons (128) than baseball has had (86). So you probably won't find that note in any NFL parity presentations, either.
• In the NFL, it's truly the land of extra-special opportunity, since even minor technicalities such as, oh, having a winning record aren't always necessary. The NFL has now had two playoff teams in the past five seasons that actually lost more games than they won, whereas baseball has had zero losing teams participating in its postseason since the invention of postseasons. Just thought I'd mention that.
• Another amusing myth about baseball is that only teams with money can win. Which makes total sense -- other than the fact that five of the nine teams with the highest Opening Day payrolls missed the playoffs in 2014. Three of them finished last (Red Sox, Rangers, Phillies.) And of the teams with the 12 highest Opening Day payrolls, exactly one of them (the Giants) even won a series in October. Just two (Giants and Nationals) even won a postseason game. So, er, never mind on that money theory.
• Finally, let's face it, friends. When people try to tell you "the same teams win every year" in baseball, you know what they're really talking about, right? The Yankees.
Yeah, the Yankees sure win every year nowadays, don't they? Other than the fact that they've played in one of the past 11 World Series, that is, and that, in seven of the past 10 seasons, they haven't won a single postseason series.
So there you go. I think it's clear there is, in fact, an Anything Can Happen League. I just have one question: Are you sure it's the league you thought it was?
And that’s still being teamless on Super Bowl Sunday.
Well, Super Bowl Sunday is approaching. And the baseball unemployment lines are still way too long. So either that means Congress is going to have to pass a baseball-jobs bill (ho ho ho) or we’re going to have to take action here -- by churning out the latest, annotated edition of our All-Unemployed Team:
Hey, pickings are slim. It’s not a great time to go infielder-shopping, OK? At first base, my options basically came down to Branyan, who spent most of last season playing for los Toros de Tijuana, or Lyle Overbay, who was last seen (or heard) leaning toward retirement. Or there’s Greg Dobbs, who went 7-for-41, with one extra-base hit and a .381 OPS, last year. So what the heck. Always fun to have Russell Branyan on your team, even if he hasn’t had a big league hit since 2011.
Second base ought to be Yoan Moncada's spot. But since he still hasn’t been cleared to go team-shopping, the State Department tells me I’m down to Ellis, Rickie Weeks, Rafael Furcal or Pick A Utility Dude from a list that includes Robert Andino, Tony Abreu, Mike Fontenot, Brandon Hicks, Jayson Nix, Elliot Johnson and Brent Lillibridge. I took Weeks in my Twitter version of this team last week, so I’ll mix it up and go with Ellis this week.
But wait. Why not Beckham, you ask? Because I need him to play third. Somebody has to do it on this team, even if we shift a lot.
And at short? How could we not trot Cabrera out there? The alternatives are Ronny Cedeno, Omar Quintanilla, Ray Olmedo and Mike McCoy. Any debate here? Great. Let’s move on.
Once Ichiro Suzuki, Jonny Gomes and Colby Rasmus signed, I no longer needed to consult any advanced metrics to pick the outfield on this team. The alternatives: Ryan Doumit, Eric Young Jr., Scott Hairston and a bunch of six-year free agents you don’t need to hear. Anybody want to lobby for EY Jr. or, say, Mike Baxter? Feel free. But our All-Unemployed Team front office was pretty much unanimous on this one.
The rest of the lineup
My DH selection came down to Giambi, who still wants to play, or Manny Ramirez, who is still Manny, or somebody like Weeks, who got squeezed out at another spot. I don’t know if Giambi could stay healthy enough to play more than, like, 35 games, but whatever. He’s got “All-Unemployed DH” written all over him.
At catcher, hey, take your pick: Molina, Geovany Soto, Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves, Humberto Quintero, Kelly Shoppach. But here’s the deal: I’m in favor of keeping all the Molina brothers on the planet playing until they’re at least 52. So Jose, go frame some borderline strikes.
I’m not sure what Shields is doing hanging out with the rest of this rotation, but I’ve already covered that. And I really can’t understand why nobody will give Young a big league deal, either. Heck, the Mariners won as many games when he started last year (17) as they did when Hisashi Iwakuma started.
But after those two, I’m basically throwing darts. If I could jump in a time machine, I’d run Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Randy Wolf and Bruce Chen out there. But since that isn’t an option, I’ll take Correia, Kendrick and Saunders. You can have Roberto (Don’t Call Me Fausto) Hernandez, Paul Maholm and Brandon Beachy. Or Eric Stults, Freddy Garcia and Scott Baker, for that matter. I’ll take my chances.
- Francisco Rodriguez
I’m not sure how often the rest of my team will allow my bullpen to take a lead into the seventh inning. But I like my chances if that ever happens. This is actually a respectable bullpen, which is more than I can say for most of this roster. And if you don’t like this group, it’s insane how many other options there are out there to choose from.
Ready for just a partial list of other relievers left on the buffet line? Brian Wilson, John Axford, Joba Chamberlain, Mike Adams, Carlos Villanueva, Dustin McGowan, Matt Lindstrom, Chris Perez, Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, Matt Capps, Jared Burton, Joe Beimel, Ronald Belisario and Jose Veras.
Granted, your reaction might well be: “Those guys weren't any good last year.” To which I’d say: Maybe, but given the year-to-year dependability coin flip with modern relief pitchers, you’d have a better shot signing a bunch of guys who had lousy years than guys who had breakthrough years. I’d argue the law of averages would actually be with you on that. Then again, there’s an excellent reason that the only team I’m allowed to be the general manager of is the All-Unemployed Team.
The rest of the roster
Finally, any team like this needs extra-special attention to detail. I think I’ve got that covered:
- Facial Hair Coach – Brian Wilson
Dreadlock Coach – Manny Ramirez
Shirt Tuck Fashion Coach – Rafael Soriano
Guitar Picking Coach – Barry Zito
Poetry Coach – Will Rhymes
You can't measure seven years in baseball with a yardstick, a ruler or even Altuves. So we're here to measure it in a different way. (You're welcome.)
Seven seasons ago -- that would be in 2008, if you’re not calculating along at home -- 13 pitchers showed up on at least one ballot in the Cy Young voting. Six of them are retired now (Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Ryan Dempster and Brandon Webb).
Of the other seven, Daisuke Matsuzaka is headed back to Japan, Johan Santana hasn't won a big league game since June of 2012, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee spent a combined 200 days on the disabled list last year and, while his team was winning the World Series, Tim Lincecum was starting as many games last October as Juan Marichal.
And that leaves two others, Ervin Santana and Francisco Rodriguez, who are, amazingly, still alive and well. But they also have changed teams a combined seven times since then.
So would you give a seven-year contract to any pitcher?
That's a decision the Washington Nationals had to make this week. We know now what they concluded. What we don't know is how these next seven years, for their newest ace, Max Scherzer, will turn out. But we can sure guess.
And we can sum up that guess in four words: Good luck on that.
"We've gone through this a lot," said one executive whose team has pursued big-ticket free-agent starters. "And there's just a massive risk in these kinds of deals. Massive."
And that's just a general assessment -- of any deal like that, for any pitcher -- coming from a team that will admit to making offers of five years and up for other aces, despite that risk.
We'll get into the factors that make Scherzer in particular a gamble later. But first, let's see what history tells us about contracts this long.
According to ESPN's trusty Stats & Info gurus, Scherzer is the seventh free-agent pitcher in history to agree to a deal of seven years or longer. Here's a look at the other six, ranked from best to worst:
The Dodgers got two fabulous seasons from Brown right out of the chute (31-15, 2.80 ERA, 68 starts, 154 ERA-Plus). But then came those final five seasons, in which he made more than 22 starts just once and spent the final two years of both his contract and career with the Yankees. And we'd still rank this as the best of all of these deals.
CC SabathiaContract details: 7 years, $161 million*. Years: 2009-2015. Age in first season: 28. Total WAR: 21.6. (*Opted out of contract after 2011 and signed five-year extension with Yankees.)
We actually should use multiple asterisks to assess this contract. For one thing, Sabathia opted out of it. For another, it would still be a work in progress even if he hadn't. If he contributes anything at all this year, he'd move up to first on this list in total WAR. And regardless, you could still argue he should rank above Brown, because CC's first three seasons as a Yankee were so dazzling (59-23, 3.18, zero missed starts, one World Series parade, 138 ERA-Plus).
But obviously, those seven years in total are not ending well. Sabathia is 32-23, 4.21, over the past three seasons, with four trips to the disabled list and a bunch of question marks heading into this year.
One thing you can say for Zito: He kept showing up for work. Other than 2011, when a foot issue sent him to the disabled list twice, he didn't miss a turn (not voluntarily, anyway) in any of his other six seasons. That -- and his save-the-season masterpiece in Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS -- would be the good news. The bad news is, his ERA was north of 4.00 in every one of his seven seasons. And his ERA-Plus of 87 tied Edinson Volquez for second worst (ahead of just Livan Hernandez, at 85) among all pitchers who made at least 140 starts in those seven years. Which could have something to do with why Zito often shows up in those Worst Contract Ever debates.
At least Zito will always have Hampton to keep him company on those Worst Contract Ever lists. Let the record show Hampton did make the All-Star team in Year 1 in Colorado (despite a 5.41 ERA). And he was a definite offensive upgrade, over just about any pitcher on earth. (He hit .315/.329/.552/.881, with 10 homers, in his two seasons as a Rockie. Really.) But his day job? That didn't go too well. He had a 5.36 ERA in his time in Colorado. It took one of the wildest, we'll-pay-you-zillions-to-take-the-guy-off-our-hands, three-team trades in history to get him out of town. And while Hampton had his moments in Atlanta in 2003-04, he also missed over 100 starts (including two full seasons) over the final four years of this deal. And his kids never did fall in love with that Colorado school system, either, by the way.
Wayne GarlandContract details: 10 years, $23 million. Years: 1977-1986. Age in first season: 26. Total WAR: 0.7.
Granted, Garland signed this deal in a very different time and a very different place, for very different moolah. (Just so you know, if you adjust for inflation, his contract would have been worth $89.85 million in current dollars.) But it was still quite the disaster. Garland went 28-48 for the Indians, with a 4.50 ERA and an 89 ERA-Plus. And the highlight of his career in Cleveland was losing 19 games in Year 1. After that, he made a total of 50 starts, never made more than 20 starts in any other season and pitched zero innings over the final five years of his deal. So, um, that went well.
If you were assigning a grade to this deal, it would have to be incomplete. Wouldn't it? Tanaka is only heading into Year 2. But he missed almost half a season in Year 1. And he's still pitching with a partially torn ligament in his elbow. So as awesome as he was before he got hurt, he's the living definition of "massive risk." If all goes well, Tanaka will opt out in just three years (which means the Yankees will have been on the hook for $27 million a year, counting the posting fee, even if he winds up missing 12 to 18 months with Tommy John surgery). And if all doesn't go so well? Uh-oh. There's another six years and $133 million left on the books, no matter what.
OK, so what have we learned from reviewing those six deals? Well, "buyer beware" would pretty much cover it. And that goes not just for these contracts, but for the seven-year extensions for Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw which are currently in progress.
"Hey, at least Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet," said one NL exec. "And the planet is a big place."
But that doesn't make him any less risky, on this or any other planet. And Scherzer is no exception, no matter how Scott Boras wants to spin it.
Executives of three different teams reminded us that the reason the Diamondbacks traded Scherzer -- five years ago -- was specifically because they were convinced he was going to break down. And even though they've turned out to be wrong, obviously, over the past five years, are they going to be wrong over a period that now has to span 12 years? History says that's highly unlikely.
We've also had front-office men from a number of clubs tell us this winter that they believed Jon Lester (who got six years, $155 million from the Cubs) was a better bet to hold up physically, and adjust as his stuff changes, than Scherzer is.
"I actually think Lester is a pretty unique case," said another NL executive. "His delivery is awesome. He's got great pitchability. And he's exactly the kind of guy who could lose a tick [in velocity] and reinvent himself if he has to will himself to do that."
"What makes Scherzer great now is that his fastball is so intimidating," said an AL exec. "But he's going to start losing some of that velocity. So does he have the gift to have that second career that all the great pitchers have, to win without the same velocity? Honestly, I have more of a problem saying that he does than I do with Lester. Even though he's developed more pitchability over the last couple of years, Verlander and CC both had pitchability beyond their power, too. And they're still having troubles."
This same exec then asked the question that actually planted the idea for this opus: What's the last contract of even six years that worked out -- for any pitcher? Well, we looked. And the correct answer is: Mike Mussina.
Mussina signed a six-year, $88.5 million deal with the Yankees before the 2001 season. He averaged 31 starts and 200 innings a year over those six seasons, making only one trip to the disabled list because of an arm issue, and the Yankees went 114-72 in games he started. So even all these years later, he still looms as the poster boy for "what you hope you find when you do these types of deals," said one GM.
"Look, these contracts are dumb to begin with," said another GM. "Really, only a three- or four-year deal makes sense. Seven or eight is what the players want. So they should come down to five or six, as opposed to seven. But here's the thing: It's all market-based, so you do it. But rationally, from a baseball point of view, it doesn't make sense. And we all know that."
But incredibly, they do it anyhow. They hand out these contracts. They hold their breath. They pray for a parade in the first couple of years. And then they hope they don't have to spend the next five years hearing anyone invoke the name, "Mike Hampton."
This just in: We owe Carlos Delgado an apology.
You think Hall of Fame election week didn't go so hot for Edgar Martinez, or Jeff Kent, or Alan Trammell? Heck, they had an awesome week compared to Delgado.
Of all the victims of this messed up voting system, he's the biggest. This was his first year on the ballot. And his last.
He showed up on the ballot with his 473 homers and .929 career OPS. And 21 votes later, he was waving adios. It takes 5 percent of the vote to live to see another election. He got 3.8 percent. And that'll be a wrap.
Now it may be true that a guy who falls 391 votes shy of election was probably never going to make it to Cooperstown anyway. But whether he was or wasn't, after looking at this for a couple of days, I've come to this conclusion:
Carlos Delgado is the best player in history to get booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after his first year.
There are some excellent contenders for that honor, too: Lou Whitaker, David Cone, Andres Galarraga, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, etc. But it's incredible to think that a guy couldn't make it to even a second ballot after doing all this:
• Hit 30-plus home runs 10 years in a row
Only seven other eligible players in history have even had nine (or more) 30-homer seasons in a row. Four of them -- Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews -- are in the Hall of Fame. The other three -- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro -- all have PED storm clouds hovering over them. But that didn't get any of them sentenced to the one-and-done club. Now did it?
• Have an OPS over .900 for nine years in a row
Only nine other eligible players have ever had an OPS of .900 or better in at least nine consecutive seasons in which they qualified for the batting title. Seven are in the Hall: Gehrig, Foxx, Schmidt, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle. The other two are Bonds and Mike Piazza. No need to get into why they're not Hall of Famers. But at least they're still on the ballot.
• Hit 473 home runs
Before Delgado came along, only three members of the 400-Homer Club were ever one-and-done. The guy with the most homers on that list was Jose Canseco (462), the famous author. The other two were Dave Kingman, who hit 442 homers but didn't even finish with an .800 career OPS, and the underrated Darrell Evans (with 414 homers and 2,223 career hits). Evans was clearly in the argument for Best One-and-Done Player Ever before this week. But not anymore.
• Have a .929 career OPS
Only two players in history finished their careers with an OPS over .900 and got whisked off the ballot after one year. One was Mo Vaughn (.906). The other also got the boot this year -- Brian Giles (.902). Giles is another guy who probably belongs in the Best One-and-Done Players of All Time conversation. But neither Giles nor Vaughn was within 20 points -- or 140 homers -- of Delgado.
• Do a Big Papi imitation
Now obviously, there are lots of differences between the careers of Delgado and David Ortiz. But if we stop Ortiz's career clock right this minute, here's how similar their numbers are:
OK, so Big Papi has October going for him, while Delgado made it to the postseason only once (with the '06 Mets -- and hit .351, with an 1.199 OPS). But at least Delgado wore a glove for all 17 seasons. So while it's way too early to forecast where Ortiz's Hall of Fame candidacy will lead, I'd bet the Green Monster it won't be to a first-ballot exit.
It wasn't so long ago that we'd have looked at a player like Carlos Delgado and said: "He's a Hall of Famer." But sadly, thanks to the Rule of 10 and the way we devalue all the numbers in the era he played in, we now have to look at him and say something else:
The one-and-done team
Before we go, time for a couple of our ever-popular Hall election All-Star teams, starting with one in honor of Carlos Delgado -- the All One-and-Done Team:
1B: Carlos Delgado
2B: Lou Whitaker
SS: Tony Fernandez
3B: Matt Williams
LF: Brian Giles
CF: Kenny Lofton
RF: Moises Alou
C: Ted Simmons
DH: Andres Galarraga
Pinch-hit specialist: Julio Franco
Opening Day starter: David Cone
Closer: Jesse Orosco
Beat writer: Jose Canseco
The all I-got-exactly-one-vote-for-the-HOF team
And, finally, a round of applause for Darin Erstad, ladies and gentlemen. He's the latest and greatest player to add himself to the ever-expanding, prestigious list of guys who got exactly one vote for the Hall of Fame.
That may not get him a plaque in upstate New York. But it will get him a spot on the exalted 2015 edition of this one-vote-and-one-vote-only All-Star team. And as always, it's a club any 124-homer man would be honored to join:
1B: George (Boomer) Scott
2B: Bret Boone
SS: Shawon Dunston
3B: Tim Wallach
LF: David Justice
CF: Darin Erstad
RF: Ellis Valentine
C: Darren Daulton
Starting rotation: Todd Stottlemyre, Kevin Appier, Jose Rijo, Dock Ellis, Dennis Leonard
Bullpen: Mark Davis, Armando Benitez, Jesse Orosco, Steve Bedrosian, Bill Campbell
Broadcast team: Mike Krukow, John Kruk, Ron Darling, Jim Deshaies, Ray Knight