Well, that's the best part of what happened Tuesday night in Washington. It's the best part about round numbers like 500 home runs because they remind us to stop and pay attention. They remind us to take stock of the man who just met the milestone. And when we take stock of Pujols and the path that led him to home run No. 500, you know what we find?
We find a guy who did so much more than just make home run trots. That's what.
How does Pujols compare with the rest of that 500 Homer Club? It's an incredible thing to behold. Let's take a look:
The .300/.400/500/.600 Club
This is one of my favorite sets of numbers because it provides us with one of the most exalted groups of hitters who ever lived. You need:
- .300 batting average or better.
- .400 on-base percentage or better.
- 500 home runs or more.
- .600 slugging percentage or better.
Here are the three men in history who get to hang out in this clubhouse:
- Ted Williams .344/.482/521/.634
- Babe Ruth .342/.474/714/.690
- Jimmie Foxx .325/.428/534/.609
And that's all, folks. Ever heard of them?
Uh, that'll still work. Because here's the thing: Even if we lowered the slugging percentage cutoff to below .600, to whatever The Pujols Line is at any given moment, there would still just be those three men and Pujols.
So maybe the .300/.400/500/.599 Club doesn't have quite the same ring to it as .300/.400/.500/.600. But it's just as rarefied a group.
Now one more thing: I understand that Williams, Ruth and Foxx all had those numbers at the end of their careers, not in the middle. But I've taken a look at the entire 500 Homer Club. And nobody except those three had Pujols' slash line at the time of his 500th. Not even Barry Bonds, who finished his career at .298/.444/762/.607.
So the moral of this story remains the same: Lots of men have hit baseballs over many, many fences. Only the greatest hitters who ever lived have been the all-around offensive forces that Pujols has been. And that's a fact.
Not Your Average 500-HR Man
But suppose we take all those other numbers out of this and focus just on batting average -- which isn't a measure of power at all but merely of a man's ability to hit baseballs where nobody with a glove is standing.
At .321, Pujols has the fourth-highest average in the entire 500 Homer Club -- trailing only those same three men from the previous list: Williams (.344), Ruth (.342) and Foxx (.325).
And just to answer the next logical question, that ranking doesn't change, even if we take final career average out of the equation. He still owns the fourth-best batting average, at the time of his 500th homer, in history. The next-highest, according to Baseball-Reference.com, is .314 -- by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Manny Ramirez.
So is it safe to say there's nothing "average" about Pujols' average, except that word itself?
The Most Striking Stat Of All
Wait. We almost "missed" the coolest stat in Pujols' entire collection. And that's that this man has hardly "missed" at all, especially compared with the rest of his generation: 500 home runs -- but only 843 strikeouts.
In an age when strikeouts have become more common than the seventh-inning stretch, how astonishing is that stat? Well, let's tell you exactly how astonishing. That comes to 1.69 strikeouts for every home run. And you know how many members of the 500 Homer Club can beat that? Exactly one: Ted Williams (1.36).
Now we know that Ted, of course, was a freak. But if we invite in the rest of that 500-homer group, from across the eras, we'd still find only three others with ratios better than two strikeouts per homer. Here's that top five, which, I'm guessing again, won't require you to Google any names:
Whoa. But what do you say, just for further perspective, that we compare Pujols with the other big sluggers of his time. The next man down on the active career homer list is a fellow named Adam Dunn. This isn't fair. But for amusement purposes only, here's how Dunn stacks up against Pujols:
Heh-heh-heh. Get the picture? But even if we take Dunn and the suspended-in-animation Alex Rodriguez (3.17) out of the conversation, Pujols is still whiffing about half as much as the other active members of the 400 Homer Club -- if that:
So in a world where every other masher roaming the planet is shopping at Kmart two or three times a day, Pujols remains a mind-warping anomaly. He still has never struck out 100 times in a season in his career -- 500 homers later.
Five More Fun Pujols 500-HR Facts
• At 34 years, 96 days old, Pujols is the third-youngest player in history to reach 500 homers, trailing only A-Rod (32 years, 8 days) and Foxx (32 years, 337 days).
• Just seven men in history reached 500 homers in fewer at-bats than the 7,390 it took Pujols: Mark McGwire (5,487), Ruth (5,801), Harmon Killebrew (6,671), Sammy Sosa (7,036), Foxx (7,074), Mickey Mantle (7,300) and Mike Schmidt (7,331).
• Only six other hitters whose primary position was first base have hit 500 homers: McGwire, Foxx, Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray and Jim Thome.
• Pujols is the 14th right-handed hitter to join the 500 Home Run Club. He needs 34 more to crash the top 10.
• The pitcher who has allowed the most home runs to Pujols? That would be Ryan Dempster (eight). The pitcher who has faced him the most times without serving up a homer? That would be Bud Norris (*41*). The Cy Young who had nightmares about him? That would be Randy Johnson, against whom Pujols hit .452, with six homers. And the active pitcher who should never be allowed to face Pujols again? That would be Kevin Slowey (two plate appearances, two homers).
The latest episode of baseball's most entertaining reality show -- the Amazing Ace, starring the one, the only, the relentlessly effervescent Jose Fernandez -- will roll into Atlanta on Tuesday night.
If you have a dish, a cable box, a laptop, an iPhone or some other mobile device that can reel in this must-see slice of baseball life, here’s our advice: Carve out the time and watch this guy do his thing.
There's nothing like it -- because there’s no one quite like Jose Fernandez appearing on any big league mound in North America these days.
"He's probably the best pitcher I've ever seen," said his Marlins teammate, closer Steve Cishek. "The most competitive, for sure. He's a lot of fun to watch."
We should probably mention that the opposition doesn't always agree with the "fun" part of that review. You can ask Brian McCann all about it some day. But when the rest of us lay eyes on the Marlins' mesmerizing, 21-year-old ace, here's what we see:
Energy. Confidence. An irrepressible joy in doing what he does. And, ohbytheway, maybe the best stuff in baseball.
So we asked the men around him to tell us their favorite stories of a guy who, just 32 starts into his career, already has ripped off 26 starts allowing two earned runs or fewer (including 13 in a row at one point). And 27 starts allowing five hits or fewer (including 17 in a row). And five double-figure strikeout games (including back-to-back 13-K and 14-K games last summer).
Here are some of those tales:
After Fernandez reached base in a recent start against the Brewers, Marlins manager Mike Redmond saw his ace dancing off second, acting like a guy ready to burst into a Billy Hamilton impression any minute.
"He was on second, and he started to fake like he was going to steal third," Redmond said. "And I said, 'Wait. When a guy's hitting, you've got to stay put out there.' And he was like, 'Well, I was going to steal third. They're giving it to me, and I'm just going to take it.' And this was with two outs. So I said, 'That's not your job. You're not a base stealer.' And this is like in the middle of the game. We're sitting on the bench, and we're having this conversation, and I'm just laughing."
Is that an indication, we asked, that Fernandez thinks there's nothing he can’t do?
"You have to be careful when you talk to him and say, 'You can't do something,'" Redmond chuckled, "because if you tell him, 'Hey, you can't throw this guy a changeup because he's really good at hitting a changeup,' he's going to want to throw him nothing but changeups to try and get him out, just to show you that he can really get him out with changeups.
"When we played the Rockies, we talked about not throwing [Justin] Morneau a lot of changeups. And he ended up throwing about six or seven changeups to him. So you have to be careful of what you say he can't do."
The 92 mph changeup
When most guys throw a pitch 92 miles per hour, it’s their fastball. Possibly their best fastball. When Jose Fernandez hits 92 on the gun, that’s an off-speed pitch.
"There was one pitch," said his catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "where he was facing [Chase Headley] and he threw a changeup. And Headley went, 'Damn, that was a nasty sinker.' And I didn't want to tell him it was a changeup."
The more Saltalamacchia thought about that exchange, the funnier it got. But he still isn't sure whether he should be happy a hitter was that confused about that pitch or worried that his ace was throwing his changeup way too hard.
"I didn't know how to take that," Saltalamacchia admitted, "whether it was a compliment or a bad thing."
But either way, it did fit right in with Fernandez's whole approach to pitching -- and life.
"From the get-go, the guy is pedal on the metal, and he doesn’t let up," Saltalamacchia said. "He's excited. You know how between innings, the umpires give you 2 minutes and 30 seconds [before resuming play]? Well, he's on the mound with like a minute and a half left. You're thinking, like, 'Take your time.' But he hits the gas pedal and he's going. You can't slow him down. You don't want to slow him down. It's just his tempo, and how he works."
The home run off a tee
And then there was the day that Fernandez sucked in a bunch of Marlins position players with a friendly wager -- that turned out to be (what else?) a giant setup.
"He kind of hustled some guys last year betting them that he could hit a home run from home plate off a tee," Cishek said. "And everyone was like, 'There’s no shot.' That's pretty tough to do, right? Now I don't know. I'm not a hitter. But I would imagine it's really hard to do, because all the hitters were like, 'There's no chance.'
"So he got people to jump in on it. And sure enough. First swing. Hit one out of our big park. We all just went nuts. Little did they know that he was practicing all day. It was hilarious just watching him. I was watching him practicing, trying to figure out the angle and everything. So then, when he went in the locker room, to try and get people on board and they bit, it was great."
And what, we asked, was the moral to that story?
"Don't trust anything Jose says," Cishek said, laughing uproariously. "If he says he can do something, take his word for it."
The pregame show
When most pitchers are gearing up to start a game, they withdraw to their own silent planet. Not Jose Fernandez.
"He's unique," Redmond said. "He's not the kind of guy where you come in and he's sitting at his locker with his game face on and you can't talk to him. I mean, he's hitting in the cage, he's bunting in the cage, he's in my office, he's sitting on the couch, he's talking to me about a couple of hitters. Then he's out, and he's back in. He's joking with the guys. He's all over the place. So he's unique. I never played with a guy like that, man. And that's how he is every day. Just that day that he gets the ball, he can't wait. He just really loves to pitch."
But when Fernandez pops into the manager's office before a start, Redmond confessed, he often isn't in there to talk about pitching.
"It could be about hitting," Redmond said. "He'll want to swing at the first pitch all the time, because he thinks that's the pitch that he should be hitting every time. So he'll be like, 'Come on, Red. You've got to turn me loose first pitch.'"
For the record, Fernandez has come to the plate eight times this year -- and swung at the first pitch in half those trips. He has put none of those hacks in play.
Last January, Fernandez was invited to attend the New York baseball writers' dinner, to accept his NL Rookie of the Year award. So naturally, a delegation from the Marlins' front office went with him, and occupied a large table in the ballroom.
So as general manager Dan Jennings recalls it, after Fernandez accepted his award at the podium, he returned to his team's table and told everyone around him: "I want to be up there again next year, too."
And that, of course, could have meant only one thing. He was planning to win the Cy Young this time around. Right?
"Well, I don't think he'll be rookie of the year again," Jennings deadpanned. "He's got that box checked."
We tried to get a report on what opposing hitters say to their buddies on the Marlins after they reach base against Fernandez. But that turned out to be tougher than we'd envisioned.
"Every once in a while, somebody will say something like, 'That's the best stuff I've ever seen,'" said Greg Dobbs, who started 47 games at first for the Marlins last year. "But there haven't been many [of those conversations] -- because there weren't very many guys who got over there. He doesn't give up many hits, you know."
Yeah, good point. Fernandez actually had a higher batting average last season (.220) than the hitters who faced him (.182). But as that shouting match with McCann last year illustrated, Fernandez's flamboyance has been known to light an occasional fire in the other dugout. So his teammates often have some explaining to do -- that their ace doesn't mean any harm. He merely has only one speed on his transmission.
"I don't want to change who he is or what he's doing, but he's young," Saltalamacchia said. "You can see that in the way he handles certain things. He wants to be great. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you've got to understand what the situation is, and when to back off, and when to kind of get going. But right now, he's just kind of got that 100 miles an hour [pace]. And I can't say that's not a good thing, because it obviously works for him."
Cishek echoed that, shaking his head as he said: "Man, he's just in your face. The way he acts out there, he's really not trying to show people up. He just really wants to shut every single [hitter] he sees down. When he gives up a hit, he's mad at himself. For goodness sakes, if we're shagging in BP, he likes to power-shag out there. If he drops a ball, he's screaming at himself and everything. He's just a perfectionist."
So this is not a guy who even realizes he's firing up the opposition. He's just so talented, so confident and so driven, he expects to strike out about 20 every night.
"Oh, he definitely thinks he could," Cishek said. "I'm telling you. If he gives up a hit, say in the first inning, he's just blown away. He's like, 'Man, I can't believe I just gave up a hit.' That’s what it seems like anyways."
You can understand, then, why he might rub a few hitters the wrong way. But he's becoming a more beloved figure in South Florida every time he goes out there. Look out, LeBron.
"My kids have been around him, this is the second year now," Redmond said. "And my boys woke up Opening Day and they were like, 'Dad, we can't wait to watch Jose pitch tonight.' We’re talking about 13- and 11-year-old kids. And they couldn't wait.
"He's got a lot of people that love him. You see that when he pitches in Miami. The crowds are electric. A lot of people come out to watch him. Like I said last year, he brought a lot of excitement to Miami when we really needed it. And we still need that."
And one thing they've learned about Jose Fernandez in his first 32 trips to a big league mound: If it's excitement you're in need of, he's just the man you’re looking for.
-- Justin Verlander, on Miguel Cabrera
The Best Hitter of All Time, huh?
At the age of (gulp) 30.
So let's think about this, seriously. Is it actually possible that Miguel Cabrera could wind up some day as The Best Hitter of All Time?
Well, there are a bunch of ways to look at that, obviously. So let's consider a few.
Can he catch Pete Rose?
That was Torii Hunter's prediction on the day Cabrera signed that contract: "Pete Rose? He can definitely get there -- and with power," Hunter said.
Uh, wait a second. Miggy turns 31 in a week and a half, and he isn't even halfway to Rose yet, you know. He'd still need another 2,254 hits to get to 4,256. And you don't exactly need both hands and both feet to count up the men who have gotten that many hits after reaching Cabrera's age.
That list contains precisely three names: Rose, Sam Rice and 19th-century hit factory Cap Anson. Miggy already has outhomered the three of them combined.
Here, according to baseball-reference.com's awesome Play Index, is your leaderboard in that department -- Most Career Hits, Starting With Age 31 Season:
1. Rose (1972-86), 2,532
2. Rice (1921-34), 2,350
3. Anson (1883-97), 2,272
4. Honus Wagner (1905-17), 2,043
5. Paul Molitor (1988-98), 1,988
Rose and Anson played to age 45. Rice hung around to age 44. Wagner stuck with it through age 43. Is Cabrera going to do that? Is he going to be healthy enough to do that? Is he going to be motivated enough to do that? Get back to us in a decade, OK?
Incidentally, here are the only six men in the division-play era to get within 500 hits of 2,200 after reaching Cabrera's age: Molitor, Ichiro Suzuki (1,824), Omar Vizquel (1,805), Craig Biggio (1,781), Carl Yastrzemski (1,716) and Dave Winfield (1,711).
Can he catch Barry Bonds?
For the record, Cabrera (366 homers) isn't even halfway to Bonds' home run total (762), or even halfway to Hank Aaron's 755, for that matter. Miggy would need 396 to catch Bonds, 389 to tie Aaron. You think that's happening? I don't.
Here are the only three men to hit 389 home runs or more starting with their age-31 season, according to the Play Index. You may have heard of them.
Babe Ruth, 405
What's interesting here is that the three greatest home run hitters of all time had about the same number of home runs at this age that Cabrera has -- or fewer. Aaron had exactly 366 through his age-30 season. Ruth had 309. Bonds had 308. So clearly, this isn't out of the question. But I'd still take the under. How 'bout you?
Can he catch Hank Aaron?
One more Cabrera prediction from Torii Hunter: "You're talking about a guy [who can get] 4,000 hits and 600-plus home runs. I mean, who does that? Is he human?"
So who does that? Nobody does that. Thanks for asking.
The only two members of the 4,000 Hit Club -- Rose and Ty Cobb -- hit 277 home runs put together. So the gold standard in the Lots and Lots of Hits and Homers Club is Aaron, naturally. You were expecting maybe Juan Pierre?
Aaron is the only player in history to finish with more than 3,500 hits (3,771) and more than 500 homers (755). And Stan Musial (3,630/475) and Yastrzemski (3,419/452) are the only other men to come close.
So here's the deal: To finish with Aaron's career numbers, Cabrera would need another 1,769 hits and another 389 home runs. Think that's easy enough? Guess again.
You know how many hitters have accumulated that many hits and homers after reaching Miggy's age? Not a one. Here's the 1,500-Hit/300-Homer From Age 31 On Club:
And that's that. Close calls: Bonds (1,499/470) and Andres Galarraga (1,503/293).
So what Cabrera would need to do, when you get right down to it, is to basically replicate the second half of Aaron's career -- only better. But in case you never noticed before, the first half of Cabera's career has been eerily similar to the first half of Aaron's career, if you pick the right columns on the old stat sheet anyway.
Check out their numbers, through their age-30 seasons (meaning Cabrera's stats this season aren't included, because he'll play most of this year at 31):
So is Miguel Cabrera really going to wind up as The Best Hitter of All Time? Don't bet the beach house on it. But the more you look at those Hank Aaron numbers, the more you think that fun little Justin Verlander prediction isn't as out of whack as you might have thought the first time you read it. Now is it?
Fun stuff from Week 1:
• "Injury" of the Week: Carlos Gonzalez had to leave the Rockies' game Wednesday in the sixth inning, after, um, swallowing his wad of chewing tobacco and, um, not feeling so hot. Just one more reason not to chew, kids.
• Special K of the Week: Yu Darvish became the fastest pitcher ever to reach 500 career strikeouts Sunday (doing it in 401.2 innings, in just his 62nd start). Best I can tell, the slowest, among all starters in the expansion era, was Vern Ruhle (1,405 innings, over 188 starts and 325 total trips to the mound).
• Box Score Symmetry of the Week: As loyal reader Brian Pollina pointed out, all eight Red Sox who played the full game Sunday went exactly 1 for 4. How cool was that? It's just the eighth time in the last 100 years any team has done that, by the way.
• Home Run Machine of the Week: The Diamondbacks are going to get hot and mess up this note. But just so you know, nobody has ever hit 50 home runs for a team that didn't win 50. But Mark Trumbo has five homers. And the Diamondbacks have two wins. Just sayin'.
• On the other hand Wade Miley had a three-hit game for the D-backs on Sunday. He's a pitcher. Allen Craig has two hits all year (in 22 at-bats). He's one of the best hitters alive. Just sayin'.
• RBI Machine of the Week: Chris Colabello drove in six runs in a game. Chipper Jones never drove in six runs in a game. Ever.
• Hit Machine of the Week: Emilio Bonifacio had accumulated exactly one four-hit game since the 2009 All-Star break. He had a four-hit game and a five-hit game just in the first two games of this season. Baseball is awesome. Isn't it?
• Off the Hook Note of the Week: Felix Hernandez punched out 11 Angels in six innings on Opening Day, but was in line to be the losing pitcher when he departed. Then the Mariners did something miraculous: They scored two runs in the top of the seventh and turned him into the winning pitcher. Just so you know how tough it's been being Felix, he hadn't made a single start in which he left trailing and got a win out of it since Sept. 18, 2009. That was 136 starts ago, if you're counting.
• E-pidemic of the Week: As loyal reader Tom Wilson reports, the Rays' Brandon Guyer inspired a two-for-the-price-of-one sale Friday. Two swings. Two Rangers errors. In one at-bat. Here's how: First, he hit a foul popup that Prince Fielder dropped. That was one E. Then Guyer hit a chopper to third. Adrian Beltre bobbled it and threw late. That was E No. 2. Two errors on two swings. In one AB. You don't see that much.
• Ya Never Know Notes of the Week: OK, who saw this coming: The first multihomer game of the season came from Alejandro De Aza. Gio Gonzalez hit a home run before the Yankees hit one. And Victor Martinez stole a base before Billy Hamilton stole one. Gotta love baseball.
• Sprint Champ of the Week: Finally, scouts at Thursday's Mets-Nationals game clocked Bartolo Colon at 7.8 seconds "running" down the first-base line after a ground ball to short. And history was made. "Slowest time I've ever gotten since I've been doing this," said one scout. "But it really wouldn't shock me if he broke that record again before the season's over.”
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jose Reyes’ brand-new healthy season was fun while it lasted.
All one-half inning of it.
Not only did he not make it through the first game, not only did he not make it through the first inning, he didn't even make it all 90 feet up the first-base line in his first at-bat of the season Monday.
“Reyes fired a sinking line drive to center (which was about to be turned into a spectacular out by the Rays’ Desmond Jennings). He started to accelerate. And then his left hamstring had other ideas.
I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it's painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason. And now, I feel like I don't do anything.” -- Jose Reyes
So here we go again.
For Jose Reyes. And for a Blue Jays team that has been waiting for more than a year now for him to turn the key in their ignition and lead them to the kind of AL East glory that has eluded them for two decades now.
Reyes can’t stay healthy. They can’t stay healthy. And it is starting to wear on both of them.
“Last year, I only played 93 games,” a distraught Reyes said Monday night. “I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it’s painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason.
“And now,” he said, almost in disbelief at what had just happened to him, “I feel like I don’t do anything.”
He had tweaked this same hamstring with a week left in spring training. At the time, he said it was no big deal. And when his manager, John Gibbons, was asked back then what his level of concern was about his leadoff man, Gibbons replied: “Zero.”
But by Monday evening, the manager wasn’t at ground zero anymore.
“We said last year he was the one guy we couldn’t afford to lose,” Gibbons said. “And then sure enough, bam.”
The big “bam” arrived last year just two weeks into the season, when Reyes severely sprained his ankle on an awkward slide into second base. But “bam” time arrived a lot quicker this year. One at-bat. One trip up the line. Bam.
This is Reyes’ ninth trip to disabled list in his career. It is his fifth just because of hamstring issues alone, although his first since 2011. He knows the drill. And he’s tired of it.
“God give me this talent to run,” he said. “And that’s the worst thing that you can get, is to pull a hammy.”
So even when he returns, will the real Jose Reyes return with him? After he came back from last year’s injury debacle, he was thrown out six times in only 13 attempts to steal second base. Two years ago in Miami, he once went more than a month without trying to steal because his legs didn’t feel right.
So what now? Uh, we’ll get back to you on that. But this isn’t good.
And then there’s that Blue Jays team he plays for. They had so many health disasters to deal with last year that they managed to put their projected lineup on the field for only three games all season. They didn’t even make it through the first inning of the first game this season.
“I mean, that’s baseball, man,” Gibbons said. “The train keeps rolling. You’ve just got to deal with it.”
But the AL East madhouse kicked in on Opening Day. And for the Blue Jays, it couldn’t have gone worse. They walked eight batters, hit two more, threw a wild pitch, committed two errors on one play and got manhandled by David Price and the Rays 9-2.
None of that was Reyes’ fault. At least they noticed that.
“Look, we have to find a way to win,” said Opening Day starter R.A. Dickey, after walking six hitters for only the second time in his career. “Without him, without Jose, without whoever else goes down throughout the year, you’ve got to find a way to win. It starts on the mound, and, Jose in the game or not, I didn’t give us a chance to win. That has nothing to do with Jose.”
But that here-we-go-again feeling is one they know all too well. And fighting that feeling -- while navigating the insane minefield of the AL East -- seems a lot harder now than it had felt 24 hours earlier.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Gibbons said. “But it’s never easy. So we’ll find out how good we are. That’s what it comes down to.”
He was coming off the dreaded “core surgery.” He was behind the rest of the pitching staff. We wondered if he’d be ready for Opening Day. We wondered if he’d be the same guy.
How could we ever have doubted? How could we ever have wondered? What were we thinking?
The Tigers’ ace went to the mound Wednesday for his fourth start of spring training. It looked a lot like the other three. By which we mean: domination.
One soft hit allowed in 6 1/3 innings. Zero runs. One walk. Seven strikeouts. What else is new?
So in those four starts he made this spring, he never did get around to allowing a run. Not a one. In only one of the four starts did he even give up more than one hit.
So what would he have said, we asked him, if we’d told him going into spring training that he’d do all that this spring?
“Good,” he said with a laugh.
So that was really what he expected of himself, even coming off surgery?
“It’s what I always expect,” he said simply.
Even after surgery, he never, ever doubted he could be the same guy?
“I don't think you can allow yourself to doubt,” he said. “When doubt creeps in your mind, that leads to failure. You have to look on the optimistic side of things.”
Do those words sum up the greatness of Justin Verlander, or what? Doubt and failure are incomprehensible to him. And unacceptable. It’s what he is. It’s who he is.
He’s 31 now. He has a Cy Young award and MVP trophy in his hardware shop. He is in the second year of the second-largest contract ever awarded to a major league pitcher (seven years, $180 million). And he’s determined to live up to it. This year. Every year.
When someone suggested Wednesday that for the Tigers to be great, he has to be what he’s always been, Verlander made it obvious he never considered not being what he’s always been.
“I don’t think you go into the season with doubt,” he said. “That’s why I worked so hard. After surgery, I worked my butt off to get back. And this spring has been encouraging.”
Encouraging? It’s been amazing. He may not be whooshing the baseball up there at 100 mph anymore. But his command of everything in his repertoire has been ridiculous. He rolled up five of his seven strikeouts on off-speed stuff Wednesday. And he’s been a strike-throwing machine all spring.
So if there were questions six weeks ago about whether surgery would limit him in any way, you don’t hear those questions anymore. Not from Verlander. Not from his manager, Brad Ausmus, either.
“I don’t think the surgery is going to have a major impact on his ability to pitch,” Ausmus said. “I know I’ve spoken to him about it, and he’s completely comfortable about it. He says he doesn’t even think about it anymore. At one point, I was concerned about him making a pickoff throw to second. And I asked him about it. And he said, 'Oh, I’m fine.’ He said, 'I don’t even think about it.’ ... Just the way he had to turn, I was concerned. But my concerns were immediately laid to rest.”
A month ago, Ausmus had said he was convinced that if Verlander could just build up his pitch count this spring, he could “will himself to be Justin Verlander.” And now, it’s clear. That’s exactly what he did.
Asked Wednesday about the strength of that will, Verlander smiled.
“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I’m determined to pitch to my capability.”
Well, 20 scoreless spring innings later, it’s time to ask ourselves again: Why did we ever doubt him?
But here are three star players whose spectacular springs have caught the attention of scouts and belong in another file: "The Real Deal."
Jose Bautista, OF | Toronto Blue Jays
He's your Grapefruit League home run leader (with five). He came into Monday leading the Grapefruit League in slugging (at .778). He's smoking every pitch he sees, at the rate of .356/.455/.778. And the more you see it, the more real it looks. That's great news for a guy whose 2013 season was marred by a hip injury.
"He's been locked in from day one," said one scout Monday, with zero hesitation, when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays' masher.
But by "locked in," we're not just talking about those baseballs Bautista has been pounding into the palm trees. We're talking about a return to the approach that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters in 2010-11, when he was whomping 97 home runs, with more walks (232) than strikeouts (227) and a 173 OPS+.
Over the past two years, as the strikeouts have inched upward and the walks have inched downward, Bautista has found himself seeing more junk and chasing it. So this spring, he's gone to work on fixing that glitch.
"Just working on staying on the ball a little bit longer," said his new hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. "Sometimes, he can get vulnerable to the breaking stuff. He's a tremendous fastball hitter. So we're trying to make a few adjustments with his approach, to give him a little bit better chance, especially with two strikes. That's really the biggest time, when you don't want to just sell out to a fastball, to where you're vulnerable on the secondary stuff."
So what has stood out all spring is that Bautista has put up a series of tough at-bats, and has seemed intent on taking more pitches the other way when the right side of the infield is open, as it so often is in this shift-aholic age he now lives in.
"He's working on it right now," Seitzer said. "I told him, 'There are going to be points in time in the game where you've got that shift on, and we've got a guy on second base with two outs, and as good as you are at handling the bat and shooting that thing that way, just do it. It's a freebie right there.'"
And how conscious has Bautista been of perfecting that approach? In a game Saturday against the Tigers, he reached base four times -- on two walks and two singles to right. If he keeps that up, his hitting coach thinks he's headed for a tremendous year.
"He's very mentally tough," Seitzer said. "He's disciplined. He's put up these numbers before. And I don't see why he can't do it again."
Cliff Lee, LHP | Philadelphia Phillies
On the way to his first Opening Day start since he was in Cleveland, the Phillies left-hander has unfurled five excellent starts, including 11 eye-popping innings (allowing just six hits) against the Red Sox in his past two trips to the mound. Lee is also tied with Lance Lynn for the NL lead in spring strikeouts, with 19 in 19 2/3 innings.
Now it isn't exactly we-interrupt-this-program news that Cliff Lee can pitch a little. But again, this isn't about numbers. This is about approach, and some scouts and Phillies coaches worried that Lee was becoming too reliant on his fastball last season, despite his gaudy stats. That hasn’t been the case this spring.
"He’s back to mixing all his pitches, the way he needs to," said one scout. "He’d gotten too predictable. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, cutter, fastball, fastball. He’s got to use his curve and his changeup more, and he can do it. Otherwise, his fastball is in the strike zone too much, and it gets hit."
"He's really used his change well this spring," said another scout. "I've seen that change a lot, and it's an important pitch for him."
Actually, according to FanGraphs, Lee threw that change on 15.9 percent of all pitches he tossed up there last season, the second-highest percentage of his career. But his curveball use has declined from nearly 11 percent in 2011 to just 7.8 percent last year.
Not coincidentally, Lee's success with that pitch has also declined. It was his best pitch in 2011, when opponents hit just .133/.165/.162 against it, with no homers allowed on any of the 367 curves he threw. But that opponent average has increased the past two seasons, to .193 in 2012 and .236 in 2013.
So this spring, says Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, Lee has been "fairly deliberate about using his curveball a little bit more, depending on how it's feeling for him that day."
McClure said he and Lee "have talked about the perception the hitters have, of using that pitch as part of his arsenal. But the thing about the curveball is, it's a feel pitch. So I think if you throw a few early, you have it later in the game. So he's been mixing it in pretty well."
But McClure wants to make one other thing clear: Cliff Lee isn't broken. So nobody is trying to fix him.
"You look at his stats," McClure said with a laugh, "and it's hard to say to him, 'Hey, you need to completely change.' Are you kidding? But he might be able to use this pitch to offset [all those fastballs] a little bit, depending on the feel for it that he has that game."
Well, we've seen Lee do that before, with Cy Young results. So if he commits to it this year, it could lead him right back to that Cy Young conversation. And whether the Phillies are in a race or in July "sell" mode, a Cliff Lee Cy Young bid would be fine with them.
Jose Fernandez, RHP | Miami Marlins
All the Marlins' favorite phenom has done this spring is remind us how incredibly dominating he was last year, as a 20-year-old jumping all the way to the big leagues from the Class A Florida State League. So how dominating was he? Here's a little refresher course:
• Fernandez had a season last year that ranked No. 1 among all rookies in the live ball era, in adjusted ERA (177), opponent average (.182), opponent slugging (.265) and opponent OPS (.533). And yes, we said all rookies. Over the past nine decades. Yikes.
• Another way to look at it: His team went 18-10 when he pitched -- and a terrifying 44-90 when anyone else started.
• He was the first rookie starter with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98) since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. Yeah, the first.
• And here's the topper: He actually had a higher batting average (.220) than the other teams' hitters had against him (.182). Ridiculous.
Well, nothing much has changed for Fernandez this spring. Opponents are hitting .196 against him. He's struck out 16 in 15 2/3 innings. And other than a three-run, four-hit fifth inning the Cardinals put together against him in his most recent start, he's allowed seven hits to the other 56 hitters he's faced, punching out 15 of them.
So what are we seeing here? We're seeing one of baseball's shooting stars ascend to a level very few pitchers ever reach. And he's 21 years old.
Clayton Kershaw may have established himself as baseball's best starter. But is he the favorite to win yet another Cy Young this year? Not when he's pitching in the same league as Jose Fernandez.
When we casually observed to one scout who covers the Marlins that it wouldn't surprise us if Fernandez made a run at the Cy Young this season, the scout replied, just as casually: "I expect him to."
Wait, we asked. How can anyone expect Fernandez to win the Cy Young, when Clayton Kershaw is still alive and well?
"Look, Kershaw is what he is," the scout said. "He's great. But this kid is special."
Special enough that here's one thing we know for sure: His brilliant spring isn't a mirage. It's a portent of more awesome things to come.
Before that was Jose Iglesias and those pesky stress fractures in both shins, which have put his 2014 season in peril.
And lest we forget, even before that was left fielder Andy Dirks, out for several months following back surgery last month.
Down they’ve all gone this spring for those injury-ravaged Detroit Tigers, one after another, all before their new manager, Brad Ausmus, got to manage a single game that counts.
It’s left the Tigers calling around, hunting for last-minute reinforcements at all three spots. And it’s creating doubts around the sport about the Tigers’ seemingly perennial status as favorites in the AL Central.
But one thing it hasn’t done, in case you’re wondering, is cause the manager to wonder why he thought taking this managing job was such a great idea last winter.
That’s what any manager would say at a time like this, of course, but finding actual answers to these questions is the hard part. And even with the season nine days away, Ausmus admits this is still a team that doesn’t have those answers. So how big a concern are these latest injuries? Let’s take a look:
Bottom of the order: Two years ago, Alex Avila was the Tigers’ primary No. 8 hitter. Jhonny Peralta was their most frequent No. 7 hitter. But the days when this team had that sort of lineup depth are over -- at least for now.
Barring a late trade or free-agent addition, the Tigers appear to be looking at a lower half of the order that includes some combination of Avila and Austin Jackson in the 5-6 slots, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos in the No. 7 hole, followed by their left fielder (likely a Rajai Davis/Don Kelly/Tyler Collins combo plate for the moment) and the shortstop (tentatively looking like a hodgepodge of just acquired Andrew Romine, splitting time with either Danny Worth or Hernan Perez).
While Ausmus says that injuries haven’t had a major impact on that lineup depth, "because Iglesias was going to hit ninth anyway," lineup depth "could be" a concern, he admitted.
Asked if he’d at least settled on Jackson and Avila mostly hitting fifth and sixth in some order, Ausmus replied: "That area of the lineup is probably the most in flux, really. There may be a situation where it changes, depending on who the opponent starter is. I would prefer that be a situation where someone hits in that spot, or those spots, and excels and we can leave them there. But they’re not etched in stone."
Jackson has had a big spring (.442/.478/.767, with only four strikeouts in 46 plate appearances), but it’s Avila (.263/.364/.316) whom Ausmus singled out as being a pivotal figure in the construction of this lineup.
"We’d like to see Alex bounce back," the manager said. "I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed last year. He’s had some good at-bats [this spring]. He’s had some normal spring training at-bats. He’s had some good at-bats against left-handed hitters, which is good to see. I’m hoping that Alex bounces back."
One bright spot in that mix is Castellanos, who has hit. 373, with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 at-bats, and has had scouts raving all spring about his quick bat and polished approach. The hope was that the Tigers could hit him down in the order and keep the pressure off him offensively. But it wouldn’t be a shock if they rewrote that script in a hurry if Castellanos keeps hitting.
The bullpen: The Tigers were already poking around for bullpen help --– particularly an upgrade on Phil Coke as the primary situational left-hander -- even before Rondon went down. But other teams say they’ve stepped up that hunt in recent days, since Rondon blew out his elbow ligament with no warning whatsoever.
For the moment, the seventh and eighth innings would now appear to fall into the hands of Al Alburquerque (11 strikeouts and just one run in six innings this spring) and that ghost of Yankees past, Joba Chamberlain (3.00 ERA, but with a 1.83 WHIP and still-diminished velocity) this spring. But Ausmus says that will be a work in progress early on.
"You just deal with it," the manager said. "You can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to find another solution. And the truth is, we’re going to need someone to step up to fill the role, and we’re not sure who that person is going to be. It’s like the 5- or 6-hole in the lineup: I hope someone grabs it and runs with it."
One name to watch: 28-year-old right-hander Evan Reed, claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins last April, who has hit 97 miles per hour and racked up 12 strikeouts, while allowing just three hits in 11⅓ innings this spring.
But the real good news has come from Joe Nathan, who hasn’t allowed a run all spring and is being depended on more than ever to put an end to the Tigers’ ninth-inning dramatics of the past couple of seasons.
So at least this team isn’t looking for a closer anymore. But they’re as likely to make some other addition -- a left-handed-hitting outfielder, another bullpen arm and possibly even shortstop Stephen Drew -- as any contender in baseball over this last week of spring training.
But here’s a news bulletin from outside the bubble:
On the list of major Phillies spring training troubles, the furor, or whatever it is, over Jimmy Rollins’ positive energy level wouldn’t crack the top five.
“Most disappointing team I’ve seen all spring,” said one longtime scout.
“Their whole spring has been a train wreck,” said another.
“It’s painful to watch that team,” said a third. “That’s an old team, and it plays like an old team.”
Three weeks and 20 games into spring training, the Phillies had won five games (5-13-2) going into Thursday. They were hitting .215 as a team, with a .299 on-base percentage and 23 fewer extra-base hits than they’d allowed. It’s only spring training, but there’s nothing pretty about any of those numbers.
On the one hand, their manager said Thursday, he’s “less concerned” than people probably think, only because this is “a veteran group” that “knows what it needs to do to get ready.”
On the other hand, Ryne Sandberg said, “I think spring training is a time to set the tone for the season, and play the game the right way, and do things that would help you win a baseball game. And we’ve been on the slower end of accomplishing that side of it.”
• Ryan Howard: The first baseman went into Thursday with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 40 at-bats, with one home run. The good news is, he’d raised his batting average to .275 with four singles in his past six at-bats. And Sandberg was upbeat about how Howard had shown “improvement over the last three or four games, with increased bat speed and more aggressiveness on balls in the strike zone.”
But scouts and executives who have seen him aren’t anywhere near that positive. The troubling reviews from those on the outside: “Just a guy who’s out there flailing away,” said one exec. “A lot of at-bats, it looks like he’s swinging in case he hits it,” said a scout. “Can’t sit on his back leg to drive anything anymore,” said another. “Doesn’t have any sense of what’s a strike or what’s a ball,” said an NL exec. Whew. Get the picture?
• Jonathan Papelbon: The closer has allowed seven runs in his past three outings, and that isn’t even the worrisome part, according to scouts who have watched him.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it looks like he doesn’t want to be out there,” one scout said. “His fastball is 89-90 [mph]. His split does nothing. He’s got no out-pitch. I know it’s spring training, and maybe he’s just trying to get ready. But his body language is awful. He’s got no energy at all out there.”
But Papelbon is only one worry in a bullpen with “not one guy you can really depend on,” another scout said. So what would the Phillies do -- and where would they turn -- if Papelbon doesn’t pick it up and take charge of the ninth inning? “I think that’s actually likely, the way he’s throwing,” one scout said. “He doesn’t have one above-average pitch right now.”
• Domonic Brown: Brown was the Phillies’ only position-player All-Star last year in a breakthrough, 27-homer season. But he has hit .171, with one extra-base hit and a .229 slugging percentage, this spring.
Even Sandberg admits that Brown has “had inconsistencies -- one week pretty good and the next week cooled off a little bit.” The manager makes it clear that, on a team with five every-day players 34 or older, this team needs Brown’s “energy and young legs.”
But one concern is that Wally Joyner, the hitting coach who connected best with Brown last year, is in Detroit now. And one scout who noted that says: “I’m starting to worry that that first half last year was an aberration, and the real Domonic Brown is the confused guy we’ve seen this spring.”
• Chase Utley: On one hand, Utley is clearly healthy. On the other, it took him until Thursday to finally thump an extra-base hit, in his 37th at-bat of the spring. He was hitting .167/.189/.167 before doubling off Toronto’s Esmil Rogers in his first at-bat.
Of all the Phillies’ slumpees, Utley concerns Sandberg the least -- not surprisingly. He’s just a guy who’s “still searching for his timing at home plate,” the manager said. “But he’s feeling good, and he’s healthy.”
One scout’s view: “He’s still their best player. But the Chase Utley of 2006, '07, '08, '09 -- we’re not going to see that guy again.”
• Cole Hamels: The highest-paid pitcher (and overall player) in franchise history still hasn’t gotten into a game, and won’t before the Phillies break camp. And at this point, he isn’t likely to enter the rotation until the first week of May, if all goes well. Except that all hasn’t gone well since November, when Hamels had to shut down his offseason throwing program because of shoulder tendinitis, and again for a week and a half after another flare-up nearly three weeks ago.
Things are finally trending better for Hamels, though, after three pain-free bullpen sessions in a row. He’s scheduled to throw to hitters in live batting practice Saturday. And he could pitch in a first minor league or extended spring-training game in a week or so. “Things are going in a positive direction for Cole,” Sandberg said. “And that’s good.” But the Phillies still don’t have a good feel for whom they’ll plug into the April rotation to replace him -- and that’s not so good.
• Jimmy Rollins: How about we put aside all of the debate about Rollins’ leadership, spring energy level and tradability. As he made clear Wednesday, he isn’t going anywhere, because he isn’t interested in going anywhere, and it’s his call. So all that really matters is whether he can still be a productive player at age 35.
Well, he finally broke an 0-for-23 funk Wednesday, with his first hit since March 1. But as much as the manager has stressed hitting “line drives and ground balls and keeping a good stroke,” Rollins hasn’t been able to locate that stroke this spring at any point. “I’ve got him with 14 straight balls in the air,” one scout said Thursday. “He’s a popup machine.”
But as for Rollins’ issues with the manager, “too much has been made of that, in some regards,” Sandberg said. “But I understand why it was. What I wish I would have done [instead of no-commenting a question about Rollins’ leadership qualities] was to highlight my expectations of Jimmy, and what he brings to this team, and the things that he needs to do to help us this year.”
Well, believe it or not, no matter how much talk-show fodder the two of them have drummed up, spring training is never a reliable gauge of whether Rollins is going to do those things during the next six months. For that matter, we don’t know for sure what it’s telling us about where his team is going this year, either.
But we do know this: If April, May, June, July, August and September look anything like February and March for the 2014 Phillies, “it’s going to be a long, long year,” said one scout.
He also became the first Cardinals starter to pitch into the sixth inning this spring, an important development for a guy competing to win the fifth starter’s job . But even that became kind of a subplot to his day.
And why was that, you ask? Because Joe Kelly did something pitchers aren’t supposed to do. Not in spring training, anyway. And not in April, May, June, July, August or September, either, for that matter.
He had himself a cool little 3-for-3 game at the plate Saturday, in a 6-2 win over the Braves. And according to the Cardinals, that made him the first pitcher on any team to get three hits in a spring training game in four years -- since Chris Volstad had one for the Marlins on March 30, 2010.
It also gave him more hits this spring, just in one day, than a group of hitting luminaries that included Josh Willingham (1-for-20), Corey Hart (2-for-21) and Jason Kubel (2-for-21). Just to name a few.
“That,” Kelly said afterward, “was pretty fun.”
Over the past 25 seasons, just seven Cardinals pitchers have gotten three hits in a regular-season game. And the only one of those seven who is active is Adam Wainwright, who owns three of them (two just last year).
Coincidentally enough (or not), it’s Wainwright who has challenged his fellow pitchers this spring to improve their hitting, after a season in which they finished 11th in the league (among pitching staffs) in batting average (.126), and came within one whiff of tying for the league lead in strikeouts.
So they’ve been working diligently with assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete this spring on shortening their strokes. And as Kelly proved Saturday, he’s been paying excellent attention.
“We’ve all kind of been working on short swings, and hitting the ball over the second baseman’s head, for the past two weeks,” Kelly said. “Just something we’re all trying to take pride in. I mean, last year, you heard those numbers. We didn’t bunt. We didn’t hit. We were second to last in almost everything. That’s something that Waino wanted us to all take pride in, in actually trying to help win ball games for yourself.”
Asked Saturday what he’d say to Wainwright when he saw him Sunday morning, Kelly smiled and replied: “I won’t say anything. I’ll see if he says something to me. I’m not going to go boasting. ... And if he asks me, I’ll give all the credit to Mike Aldrete.”
Kelly admitted he did win a little “Monopoly money” last season in a friendly wager with fellow pitcher Shelby Miller over who would get the most hits. And while he revealed that, unfortunately for him, the pitching staff has no hitting wagers going yet this year, he also was pretty sure “there probably will be.”
Those three-hit spring training games can provide ideal opportunities for trash-talking. But Kelly said he had no plans to do any of that -- unless one of his fellow teammates just, by some miracle, might happen to mention it.
“They’ll look up the stats and say something, I’m sure,” he deadpanned.
So he thinks it might just come up?
Possibly because someone like, well, us might write about it?
Well, no more maybes about it. If a pitcher gets three hits in a spring training game, we’ll do our part and make sure the word gets out. So the trash-talking can begin in 3 ... 2 ... 1.
“This guy really hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s going to be yet,” the Marlins manager said of Stanton at one point Thursday.
“Giancarlo is going to have a big year,” Redmond said a few sentences later.
And then there was this pronouncement, which kind of got our attention:
“This guy can be the best hitter in baseball,” Redmond said, with an I’m not kidding, pal tone in his voice. “I know people talk about Miggy [Cabrera], and how he puts the ball in play and moves the ball around. But I’m telling you. This guy is going to have a big year this year. Big.”
OK then. Can we start those fantasy drafts immediately, please?
Oh. And one more thing. You might want to know that what the manager sees in Giancarlo Stanton, his general manager also sees.
“We know he’s got power,” Dan Jennings said. “But this year ... with the focus he’s brought this spring, the approach, I think you’re going to see the whole package. He’s high-energy and locked in.”
Hmmm. The total package, huh? From a guy who is still only 24 years old, has already led his league in slugging (in 2012) and last season became just the ninth player in history to hit 100 home runs in the first 400 games of his career? Whew.
But now we interrupt this euphoria for this important message from a scout who ranks as one of Stanton’s biggest fans and who has seen a lot of him this spring:
“I see what they see,” the scout said. “I also think he might walk 200 times.”
Unless the guys behind him rake up a storm, that is.
And those guys behind him, in case you’re curious, would be two fellows who have joined the Marlins to witness the Giancarlo Stanton Show up close for the first time this spring -- ex-Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones and former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Or at least that’s the order the manager is leaning toward at the moment.
“We’re messing around with it,” Redmond said. “But that’s kind of how I envision it right now. I like it. It gives us a little depth behind Stanton. And it gives him a couple of other guys behind him who can put the ball in the seats.”
On one hand, Jones and Saltalamacchia would be the first to tell you they’re not going to be confused with, say, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in those 4-5 slots. On the other hand, Jones did bop 27 homers and slug .516 as recently as two years ago. And Saltalamacchia did make 25 trots in only 405 at-bats himself in 2012.
So at the very least, they’re an upgrade, theoretically, over Logan Morrison and Justin Ruggiano, the Marlins’ most frequent occupants of the two spots behind Stanton last year. Wouldn’t you think?
But then again, Jones and Saltalamacchia are also the latest, greatest reason to ask a question that goes kind of like this:
Can anyone “protect” Giancarlo Stanton? Really?
Sure, said another scout: “Miguel Cabrera could protect him maybe.”
Right. Maybe. Even if you believe the whole concept of protection is a myth, Stanton feels like baseball’s biggest exception -- anecdotally if not statistically, anyway.
Asked if any hitter in baseball could truly protect a guy with bigger power than anyone in the sport, who plays on a team that scored 340 fewer runs than the Red Sox last year and occupies the toughest park on earth in which to hit a home run, Jennings replied:
“I don’t know how to answer that. If you look at last year, he only got five intentional passes. And I think that if you’d gone to him last year and asked him, he thought he was going to get pitched around a lot and he wouldn’t get pitches to hit. But that wasn’t the case.”
Wait. But maybe it was. According to FanGraphs, Stanton was thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone last season (just 38.2 percent) than he’d seen at any time in his career. And only that perpetually hacking Pablo Sandoval (33.9 percent) saw a lower percentage among all hitters in either league, for that matter.
Stanton also chased fewer non-strikes (just 30.5 percent) than he had at any time in his career, and drew a career high 69 unintentional walks -- nearly twice as many as the year before (37).
So obviously, the Marlins needed some sort of veteran presence in back of him. And the two men they brought in are totally cool with taking on that responsibility.
“I’ve been in those situations where I’ve hit behind Big Papi,” Saltalamacchia said. “I’ve hit behind a couple of pretty good hitters. And one thing those guys always told me to focus on was to just do what you can do, control what you can control, don’t try to do too much. As a hitter, they know who’s behind them. You should know, because that’s how you’re going to get pitched.”
“He’s definitely as powerful as they come,” said Jones. “He’s a huge threat, and he scares a lot of people. So to get the opportunity to hit behind him, I’ve got to make them regret pitching around him if they do.”
Now we should probably mention here that Jones is hitting .125/.160/.250 this spring, with nine strikeouts and only three hits in 24 at-bats. And that Saltalamacchia’s slash line isn’t much better, at .158/.238/.316. But those numbers come with the standard it’s-only-spring-training disclaimer.
Stanton, on the other hand, is a dazzling .375/.423/.708, with more extra-base hits (four) than strikeouts (three). And the other day in Port St. Lucie, he hit one of spring training’s most insane homers, a shot so mammoth, it clanked halfway up the batter’s eye -- of the field behind the one he was playing on.
“He’s got the most power I’ve ever seen,” Jones said. “His hands, for as big as he is, he’s got a short, quick bat, and the ball just kind of explodes off his bat, like nobody I’ve ever seen. It almost makes you go, like, oh man. I don’t want to say it’s intimidating, but it’s pretty exciting to watch. You can try to compete with him, but it’s pretty much impossible.”
Uh, he’s got that right. Fortunately, the Marlins aren’t asking Jones to compete with the man hitting in front of him. All they ask is for him to do enough just to make the other team think about throwing The Mighty Giancarlo a strike every once in a while.
And if not, well, at least it could mean Garrett Jones will have a shot to drive in, oh, about 200 runs this year.
“There you go,” Jones laughed. “If I could drive in 200, that would be awesome, too.”
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Four days ago, they were hearing reports they were “close” to signing Ervin Santana. But by Wednesday morning, “close” had turned to “never mind.”
So in the clubhouse of the Toronto Blue Jays, on the day Santana signed with Atlanta, the teammates he never joined were still trying to figure out what to make of what had just happened -- or hadn’t happened.
Asked to describe the reaction of the guys he plays with to the Santana news, Blue Jays DH Adam Lind admitted this group was “a little disappointed.” But Lind said he, personally, never allowed himself to get his hopes up.
“We had five months to do it and didn’t do it,” Lind said. “And then, kind of out of nowhere, we were in the hunt. It was just kind of bad timing -- or good timing, depending on how you look at it, from the Braves’ point of view.”
The Blue Jays will never know what would have happened had Braves ace Kris Medlen not walked off the mound shaking his forearm Sunday. But there was no mystery in the Blue Jays locker room about what Santana was thinking after the Braves joined the bidding.
GM Alex Anthopoulos told reporters Wednesday he was informed by Santana’s agent, Jay Alou, that “he wanted to pitch in the NL. Couldn't compete with it. It wasn't money. It wasn't years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL, and there was no way to compete with that.”
But that doesn’t take away the sting for a team that clearly thought it was closing in on signing Santana and one that badly needed him after finishing 29th in the big leagues in starting-pitcher ERA last season. At least it gave Blue Jays players an understanding of why Santana had just slipped away.
“I always looked at Ervin Santana as a bonus for us,” said R.A. Dickey, who went from the NL East (Mets) to the AL East (Blue Jays) a year ago himself. “I didn’t think he was a necessity, so it makes it a little bit easier.
“But at the same time, it’s hard to blame a guy for wanting to pitch in the National League. That’s what it seemed like it came down to for him. ... It makes sense to face a pitcher instead of a DH every time out, unless you’re at a place in your career where you really want to challenge yourself. And in the AL East, that’s what you really have to do.”
Without Santana, the Blue Jays are right back where they started this spring -- looking at young options like Drew Hutchison, Todd Redmond and Marcus Stroman to fit in at the back of their rotation. Dickey tried to make the case that that’s not a tenuous position as it may seem.
“I think Drew Hutchison is going to be a big part of what we’re going to be doing going forward,” Dickey said. “And we’ve got some other guys who are outliers who are going to contribute in big ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big name. I wasn’t a big name in 2010.”
Nevertheless, all of those guys are still unknown quantities -- unlike Santana.
“We wouldn’t have had to protect him,” Lind said. “He’d just go out and throw his 200 innings and that would be it. Now we’re going to have to juggle some innings around, just because of the way arms are taken care of these days.”
Lind made it apparent that he has no problem with his team finding out how good its young arms can be. He’s just concerned about the ripple effects of trying to win with pitchers whose innings are going to be limited.
“It’s not a problem now,” he said. “But in August or September and we’re in a race, it’s just like [Stephen] Strasburg. And then what are we going to do?”
That, of course, remains to be seen. One thing the Blue Jays know, once and for all, is that wherever they find those innings, they won’t be getting them from Ervin Santana.
But in the second inning of the Red Sox’s 6-5 split-squad win over the Orioles on Tuesday, Middlebrooks pulled off a Web Gem glove-flip trick even his teammates didn’t know he had in him.
With no outs, J.J. Hardy on first, Matt Wieters up, the Red Sox in a shift, and Middlebrooks playing just to the left of second base, Middlebrooks charged a Wieters chopper up the middle and forced out Hardy at second, with a blind, no-look flip to shortstop Deven Marrero.
Cue the video machines.
“Goes back to my high school days, playing a little shortstop,” the Red Sox third baseman said nonchalantly afterward.
So does that mean he was a noted glove-flipper back then?
“No, no, no, no, no,” he laughed. “My dad, he’s here right now. He’s probably going to get on me for trying to be a pretty boy. But that was my only play. And it was fun. It was fun to go out there and do that.”
If Middlebrooks has been storing away this latent glove-flipping talent, it seems almost tragic to have wasted it over at third base these last few years. But if he’s depressed about not being able to showcase that act, he isn’t stressing over it.
“It’s going to be a long glove-flip over there,” he quipped. “So I tend to just throw it.”
Yeah, well, that works, too. And whatever works for Middlebrooks out at third base these days, the Red Sox are all for. He’s put in long hours already this spring, working with legendary infield instructor Brian Butterfield, after a 2013 season in which only 17 of 59 big league third basemen (with at least 80 games at third) cost their team more runs in the field than he did, according to FanGraphs.
And that glove-flip play reflects some of the self-assurance that Middlebrooks has built back with all that work this spring, he said.
“I thought about it afterwards,” Middlebrooks said, on a day when he also hit his second home run of the spring. “I didn’t even think about that play. I just did it. That just goes back to [Butterfield] and these coaches, who have got that confidence in my defense back.”
And let’s just say his manager noticed.
“He’s not taken his defense to the plate or vice versa,” said manager John Farrell. “He’s responded favorably. His work ethic has been outstanding since we’ve come to Florida. He’s putting in the required time and energy on all phases of the game.”
Farrell was critical of Middlebrooks last week after a game in which he made two misplays at third. But unless Stephen Drew comes marching into Fort Myers in the next 20 minutes -- and that isn’t likely -- Will Middlebrooks pretty much has this job locked up. Now the Red Sox just need him to restore the promise of his eye-opening rookie season in 2012.
“He’s our third baseman,” Farrell said. “He’s got a profile of skills that you’re not going to find many places. He profiles the position well, and it’s our job to continue to have that confidence grow and address any deficiencies that might exist.”
No, not that kind of hangover.
We’re talking about the dreaded World Series hangover, the kind that afflicts teams that play deep into October and pitchers who obliterate their career highs in innings pitched in a quest to ride on a parade float. Or in this case, a duck boat.
Anyone who doesn't think those October hangovers are real can give the 2012-13 Giants rotation a call. Then again, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the planet thinks those hangovers are real because the Red Sox think they’re real. So they have taken steps to let their starting pitchers ease into the spring instead of roaring right into Fort Myers as if October had never happened.
And the plan is for all of these men to make just four spring starts instead of the usual five, or even six.
None of this is a coincidence. None of this just worked out this way. It’s merely the Red Sox doing what they can to allow men who bore a heavy workload last fall to recover as best they can before the marathon begins again in a few weeks.
“It’s only one [missed] start,” said manager John Farrell on Tuesday, before his team’s split-squad game against the Orioles in Sarasota. “There’s been a lot made of it. But we’re not shortcutting their foundation. We’re just taking a different approach of a little bit less intensity early rather than jumping a guy right into the early part of the game schedule.”
Instead of a two-inning start on Feb. 26 or in the first week of March, the Red Sox tried to create opportunities for their starters to build up their arms and their pitch counts without the intensity of actual games, allowing them to throw simulated games instead, in more controlled environments.
“Inevitably, a pitcher goes out there [in spring training] and his reference point is last year’s midseason form,” Farrell said. “So this way it’s a chance for those guys to go out there and get their deliveries right and build pitch counts in a more controlled setting. And that’s why we’ve seen Buchholz come out and throw his three innings the other day [in his first start], and Lester yesterday, because they’ve been able to do enough work to get themselves physically in good shape, but to build that up in a less pressurized setting.”
But this approach didn’t just begin when those four pitchers arrived in spring training. It actually goes back to last winter, when the Red Sox mapped out offseason throwing programs and pushed everyone’s start date back three weeks.
“I view pitchers just like thoroughbred race horses,” the manager said. “You know, after a racing season, they turn them out on the farm and just let them naturally rebuild. Whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s my thought and opinion. You have to give them time to naturally recover.
“So if that pushes the calendar back a little bit, you adjust at the outset and then just gradually build up. The volume of throws isn’t going to change. Maybe just gradually a little bit of increase in intensity.”
All pitchers, of course, are creatures of habit and routine. Doing it this way means new habits and new routines. So “sure,” Farrell said, “they all have questions.”
“But they all recognize, too, that they [logged a heavy workload],” he said. “Lester threw the most innings of his career last year [248, counting the postseason]. John Lackey, after a year missed with Tommy John [surgery], he’s up over 200 innings [to 215 1/3], and that’s a year-to-year big jump. So we just felt like [the best way to do this was to] include them in the process, explain what our situation is and, yeah, it’s a little bit of an adjustment on their part. But ultimately, they see the reasons for it and buy in.”
This may not seem like revolutionary stuff, but it’s important stuff, because no one on the outside, Farrell said, can appreciate the grind October has become, now that it’s four grueling weeks long.
“I don’t know if you can,” the manager said, “until you actually go through it.”
The beauty of spring training for other people is: It means It Isn’t Last Year Anymore.
And if there’s a player in baseball more grateful than Dan Uggla that 2013 can be referred to in the past tense, we’d like to meet him.
“That,” Uggla says, “is a great word. It just [stunk] all the way around.”
But here’s a life lesson that works for just about everyone, no matter what you do: Before you can start looking ahead to a better tomorrow, you need to understand why yesterday turned into a 28-car pileup.
So that’s where Dan Uggla finds himself in the spring of 2014. The Braves second baseman couldn’t possibly be more excited to think about what lies ahead. But that doesn’t mean he is running away from the worst season of his career.
That, he says, just isn’t how life works.
“It’s hard to erase it,” Uggla says, “because it’s still going to make me who I am today, just like all the other years of my career. But my goal is to use it as a learning tool and just better myself from that, as a man and as a baseball player, and learning how to deal with stuff like that.
“You know,” he philosophizes, “everybody is going to go through adversity at some point in time, in everything that they do, whether it’s baseball or whatever it is that they do. You’ve just got to deal with it like a man and move on. You’re never going to forget about it. But you can deal with it and move on and become a better person from it.”
If you examine those words closely, you can see he isn’t talking just about his batting average, his strikeouts or his minus-1.3 Wins Above Replacement. He is also talking about what happened to him in October, when the Braves’ postseason roster was announced -- and he wasn’t on it.
That decision, justifiable as it obviously was from a baseball perspective, still hangs over the relationship between Uggla and his team, and, especially between Uggla and his manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
It’s a topic Gonzalez hasn’t been particularly interested in discussing this spring. But he agreed to revisit it for this story. And it quickly became clear it still pains the manager, too.
“He wasn’t happy, and I can’t blame him,” Gonzalez says. “It wasn’t an easy decision. It might have been the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make as a major league manager. You know how people say the postseason is supposed to be fun? It wasn’t really fun for me, because of that decision.”
Dan Uggla, you have to remember, isn’t just another name on the Braves’ roster. At age 34 (as of March 11), he’s the oldest and most experienced player in this lineup. He’s a leader. He’s a top-of-the-charts teammate.
So forget all the baseball reasons for that decision. And remember there was a human being on both ends of it. Both of those human beings are scarred by what happened. But now it’s a new season. So they have no choice but to go on.
“We talked [this spring],” Gonzalez said. “But you know what? It’s still a work in progress. I think the professional side of it is there, because that’s the way Danny is. He’s a professional. And I’m obviously professional. But it’s still a work in progress, on the relationship side of it.”
“On the day that roster was announced last fall, Uggla didn’t mask his feelings. He described himself as “disappointed” and “upset” and “blindsided” by the realization that his team didn’t “think I can help the team win.” But he’s not into baring his soul anymore this spring. And that, he says, because he is heeding the advice of “a man I really respect in this game,” a man he prefers not to name.
You know, everybody is going to go through adversity at some point in time, in everything that they do, whether it's baseball or whatever it is that they do. You've just got to deal with it like a man and move on. You're never going to forget about it. But you can deal with it and move on and become a better person from it.” -- Dan Uggla
“A man that I really respect in this game came up to me [last October],” he says. “He didn’t have to come up to me, but he came up to me and said, in a simple, nice way, to take the high road. And I was really struggling with that the first couple of days, throughout everything, whether I should even show up to practice the next day and stuff like that, with everything I was dealing with.
“But my wife told me, `Just go. You need to be there for your teammates.’ And that day I showed up, he came up to me and told me to take the high road.”
Uggla is still walking that road five months later. It will serve him well. It will serve everyone well.
His hitting coach, Greg Walker, oozes positivity about Uggla's work through the offseason to restore "balance" to his swing and to "stay square longer" in the batter's box. After two years of "flying open way too quick," Uggla has stayed back enough this spring that he's reached base nine times in his first 23 plate appearances (a .391 OBP). On the other hand, he's also hitting .231, with no extra-base hits.
It's way too soon to say if that means anything, or whether we should notice how closely the Braves are paying attention to second-base prospect Tommy La Stella. But regardless, remember that this team wants this to work -- and not just because of the $26 million it owes Uggla through next year.
“He’s a hell of a teammate,” Gonzalez said. “That’s one thing we love about him. And he’s a hell of a clubhouse guy. And that’s why, when people asked me last year, 'Why do you keep playing him?’ I said, 'Because of the other parts. You see the way he hustles. You see the way he plays defense. You see the way he cares. And you’re in his corner.’”
The beauty of spring training is that it allows the manager to be back in that corner, hoping he won’t be forced to leave it any time soon. And it allows Dan Uggla to take what happens from here into his own hands, because “no one else is going to do it for you,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and do it yourself.”
“Hopefully, it’s a clean slate, says Gonzalez. “As I’ve said all spring, you know what? It’s over with. It’s 2014.”
And that’s a beautiful thing -- for both of them.
Couldn't do what he’s been doing nonstop since he was 14 years old.
Couldn't do that special thing that's defined him as a baseball player for the last decade and a half.
Couldn't strap on that chest protector, wriggle into his mask, ease into his crouch for the 38 millionth time.
Just couldn't do it, at 30 years old. Couldn't catch anymore. Couldn't.
“When it finally hit me in the offseason, when I realized I just couldn't do it, it was pretty emotional,” he says, nearly halfway through his strangest spring training. “I've put in a lot of work to become the catcher that I was. So it’s definitely disappointing, just how it all unfolded.
“I mean, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” he says, finally, “if I didn't have that concussion last year.”
And he would never catch again. Never. Couldn't.
So now here he is, a little more than six months later, with no catcher’s mitt in his locker, no catcher’s gear in his clubhouse, no catchers’ meetings to attend or bullpens to catch.
Now here he is, trying to do something almost no one has ever done after catching for as long as he has caught. He is trying to become a first baseman -- not just for a day here and there, but for the long haul.
It’s strange. Even for him. Maybe especially for him.
“It’s still early in the spring,” the face of the Twins’ franchise says. “But it’s definitely been a weird couple of weeks.”
Well, it’s about to get weirder, because Joe Mauer has a lot to learn. Even after starting 54 games at first over the last three seasons.
“You know, the last few seasons, when I’d get out there, it was kind of a day off from catching, and it was kind of like, go out there and do your best. But now,” he says, “it’s your job. So you’d better do it right.”
And when we hear those words come out of his mouth, it tells us a lot about him. Don’t you think?
He may be soft-spoken and even-keel. Don’t be fooled. He’ll never be Dustin Pedroia, setting out each day to get all dirt-covered and high-voltage on you. But that doesn't mean Joe Mauer isn't reaching for the stars, every day, every year.
So if this is now his job, it’s no hobby anymore. He’d better do it right. He is going to do it right.
Even as he jokes about how his knees don’t miss catching, and he hasn't been real nostalgic for those ricochets off the cage in live batting practice, Joe Mauer has been busy setting a personal record this spring -- for most brains picked.
You name the Twins coach/instructor/legend with first-base expertise. This man has worked with him: Tom Kelly ... Paul Molitor ... Rod Carew ... Kent Hrbek ... Ron Gardenhire ... Joe Vavra.
“I talked to him today about a first-and-third, one-out situation,” says Molitor, who played nearly 200 games at first on his tour around the diamond, on his way to the Hall of Fame. “It’s a play that requires forethought. ... Just trying to get him to start having a little bit of comprehension of all the different things that can [happen] in different situations. Physically, I’m not worried about him catching the ball. It’s just those little things, where only experience is going to help him out.”
“The people who run the Twins are certain he has the hands, the smarts and the footwork to be really good at this. And as their GM, Terry Ryan, said in November, on the day the Twins announced his move, they are confident that Joe Mauer will still be “one of the best players in the game, even if he’s at first base.”
When it finally hit me in the offseason, when I realized I just couldn't do it, it was pretty emotional. I've put in a lot of work to become the catcher that I was. So it's definitely disappointing, just how it all unfolded.” --Joe Mauer on catching
But that’s actually where this debate gets fascinating. As a catcher, this is a player who has made an impact that can be safely described as historic. After all ...
How many other catchers in history have won three batting titles? That would be none. How many other catchers in history can match or beat his .405 career on-base percentage (with at least 5,000 plate appearances)? Just one (Mickey Cochrane). How many other catchers can match or beat his .873 OPS? Only two (Cochrane and Mike Piazza). So as a catcher, Joe Mauer is one of the most productive who ever lived.
But now, as a first baseman, he is going to have to register a different kind of impact -- because he is attempting to make a transition that almost no one in history has ever made. Seriously:
• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two players -- two -- have ever played at least 500 career games as both a catcher and a first baseman. That would be Joe Torre and Gene Tenace.
• Or, if we look at this another way, Elias tells us that just three players -- three -- have ever caught 500 games in their careers and spent even two other seasons (or more) in which they played at least 100 games at first base. That would be Torre, Tenace and a 19th-century multi-position sensation known as “Honest Jack” Boyle.
But that’s it. So that means Mauer is trying to follow a template here that barely exists. We know that Torre won an MVP award in the first season after he stopped catching (1971). Other than that, however, there is very little data to help us project what effect these sorts of transitions have on the players who make them.
Hold on, though. There’s more. The Twins talk about how they hope this move will enable Mauer to be a productive hitter deeper into his career -- ideally, of course, for the five years he has left on his contract (at $23 million a year). It sounds logical. But again, there is almost no one like him in history to give us any way of knowing if they’re right. Take a look:
• How many players have ever played 300 games anywhere on the field, at any other positions, after catching their 900th game? Just one, according to Elias: Joe Torre.
• And even if we lower the bar by a couple of seasons, how many men besides Torre played 300 games at other positions after catching even their 700th game? Only one more, Elias says: B.J. Surhoff.
So if Joe Mauer goes on to play, say, 600 games at first over the next five years, he’ll be in a whole different realm of historic territory. Can the Twins really count on that? How do we have any way of knowing?
“I was one of the guys who tried to get him to hang onto catching as long as he could,” Molitor says, “just because his unique gift set, as a guy who could win batting titles as a catcher and do things like that offensively, made him a little bit more unique. So as great as his offense can be, maybe we can see him go to another level.”
But to go to that next level, does he now have to (ahem) hit like a first baseman? Does he have to go back to being the 28-homer man he was in 2009, at the late, great Metrodome? Or is .323/.405/.468 (his career slash line) enough?
“Just another debate for you guys,” chuckles Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach. “What’s better -- a .340 hitter with maybe 10-15 home runs or a guy who’s hitting maybe .220 with 30 (homers)? I don’t know. We have bus rides where we argue about that. But you know what I think? Just let Joe be Joe.”
Well, if that’s all that’s going to be expected, hey, that works for Joe himself.
“I’m starting my 11th year in the big leagues,” Mauer says. “I think you know what type of a hitter I am. I’m not going to try to do anything or be anything that I’m not. ... If I hit a few more homers here and there, that would be great. But I’ll just keep having good at-bats and keep trying to produce runs for our team.”
So have we undervalued the way he does that? We just might have.
According to baseball-reference.com’s indispensible Play Index, Mauer's offensive contributions alone were worth 30.4 Wins Above Replacement from 2008-13. Just four other players beat that: Miguel Cabrera (40.4), Albert Pujols (31.6), Robinson Cano (31.5) and Joey Votto (30.9).
So we rest our case. While it’s natural to expect some regression in his 30s, if the Twins get five more years with even a semblance of Joe Being Joe, that’s going to work for them -- at any position.
And the truth is, it’s going to have to work. Because there’s no rethinking of this maneuver on anyone’s drawing board. No matter how much he or anyone else wish that were possible.
Asked what he would tell people out there who have one of those famous PS3 (“Well played, Mauer”) games that still have him catching for a living, Mauer laughs.
“I’d say, `Hold onto it,’” says Joe Mauer, with no hesitation whatever, “because I’m not going back there.”