So yeah, I left this site behind. It’s like that home improvement project. The one you planned, maybe bought some materials, maybe even drew some pictures. And then that’s it. You still like the idea, and you swear you’ll get the ambition for it again, any day now.
I’m not ready to return anything to Lowe’s quite yet (Home Depot is a pit). In the meantime, I’m linking what I wrote about the Rays 2011 season. I’m not about to anoint myself Nostradamus, because I didn’t even necessarily expect this. To be honest, I wasn’t totally expecting a run at a postseason berth. Still, I knew it wasn’t hopeless; and I knew that no matter what this would at least be an entertaining year.
So no matter if the Rays complete this most improbable of comebacks and drive New England to jump concrete block-laden into the Charles River, or if in a fit of dementia Andrew Friedman chokes every one of the Rays starting players with all those ties he never seems to wear, I will wholeheartedly declare this season a rousing success on the level of pure entertainment. And maybe it’ll inspire me to grab a hammer.
Warning: fantasy baseball story
I recently took part in only my second ever auction draft. I tried never to nominate players in which I had a fair amount of interest, fearing that other managers would knowingly inflate my price. Unfortunately as the draft dragged on – much longer than the snake drafts to which I was more accustomed – I grew impatient and broke against strategy. I nominated Matt Joyce, a player I very much wanted on my time even beyond any Rays favoritism. The auction clock landed on 0 without a single other bid – Joyce was mine for $1, in a keeper league.
In the chat window, one manager chimed in: Who? Another comment: Is he even starting? I smiled, glad to be in a league with a majority of Orioles fans.
Joyce is certainly receiving some attention now, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. His slugging percentage currently ranks fourth in MLB; his wOBA has him third behind only Jose Bautista and Lance Berkman. Perhaps there’s still a significant who? factor involved – there are plenty of other players experiencing hot starts a month and change into the season with every expectation of cooling off. Then again small sample sizes have rarely prevented anyone from making grand proclamations of arrival/revival. It’s alright though – if the Rays or their fans had ever been concerned about national recognition, they’d have been forced to adjust their expectations long ago.
Joyce’s latest exploit came Friday night against the Marlins – albeit in a losing effort, Joyce became just the fifth (Devil) Ray to hit two triples in one game. The feat has actually been accomplished ten times, but one player accounted for seven of the occasions.
|1||Carl Crawford||2008-07-26||TBR||KCR||W 5-3||4||4||2||LF|
|2||Carl Crawford||2008-04-25||TBR||BOS||W 5-4||6||6||2||LF|
|3||Carl Crawford||2005-08-02||TBD||TEX||W 10-8||5||5||2||LF|
|4||Carl Crawford||2004-07-15||TBD||BAL||L 4-5||5||5||2||LF|
|5||Carl Crawford||2004-06-16||TBD||SDP||W 9-6||5||5||2||LF|
|6||Carl Crawford||2004-06-11||TBD||COL||W 8-7||5||5||2||LF|
|7||Carl Crawford||2004-05-01||TBD||OAK||L 5-6||5||5||2||LF|
|8||Jose Guillen||2000-06-07||TBD||PHI||L 4-5||5||5||2||RF|
|9||Dave Martinez||1999-05-16||TBD||ANA||W 7-4||5||4||2||RF|
|10||Randy Winn||1998-08-14||TBD||KCR||L 9-11||5||5||2||CF|
Some things of note:
- If you can get a guy to hit two triples, your chances of winning are pretty good. Even with only two of these games happening to the exorcised Rays, the team went 6-4.
- Apparently only outfielders are allowed to pick up triple-doubles for this team.
- Based on career triple rates, Guillen’s feat was the least likely – he hit a triple every 256 plate appearances. Compare that to Crawford, who to date has hit a triple every 52 plate appearances. Crawford of course has more triples since 2002 than anyone, 17 ahead of the next guy.
In case you were wondering, the MLB record for triples in a game is three, accomplished 29 times since 1919. The list is a typically wonderful mix of legends, unknowns and quirky names.
I’m thinking of a word. It’s a word that can drive otherwise reasonable baseball fans into apoplectic fits. This word rhymes with what Liz Lemon considers the worst name ever.
The word is bunt. More often than not, bunting is seen as the manager waving a white flag of mediocrity – why score two when I can score one? Because Joe Maddon is often considered one of the wiser managers in baseball – and for good reason – watching a Rays player square around to bunt can be significantly more puzzling. If every decision is part of a process, what’s the thinking behind a bunt?
In particular there seem to be a lot of bunts coming from the Rays’ shortstop position. With the possible exception coming from behind the plate, shortstop is arguably the Rays’ most offensively-challenged position. Reid Brignac has shown almost none of the guarded promise he showed in 2010; and while Elliot Johnson was “slightly above average” offensively in the minors of late, he’s mostly an unknown as an MLB hitter.
Here’s the thing about bunts – sometimes they go for hits. Often we try to discern whether a bunt was meant as a sacrifice attempt or a bunt hit; but if the bunt is executed by a quick player – someone like Elliot Johnson, nicknamed Rabbit in the minors – then intent isn’t too much of an issue, assuming you can reasonably expect a worse result from a regular swing.
Searching Elliot Johnson’s play log at Fangraphs, I found seven at-bats that ended with a bunt out of 62 total plate appearances. Here are some of the particulars of those at-bats, ones I found to be common threads throughout. It should be pretty clear where I’m going with this.
|Outs||Men on base||Pitcher||Pitcher career GB%|
|1||1 _ 3||Zach Britton||55.6|
|1||1 _ 3||Justin Masterson||56.7|
|0||1 _ _||Edwin Jackson||43.1|
|0||1 _ _||Jason Berken||41.8|
|1||_ _ _||Casey Janssen||49.8|
|0||1 _ _||Edwin Jackson||43.1|
|0||1 _ _||Jo-Jo Reyes||44.8|
With the exception of the bases-empty bunt against Janssen, all these bunts came in situations when the double play was in order. Even the two occasions in which there was a man on third, the fact that there was one out on the board meant a double play would prevent a run from scoring. And all of the opposing pitchers could be considered ground-ball types (Berken’s career GB% is the lowest – his 39% rate in 2009 as a rookie was followed by a 47% rate in 2010).
So let’s say you’re not sure about Elliot Johnson’s ability to put a ball in the air against these ground-ball specialists, but you feel much better about his speed and possibly his bunting skills. A well-placed bunt will make it far more difficult for the defense to turn two, and it could possibly even result in all baserunners being safe; if you think a double play is a decent possibility, why not give the bunt a try?
I’ll stop right here, because I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to analyze if this is a sound strategy. I do however want to at least further verify that this might be the strategy at all. I found five instances in which Johnson did NOT bunt when batting with a double play in order. If the idea is to avoid the double play when it’s reasonable to expect it but aim for the maximum amount of runs when a grounder is less likely, then Johnson should be swinging away when the opposing pitcher is more of a fly-ball type.
|Outs||Men on base||Pitcher||Pitcher career GB%|
|0||1 _ _||Dusty Hughes||37.0|
|0||1 _ _||Koji Uehara||28.5|
|1||1 _ _||Matt Capps||38.5|
|1||1 _ _||Frank Francisco||34.1|
|1||1 _ _||Jon Lester||47.6|
Sure enough, we have four out of five pitchers who haven’t shown much of an ability to induce ground balls. The exception of course is Lester. The result of Johnson swinging away against Lester in that early April at-bat? A double play.
I’m not about to suggest the Rays formulated a strategy based on one plate appearance against an All-Star pitcher. Perhaps this was an idea being tossed around by the brain trust, one that earned a bit more consideration after an affirming result. In Jonah Keri‘s The Extra 2%, it’s suggested that the idea of using same-handed hitters against reverse-split pitchers – aka The Danks Theory – wasn’t employed with full force until after the Rays fell to Dallas Braden’s perfect game.
Recently Joe Maddon said that Johnson would see more time at shortstop; that means we should get more opportunities to test out this theory. In the meantime I pledge to consider the possibility that bunt is more than a four-letter word.
ADDENDUM: I neglected to consider at-bats with runners on 1st and 2nd when searching plays in which the double play was in order. That added three at-bats, all of which did not feature a bunt. One came again against Jon Lester, resulting in a single that loaded the bases. The other two both came in the bottom of the ninth with the Rays either tied or losing; they also came against Kevin Gregg and Jose Mijares, both with GB rates under 40%.
Friday night against the Marlins, Johnson faced double-play scenarios twice against Anibal Sanchez (44.2 career GB rate). Johnson swung away both times. There was however an new wrinkle – with the game being played at a National League park, Johnson was batting in front of the pitcher’s spot. The first opportunity came in the 5th – Johnson grounded into a fielder’s choice ahead of Sonnanstine. The other came in the 7th inning, when a pinch hitter was very likely; however Maddon never got a chance to use the pinch hitter – Johnson hit into a double play.
I’m sure there’s a reason that hitting streaks are far and away the preferred streak in baseball. I’m not sure if this is the reason, but I’d imagine it has something to do with a hit not being dependent on anyone but the hitter (at least not on the hitter’s team, anyway). What? What’s that you say about pitching wins? Nevermind.
Point is, run-scoring streaks don’t inspire nearly the reverence of hitting streaks. That being said, the elaborate construction of a run scored makes it much more interesting to dissect than a simple hit. So when Ben Zobrist scored a run in his tenth consecutive game, tying Alex Sanchez for the longest such streak in Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays history, I thought it might be fun to break down the two streaks and see what we can learn about the players and their teams.
First look: how the two players got on base, and how they put themselves in position to score. Mostly your basic counting stats, with OBP bonus.
|Alex Sanchez (4/20-5/5, 2005)||Ben Zobrist (5/1-5/12, 2011)|
You wouldn’t expect anything mind-blowingly dissimilar in a ten-game span. It is amusing that Sanchez hit one more home run than Zobrist – those two home runs represent 33.33% of Sanchez’ career total over 427 games. This fact of course flies a bit in the face of those that believe performance-enhancing drug use in baseball is all about power – Sanchez is probably most famous as the first player ever suspended by MLB for PED use, a suspension he finished serving about a week before his streak began. Those two home runs would also be the final ones of his MLB career – Sanchez was released by the Devil Rays later in 2005, then picked up and subsequently released by the Giants. According to Wikipedia he currently plays in Mexico.
The fact that Zobrist walked six more times than Sanchez is not at all surprising. Since 2009, Zobrist has more walks than all but five MLB players. If you count non-intentional walks only, Zobrist is behind only Prince Fielder and Bobby Abreu. Whether Zobrist hits more like 2009′s Zorilla or 2010′s spider monkey, his ability to get on base without swinging along with his defensive flexibility should give the Rays plenty of value on his contract that could keep him in Tampa Bay through 2015.
Next: how their teams fared during their streaks, and how each player contributed based on WPA (definition for those that need it).
|Team runs scored (run diff).||61 (-9)||51 (+21)|
|Total player WPA||.427||.012|
Okay, maybe this one’s not entirely fair. The 2005 Devil Rays that featured Sanchez won 67 games all season; while the 2011 Rays could certainly end up with only 67 wins, any scenario in which this happens likely would involve some type of hantavirus. Again – this is purely a fun exercise, not any kind of analytical comparison.
Same goes with WPA – all you have to do is look at the first set of stats to know that Sanchez wasn’t measurably better than Zobrist during his streak. Instead, Sanchez simply meant more to his team during their streaks. It helps when you’re constantly making up for the shortcomings of your pitching and defense – of course based on his career UZR of -34.1, Sanchez likely had a lot to do with that too.
Consider the May 2 game against the Yankees. Sanchez hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning off Mike Mussina which brought the Devil Rays within one run; that play accounted for most of his second-highest WPA mark of the streak. The Devil Rays would get no closer however – the Yankees won 6-2 on thirteen hits and two Devil Ray errors.
And now: how they reached home, and who drove them there.
Sanchez: Julio Lugo – 4; Aubrey Huff – 3; Carl Crawford – 2; Travis Lee – 2; Alex Sanchez – 2; Nick Green – 1; Charles Johnson - 2
Zobrist: Evan Longoria – 3; Matt Joyce – 3; Johnny Damon – 2; B.J. Upton – 2; Ben Zobrist – 1; Felipe Lopez – 1
That’s a nice snapshot of the differences between the 2005 Devil Rays and the 2011 Rays. Beyond Carl Crawford, Sanchez was sent home by some offensive detritus. Aubrey Huff did have good offensive seasons with the Devil Rays, but 2005 – his last full season with the team – was not one of them (.315 wOBA, 92 wRC+). And while there are some questions for the 2011 Rays offensively, those guys are not any of them apart from current Durham Bull Felipe Lopez.
Batting order: Joe Maddon has often used Ben Zobrist in the batting order much like he does in the field; but his spot in the order was fairly consistent during his streak, hitting 2nd in all but two games.
Sanchez hit leadoff three times, but also hit 2nd, 6th, 7th, 9th and even once in the clean-up spot (as a pinch hitter).
Close calls: Twice during the streak Sanchez appeared as a leadoff pinch hitter for Eduardo Perez in the eighth inning, but only one of those appearances counted. On April 26 Lou Piniella sent Sanchez out to hit for Perez; but when the Blue Jays manager John Gibbons replaced Vinnie Chulk with Scott Schoeneweiss, Piniella changed his mind and sent Nick Green up to bat. Sanchez got credit for a game appearance but not a plate appearance, so his streak remained intact.
For Zobrist, his only run on May 3rd came in the bottom of the ninth inning when B.J. Upton hit a walk-off home run (video) against the Blue Jays.
And in the end…: Both streaks ended at Tropicana Field. Alex Sanchez reached base only once on an intentional walk but was stranded in a 8-1 loss to the Twins on May 7th. Taking the loss that game was promising rookie pitcher Scott Kazmir.
Zobrist reached base twice on a walk and a single against the Orioles on May 13th, but the Rays didn’t miss Zobrist at home – the team won 3-0 on the strength of a complete game shutout by promising rookie pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.
Of the major pro North American sports, baseball seems to value grit more than any other. Sure, you have guys like Steve Nash and Martin St. Louis, the little guys who excel among giants; but those two also have a fair amount of skill. Near as I can tell, genuine grit means overcoming some kind of talent deficiency with such immeasurable factors as determination, reckless abandon and force of will.
I’m rather dubious of this grit idea when it mucks up the conversation of what truly makes a team go. The Rays presented a prime example of this in 2008 when Jason Bartlett was awarded the team MVP award by local baseball writers. Yes, Bartlett contributed to that team; but calling him the most valuable player was nothing but lip service to the narrative of that season, of a scrappy defensive team colliding with the star-driven giants of the American League and living to tell the tale. Bartlett was the summary of that story, far more than rising star Longoria or talent-blessed Upton.
But let’s face it – grit is fun to watch. Grit creates compelling stories. Grit powers the most memorable sports movies. Grit (also some gambling) drives the NCAA basketball tournament. Grit also apparently drives Sam Fuld.
Fuld is the first to admit his talent-alternative route to pro baseball:
I think I’m someone who certainly doesn’t even come close to being the most athletic guy out there and not the most athletically gifted guy. But I take pride in my work ethic; try to play hard every day; be consistent and do some little things that you may not be able to see in a box score…
I was at Tropicana Field when Fuld made his Rays debut, a pinch-hit appearance during an offensively-challenged game versus the Orioles. The reaction of the crowd when Fuld was announced was a confused murmur; try to isolate the murmur, and I’m sure the common phrase was, “Who?”.
But as long as Fuld got even semi-regular playing time, there was pretty much no way Fuld wouldn’t become a fan favorite. Given the chance to fling his body towards a few balls in the outfield, he was going to get the fans’ attention. His tiny frame lends itself to lots of “kid” references. Oh, and he’s a diabetic.
Somehow his rise to gritty stardom exceeded even the most optimistic projections. It started on Saturday, with his superhero catch in Chicago (is there anyone more lacking in perspective than the White Sox fan who seemingly heckles Fuld after the out?); it continued on Monday night, when Fuld made a marginally less heroic but no less exciting catch and hit for the one-better-than-cycle in a slump-busting outburst for the Rays against the rival Red Sox (on national television, natch). Fuld he bombs, he bombs.
I’m not sure how the narrative will play out. If the Rays get back on track following their greatest ever offensive performance against Boston, I’m sure people will point to this game as the catalyst. That means many will point at Fuld as well. I’m certainly in no position to know whether a performance like that can energize competitive athletes to somehow play harder; I know which way I lean, and I’m much more likely to thank regression for sorting out the Rays’ first week of devilishly terrible and unlucky performance.
I also know that the Rays were absolutely terrible entertainment during that first week; but on Monday night, Fuld was the star of a much-anticipated show. That’s more than enough story for me.
*By the way: I listened to “Sugar Free Jazz” by Soul Coughing less than 24 hours before I watched Monday’s game. It popped into my head again while watching the game. Am I sorry for the barely relevant, diabetes-based pun? Probably. But it’s a great song. So it goes.