Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Designated Hitter in the National League? No Thanks

On April 6th, 1973, Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees came to the plate against Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant and drew a walk in the very first plate appearance by a DH, a "Designated Hitter", in the history of Major League Baseball.
Increasingly since that time, the question has been asked: should the National League also adopt the Designated Hitter? 
To me, having been raised in a National League city (Philadelphia), the question that actually should be asked is, should the American League eliminate the DH?
Discussion of a 'Designated Hitter' has actually gone on for more than a century, and the issue has some serious Philly connections. 
The original idea having been around even earlier, in 1906 it received a strong, influential advocate in legendary Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. Discussion of the issue has been passionate on both sides, pro and con DH, ever since.
As a direct result of the domination of pitching that came about during the 1960's, discussion of the DH once again arose and became a major issue. 
It was experimented with during spring training of 1969, and then finally in January of 1973 the American League owners approved it's use by an 8-4 vote, as a 3-year experiment to begin that coming season. It has since become a permanent part of the AL game.
In 1980, as a response to attendance increases at higher scoring AL games, the National League owners finally put the issue to a vote, and if not for another Philly connection, this discussion might have ended decades ago.
At that vote in August of 1980, all that was required for the DH becoming part of the NL game was a simple majority. Of the 12 teams, 4 were voting for it, 5 were against, and the Houston owner abstained. 
The Phillies became the key vote. The Pittsburgh Pirates GM had been instructed to do whatever the Phils did, and so a 'yes' vote by the Phillies would carry the Pirates vote as well, passing the DH in the NL.
The issue of the DH in the National League then turned on simple fate. 
Our own Phillies GM at the time, Bill Giles, was unable to contact owner Ruly Carpenter, who was away on a fishing trip and unreachable in those days before cellphone technology.
Unable to reach his owner, and having no idea how Carpenter felt on such a vital issue, Giles chose to abstaine. The Pirates GM also abstained, per his instructions. The NL thus voted down the DH by a vote of five against, four in favor, and the three abstentions.
The Cardinals more traditional ownership fired GM John Claiborne, one of the leading proponents of the DH. He had joined the Mets, Padres, and Braves in voting for the measure. The issue has never again been brought up for a vote in the National League.
So the discussion has now gone on for decades, with passionate baseball fans on both sides splitting into camps that have become almost as firmly entrenched as the current American political right and left. 
Count me firmly on the "No DH in the NL" side.
I understand all the arguments on both sides. Pitchers can't hit, when their position comes up in the lineup, it is usually an automatic out. Or pitchers should hit, they are players, and players should be responsible for being full parts of the team.
"I don’t want the DH to spread to the National League because I like watching pitchers hit, and so do millions of other baseball fans." ~ Michael Baumann, Grantland
The strategy of the NL game: double-switches, pinch-hitting, deciding how long to let your pitcher continue, are some of the issues that make the NL game more interesting according to one side. 
The increased offense that comes from a better hitter participating instead of the pitcher makes the AL game more interesting according to the other.
There is also the issue on the "pro-DH" side of lengthening a player's career, allowing some players whose defensive skills may have deteriorated due to aging to the point where they couldn't field a position effectively enough to remain in the everyday lineup, but whose bats remain highly effective.
Having grown up in Philly, I have heard arguments over the years that players such as Greg LuzinskiJohn KrukPete IncavigliaPat BurrellRyan Howard, and Darin Ruf would make perfect DH's were the position available in the National League. In fact, these players have often been utilized in that role during Interleague play.
However, I have also been exposed to decades of what I consider to be the beauty of the game in the NL. The strategic decisions that confront a manager regarding those pinch-hitting and double-switching opportunities make the game more interesting to me. 
I also like the idea that a pitcher has to stand at the plate and take responsibility for himself, should any issue develop regarding throwing at another player.
I agree with Michael Baumann at Grantland who wrote: "I don’t want the DH to spread to the National League because I like watching pitchers hit, and so do millions of other baseball fans. And while that’s an aesthetic taste, there’s no rational reason for it to change."
The argument that pitchers cannot hit is lame. If it's that important to a team to have pitchers become better hitters, bunters, whatever, then give them regular batting practice and bunting practice. 
Emphasize that offensive part of the game for your pitching staff on a more regular basis in practice. You won't turn pitchers into .300 hitters, but you might keep them from becoming embarrassments with a bat in their hands.
People who stop their argument after making such a simplistic point as "pitchers can't hit" have made no valid argument, as far as I am concerned. You're chasing your tail. 
Make pitchers hit MORE, in both practice and in games, and they will hit better.  This means all throughout the game: in high school, college, and the minor leagues. Put the bats back in the pitchers hands at those levels, you will get better hitting pitchers.
The issue raised its head once again in recent days with injuries suffered by a pair of star NL pitchers, Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and Max Scherzer of the Nationals, while each was batting. 
But this "increased injury" aspect is a non-issue. Despite pitchers coming to the plate numerous times, injuries in those situations remain rare. Pitchers frequently are injured, well, pitching. Should we outlaw hard, overhand throwing to protect them?
While the DH has become a part of the game in many other organizations, including throughout the college ranks and the minor leagues, it has not caught on everywhere else. 
The Central League in Japan, one of the Japanese major leagues, arguably the 2nd best league in the world, also does not use the Designated Hitter. 
In Japan, the other major professional league, the Pacific League, does use the DH. So Japan has the same situation facing United States baseball fans, two professional leagues under different rules.
I am not advocating a return to a non-DH world for the American League. I actually like the variety, and find it in no way incongruous to have two different playing styles. In fact, I find that it contributes to variety in professional baseball. MLB fans get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
For me, it's not about an argument. For me, it is and should be a non-issue. Stop the arguing. Enjoy the game with a DH in American League games. Enjoy the game without a DH in National League games. Learn to appreciate both versions. 
And on those occasions when the leagues overlap, regular or post season, enjoy the novelty of watching teams having to adjust. They're professionals, they make a ton of money, and they should be able to perform and produce in such situations.
Keep the Designated Hitter out of the National League. Keep the Designated Hitter in the American League. Enjoy the diversity that such differences produce in the most challenging and beautiful game that man has ever invented.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Domonic Brown is Where He Belongs

I read a post on Twitter earlier today where a writer who regularly covers issues surrounding the Phillies lamented on why so many people "hate" Domonic Brown.
You can certainly count me among numerous folks who have lamented Dom Brown's play on the field. 
I think that I understand the feelings of those folks, and I wouldn't call it "hate" of Brown. Instead, what I truly believe is being expressed is frustration, even exasperation.
The feelings being expressed are also, I believe, not really directed towards Brown at their very heart. 
Sure, he receives the "boo" from the stands, and perhaps some misguided social media posters are directing their frustration at him directly. But most of the actual frustration is felt towards the organization.
You and me, we're hack talent evaluators. We certainly have a valid viewpoint, and some of us even have a much more educated viewpoint than others. That comes from decades of playing the game, watching it, following it closely. 
But we're not professionals. For the most part, we haven't "studied the film", hung in the locker rooms, had talks with the players.
So we justly get exasperated when those allegedly professional talent evaluators in a multi-billion dollar business get something so obviously wrong as the evaluation of talent on a player such as Dom Brown.
Brown began this season injured. He left a Grapefruit League game back on March 19th with what was described as an Achilles tendon injury, one that had apparently been bothering him since early March
After resting and then beginning the season on a rehab assignment with both Clearwater and Lehigh Valley, Brown was activated today by the Phillies from the DL. He was immediately optioned back to the IronPigs.
It's my position now, has been for some time, that playing in the minor leagues at AAA is exactly where Domonic Brown belongs.
He is not an everyday major league caliber player, and any Phillies talent evaluator who tries to sell the fan base on such an idea is doing the entire fan base a disservice. 
Either such an evaluator is simply bad at his job, or they are outright misleading the fans. Either way, they are a part of the problem, and should be released from their position.
Baseball is one game where, over time, the numbers don't lie. They will reveal you to be a Hall of Famer, a good ballplayer, a mediocre role player, a minor leaguer, or someone who shouldn't even be wearing a professional uniform. 
Brown's numbers are bad. Not "out of baseball" bad, but definitely "career minor leaguer" available only in emergencies bad.
Brown is no longer an up-and-coming prospect. He is 27 years old now, beginning what are traditionally considered a baseball players "prime" seasons. So that is one thing he would appear to have going for him - a prime age.
What Brown also has, unfortunately, is a track record - and it ain't good. 
Brown has played in parts of a half-dozen MLB seasons in red pinstripes. He has appeared in 430 games, and strode to the plate 1,544 times. In that time he has fashioned a career .248/.308/.412 slash line.
We have often been sold on Brown being a potential power source. But the facts are that he has 49 homers and 240 rbi in his career. 
That comes out to an average of roughly 15-16 homers and 65 or so RBI over a full 162-game season. That is AAA starting caliber production.
Brown doesn't bring speed to the game. Despite some still lauding his "athleticism", he has just 20 career stolen bases, and has scored just 169 runs.
So his per-162 averages are roughly seven steals and 60 or so runs scored. That is again a AAA starting caliber level of production.
Another area of the game that could make Brown valuable is his defense. Unfortunately, he is awful defensively. 
Whether in right or left field, Brown has frequently made bad reads on balls in the air, and used bad judgment in making plays overall. Way too many overall errors of commission and omission. He does possess a strong arm, but that's about it.
Defenders of Brown frequently will hit you with arguments such as "he had that big All-Star year a couple of years ago, that's what he is capable of, maybe he can get back to that." 
Unfortunately, those people focus too much on the back of his baseball card, and have failed to read the fine print.
Dom Brown did not have a great season in 2013. What Brown did have was a great month in May of 2013. 
That month, he was the NL Player of the Month. From May 1st until the All-Star break (July 14th), Brown hit .286 and bashed 20 homers with 56 rbi. It was a red hot stretch of 2+ months, and no one could argue otherwise.
But it was not a great "season" at all. After that All-Star Game appearance, Brown had just four homers and 16 rbi the rest of the way. 
He hit the last homer on August 14th, and had no more long balls at all over the season's final month and a half.
The facts show that what Dom Brown has done in his six MLB seasons is get hot for a couple of months in the first half of 2013. That's it. Otherwise, he has been mediocre at best, and downright awful at worst.
In his minor league career, Brown has hit .294 with 291 homers in 2,341 plate appearances. He has been a mostly productive player, though much of even that production was between the 2008-10 seasons.
The Phillies were wrong about Dom Brown. He is not an everyday player. He will not be a part of their future. He will not bring back much value in trade. 
Thankfully, they also have never paid him very much salary. That would only have made things worse. But as it is, they have no commitment to him longterm.
That is how it should be. Dom Brown is at AAA now, where he belongs. The talent level of these 2015 Phillies at the major league level is certainly not the best. 
But the fact is that the players starting here now: Ben RevereOdubel HerreraJeff Francoeur, and even backups like Darin Ruf and Grady Sizemore, are better all-around options.
Odds are that we will see Brown back in Philly at some point this spring or summer in a Phillies uniform. But my bet would be that we will not be seeing him for too many more seasons in one. 
This isn't "hate" of Brown - it's simply an acknowledgment of the facts. That is something a truth to which some writers and fans have not yet resigned themselves.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Jonathan Papelbon Must Go

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has tried to deal away closer Jonathan Papelbon
There have been talks with other teams. A couple deals may even have been close to completion. Papelbon is still effective, still has real value. There is interest.
For his part, both over the winter and during spring training, Papelbon has played the good soldier. He has remained focused on his job, and has remained good at it, one of the best in the game. Importantly, he has kept his colorful personality under wraps, and his sometimes controversial mouth shut for the most part.
Perhaps the reality of the Phillies situation is hitting him. There will be no miracle season. The upside potential of a "fountain of youth" drink by the old franchise heroes, Howard, Utley, and Ruiz, will not happen. Staff ace Cole Hamels is off to his typically slow start.
The team is off to a 6-11 record, and the offense is non-existent. Worse perhaps than the poor performances is that there is nothing to look forward to on the near horizon to provide hope for improvement.
"I will be disappointed if this continues to happen...If we continue to do the same things as we've done the last couple years with me, where we try to do something and get something done with me and then nothing still happens." ~ Papelbon
Papelbon may finally be beginning to crack the more the losing goes on. In a recent interview with CSN Philly, Papelbon commented on the frustration of the reality that has transpired as opposed to his expectations when he signed with the Phillies, who at the time of that signing had been perennial contenders.
"Yeah, it's frustrating when you come here and you expect certain things, and my competitiveness is such a high level, when that doesn't happen and you put so much into it and you don't get what you necessarily want out of it, yeah I say that's frustrating," said the veteran righthander.
To be fair, Papelbon did again reiterate that his preference would be for the Phillies to turn things around, and for him to be a part of that return to winning here. But he sees the reality as well. That will not be happening in the next year or two. Management has publicly said as much.
To that end, he does not want to go through another season of playing for a losing team while surrounded by trade rumors that never come to fruition.
"I will be disappointed if this continues to happen...If we continue to do the same things as we've done the last couple years with me, where we try to do something and get something done with me and then nothing still happens."
Again, there has been no decline in his performance. He has not taken his overall frustrations out to the mound. 
In his 6 performances over 6.1 innings, Papelbon has not allowed a run to this point, has allowed just one hit, has three Saves, and has a stellar 6-0 K:BB ratio. He is just three more Saves shy of the Phillies franchise record of 112, currently held by Jose Mesa.
But he is also 34 years old now. He knows that the opportunities to be part of another championship team are running out, and that those opportunities are not likely to come here in Philly.
The Phillies bullpen will survive without him, especially under the current rebuilding circumstances. The trio of Ken GilesJake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus have all struggled to one extent or another.
But all three remain talented, and they need to be pushed to the top of the late innings options list. Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez have given the team two more reasonable options.


Papelbon is being paid good money, more than any closer in baseball history. His family is secure, and despite his occasional outbursts of "personality", so is his legacy as one of the game's best closers over the last decade. 
Now it's time to say goodbye. Amaro needs to find a taker, and move him along at any reasonable price.
This is not like a Cole Hamels deal. This is not a trade where Amaro needs to maximize his return. The Blue Jays, Tigers, Nationals, Cubs, Giants, Indians and Mets are all teams with contending possibilities who could use his services. 
One of them would certainly cut a deal right now. It's time for Amaro to make that deal happen.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mike Schmidt's 500th Career Home Run

Some big anniversaries come up during the course of a Philadelphia Phillies regular season, and I like to flashback for fans with a bit more detail. 
Today marks one such occasion, as it was on this date 27 years ago that Phillies Hall of Fame 3rd baseman Mike Schmidt blasted the 500th homerun of his career.
The 1987 version of the Phillies had visions of contending when the season began. Now seven years removed from what to that point was the only World Series championship in franchise history, four years on from the 'Wheeze Kids' team that reached the World Series before losing to Baltimore, the Phils had gone 86-75 and finished in 2nd place the previous season.
The team had a winning record for 10 of the previous 12 seasons, finishing in either 1st or 2nd place in the National League East Division in eight of those dozen seasons. They were still a perennial contender.
That 1987 Phillies team featured Schmidt, then a 37-year old whose age might have put him near the end of what had become a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, but whose performances showed little sign of a slow-down as yet. 
Schmidt would crush 35 homers and drive in 113 runs that year while hitting for a .293/.388/.548 slash line, and would become an NL All-Star for the 11th time.
Offensively this Phils team had a potent, diverse attack. Besides Schmidt there was exciting 2nd baseman Juan Samuel, who would slam 28 homers, drive in 100 runs, score 113, and steal 35 bases.
1st baseman Von Hayes (21HR/84RBI/16SB) was an all-around threat, veteran catcher Lance Parrish had pop (17HR/67RBI), and the outfield of Chris JamesMilt Thompson and Glenn Wilson was multi-talented and athletic, with offensive and defensive skills.
Manager John Felske could turn to his bench for veteran, professional hitters such as Greg GrossMike Easler, or Luis Aguayo, or youngsters like Rick Schu and a 25-year old developing backup catcher named Darren Daulton.
The Phillies had begun a season without 4-time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton for the first time since 1971. 'Lefty' was now in his early-40's, and had been released the previous June.
On the mound, the 1987 Phillies rotation was mostly young. Shane Rawley, a 31-year old lefty, led the rotation. He was followed by 20-somethings Don CarmanKevin Gross, and Bruce Ruffin.
The 1987 Phils bullpen featured a dynamic, veteran, late-inning combo in Kent Tekulve, who would set a franchise record by pitching in 90 games, and closer Steve Bedrosian, who would save 40 games, and whose overall performance was so stellar that he would win the NL Cy Young Award.
April 18th was a Saturday afternoon, and the Phils were coming off a 6-2 win the previous night which they were hoping had halted a horrendous season-opening stretch.
Before the Friday night win, the club had lost eight of its first nine games, and the lone win was thanks only to a walkoff rally.


So the 1987 Phillies had dug themselves a hole, and were still trying to find their legs on that cloudy 72-degree Saturday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium.
The game began in promising fashion against former Phillies 1980 World Series hero Bob Walk, who came out wild on the mound for the host Pirates.
Thompson led off with a single in the top of the 1st. After two walks, Walk then balked in Thompson with the game's first run.
In the top of the 3rd, the Phillies stretched the lead out to 5-0. Walk was wild again, allowing a single, a walk, and a wild pitch to put runners in scoring position at 2nd and 3rd.
Barry Bonds
Bonds was a 22-year old, 2nd year player in 1987. He got the Pirates 8th inning rallly started with a leadoff walk.
The Phillies would cash in, as Easler delivered an rbi single to make it 2-0. 
That brought Parrish, who the club had signed as a high-priced free agent in March following a decade-long All-Star career with the Detroit Tigers, up to the plate. The powerful catcher blasted a 3-run homer to break the Phils lead out to 5-0.
That 3rd inning would be the last for Walk, who was replaced by Logan Easley. He and Brian Fisher would combine to shut the Phils out over the next five innings, allowing the Pirates an opportunity to rally.
Mike Diaz led off the bottom of the 5th with a homerun, the first chink in Carman's armor.
In the bottom of the 7th, Bobby Bonilla's 2-out rbi single scored Jim Morrison, and the Phils lead was cut to 5-2. 
In the bottom of the 8th, Felske brought in his closer Bedrosian for what was then a not uncommon two-inning save opportunity. The Bucs countered with a pinch-hitter, a 22-year old outfielder by the name of Barry Bonds.
Bonds worked a walk. That was followed by a Sid Bream single, and when Bedrosian then walked John Cangelosi, the bases were loaded with nobody out.
A sacrifice fly off the bat of Andy Van Slyke made it 5-3, but Bedrosian had gotten a key out. He wouldn't get out of the inning. The next batter, 2nd baseman Johnny Ray, ripped a 3-run homer that gave Pittsburgh a 6-5 lead and sent the Three Rivers crowd into delirium.
With the lead blown, the Phillies came to bat in the top of the 9th for their last chance, in very real danger of slipping to a 2-9 start to their season.
Don Robinson came on to pitch for the Pirates. The now 30-year old veteran had been an important member of the "We Are Family" 1979 World Series-winning Bucs team, making 25 starts that year as a 22-year old rookie.
Robinson had been moved to the bullpen by Pittsburgh a couple of years earlier, and was brought in here to close the Phillies out.
Things looked good at first, as Robinson got two of the first three batters to hit into ground outs.
Samuel had reached first, and the speed threat seemed to unnerve Robinson. Sammy stole 2nd, and then went to 3rd when the Pittsburgh hurler uncorked a wild pitch.
Distracted, Robinson walked Hayes, bringing to bat perhaps the last man who the Pirates wanted to see get a shot with the game on the line, the Phils' all-time homerun leader Schmidt.
Sitting on 499 career homers, Schmidt looked for his pitch, and jumped on it. He turned on a Robinson down-and-in fastball, driving it deep into the left field stands.
As Schmidt watched the ball's trajectory, starting down towards 1st base, he did a little dance, rolling his arms and smiling in celebration of what he knew was a huge moment.
Schmidt jumped on 2nd base as he rounded the bags, and was mobbed at the plate by all of his Phillies teammates. Besides being the 500th of his career, the blast had put the club in front, 6-5.


Of course, the game wasn't over. The Pirates would get their last chance at-bats, hoping to ruin Schmidt's party.
It wasn't to be, as Tekulve, Pittsburgh's former longtime closer, came on to close things out for the Phils. The lanky right-handed submariner yielded a 1-out single to catcher Mike LaValliere, but then got Bonds and Bream on easy fly balls to wrap up the Phillies come-from-behind victory.
Unfortunately for Felske, the team would continue to struggle early, never meeting their contending expectations over the first couple of months. A 29-32 start led to his firing in mid-June after more than two seasons at the helm.
Felske finished his Phils career with an overall 190-194 record as skipper. He was the NL Manager of the Year for that 1986 season, but would never get another chance to manage in the big leagues.
Felske was replaced in the dugout by veteran Phillies insider Lee Elia, who would not immediately turn things around. The Phils would lose their first four games under his watch, six of his first seven, and seven of his first nine.
Following a 5-4 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday, June 27th, the Phillies had sunk to 31-39, 12 1/2 games out in the division race in an era where there was no Wildcard.
The following day, the Phils trailed 4-0 headed to the bottom of the 8th, and seemed destined to continue their slide to mediocrity. But they rallied to win with 3 in the 8th and a pair in the 9th in front of more than 52,000 fans at The Vet, beginning a streak of five straight victories and a string of 10 wins in 12 games.
Those 1987 Phillies would go 49-43 after the Felske firing and Elia's own slow start. The would, in fact, claw back within 6 1/2 games of the division lead in late August.
They got a season-high nine games over the .500 mark at that point, but could get no closer. In fact, at the end they began to lose once again.
A 14-25 finish over the final seven weeks of the 1987 season would signal the beginning of a dismal losing period in club history.
Aside from the magic of 1993, that losing would last all the way through to the early part of the 21st century.
The losing, the lack of enough talent around him, and his own deteriorating skills would finally drive Schmidt out of the game in May of 1989.
But on that early season April afternoon in 1987, with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn still in the booth calling the games, and with the Phillies still having high hopes, Michael Jack Schmidt won a game and made some history, becoming at that time just the 14th man in MLB history to join the career 500 Homerun Club.