Checking In At the Break

Well, here we are at the end of the All-Star break, with regular season play resuming tomorrow. With this pause in the daily action, let’s take a look at how things stack up now vs. where I predicted them at the end of Spring Training.  Some prognostications were spot on, while others turned out to be polar opposite. You just never know what is going to happen in a given baseball game, much less a whole season.

American League East 

  1. Baltimore: I dropped the ball here. Picked them fifth, but they are in first. Their offense has been as good as expected, and some surprising bullpen work has helped a lot.
  2. Boston: Picked them second, and here they sit. Solid team. Division title still possible.
  3. Toronto: Picked them third, they are in third. See Boston. Tight race here.
  4. New York: Thought they’d be much better. Picked them first, but they had a disastrous start that has been hard to recover from.
  5. Tampa Bay: Picked fourth, they will finish last. Bad start and little consistency.

American League Central (completely opposite of what I predicted! Knew this division would be a crapshoot.)

  1. Cleveland: Picked fifth, they sit in first. Great arms and potent offense.
  2. Detroit: Picked fourth, but this resilient bunch is squarely in the WC Race.
  3. Chicago: Picked third, and that’s where they are. Red hot start through April and May, but very streaky since. Still solidly in WC contention.
  4. Kansas City: Picked second, but injuries have decimated this group. Still, they sit above .500 and are in the WC hunt themselves.
  5. Minnesota: Picked first. What a disaster. Total 180 from 2015.

American League West

  1. Texas: Picked them first and that’s where they are. Very solid club.
  2. Houston: Awful April, bounced back strong since. Picked second.
  3. Seattle: Good start, dangerous team. WC still possible? Picked fourth.
  4. Oakland. Picked fifth, but they’ll finish better. Mediocre overall.
  5. Los Angeles: Colossal trainwreck despite talent. Worse yet, they still have to pay Albert Pujols for five more years, and Josh Hamilton another year to play elsewhere.

National League East

  1. Washington: The Baker Effect has worked and it looks like they’re headed for a division title. Picked second.
  2. New York: Picked first, but some key injuries have hindered them. Still in WC race.
  3. Miami: Picked third, they are in third. Solid team in the WC race and headed for a strong finish.
  4. Philadelphia: Picked fourth. Real good start, improvement across the board but the Phils are still a year or two away from contending.
  5. Atlanta: Picked fifth. They’re bad.

National League Central

  1. Chicago: Picked second. Historical start, but some injuries plus a rough stretch in the last few weeks before the break brought the northsiders back to earth. Still a sizeable lead in the division.
  2. St. Louis: Picked first. Squarely in the WC race, but overall not as strong as they were in 2015.
  3. Pittsburgh: Picked third. Solid overall club, another WC contender.
  4. Milwaukee: Picked fourth. Below average team, will avoid the cellar.
  5. Cincinnati: Picked fifth. They waived the white flag over the winter.

National League West

  1. San Francisco: Picked first. Even better than expected, impressive having the best record in baseball at the break considering the run the Cubs had been on.
  2. Los Angeles: Still in the hunt for the WC, strong team, but having Kershaw on the DL doesn’t help. Picked second.
  3. Colorado: Picked fifth. Potent offense is giving this club a shot at a .500 season.
  4. San Diego: Picked fourth. They are a fourth place team, not sure what else to say.
  5. Arizona: Picked third. Was expecting more from this club. Injuries have not helped at all.

There you have it, folks. Once again, baseball proves to be the craziest sport to predict. The second half of the season is set to get underway and who knows what’ll happen…

24 in 24 Has Been a Rough Ride

Beginning back on June 17, the Cubs entered a brutal stretch of 24 games in 24 days, with the bulk of those on the road. With six games remaining in that block, it’s been a far from enjoyable marathon.

The 24-game batch got off to a roaring start with a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh. But then St. Louis rolled into town on June 20, sweeping the Cubs in three, and triggering the first four-game losing streak for the Northsiders, capped off by a loss at Miami. After dropping two out of three to the Marlins, the Cubs rebounded with a road sweep of the hapless Reds, only to then be decimated in four straight by the Mets. The Reds came into Wrigley and extracted a little revenge, grabbing two out of three, bringing us up to the current date, a day after the Atlanta Braves steal a win at Wrigley in a makeup game from April.

In all, the Cubs have managed just a 5-13 record in their last 18 games, including two separate four-game losing streaks. What is happening here?

In short, they look tired. It’s no excuse, but over the last few weeks, certain things are very noticeable. First and foremost, the starting pitching, which has been the bread and butter all season, is not nearly as sharp. One through five in the rotation have become prone to ineffectiveness, high pitch counts, walks, and giving up home runs. A lot of home runs in fact. In various times during this stretch the Cardinals, Marlins, Reds and Mets have all bashed Cubs pitchers to 7+ runs in a game. Much of the defense hasn’t looked as sleek-footed either, adding to the struggles. Part of this conundrum can be traced to who’s behind the plate. While rookie phenom Willson Contreras has performed very well in his limited time, it’s a still a small sample size to this point. Miguel Montero has struggled mightily all season both in the field and behind the plate, and with a long stint on the DL one may wonder if he’s been really hurt all season. That leaves 39-year-old David Ross, who has been highly touted this year, and for good reason. The simple fact is the best version of this Cubs team, at least defensively, is when Ross is on the field. The snag there is you just can’t play Ross daily, and now he’s on the 7-day DL for concussion protocol. With a history of concussions in his career, there’s no telling how another bell-ringing could affect ‘ol Gramps.

Offensively there has been a lot of inconsistency as well. Whether that’s partially due to injuries (Dexter Fowler’s absence has been extremely impactful) or virtually a new lineup every day,  it’s hard to tell. There have been some bright spots: Rookies Albert Almora Jr, and Willson Contreras have begun their MLB careers with distinction, and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant continue to slug well.

The good news: The Cubs still hold an 8 game lead in the NL Central, and are 19 games over .500 for the season. As we’re seeing, it’s great they got off to such a roaring start and built that cushion, because things change faster than people think in the game of baseball. More good news: All the above is correctable. Players will get healthy, pitching and defense can get sharper, and the bats can find consistency. It’s not a question of if.

There’s a whole half of baseball left to be played. Besides, I’m sure most Cubs fans would rather they struggle in June-July than September-October, right?

Fast Rise and Faster Fade: The Yde Mystery

Every generation has them: The flash-in-the-pan players who are highly touted, or sometimes coming from nowhere, to create an instant impression only to quickly fade into nothingness again. Emil Yde was one of these types. A potential ace in the early days of the Live Ball Era, Yde would fall as quickly as he rose, but not before enjoying some team and individual successes both on the mound and at the plate.

Pitchers that can hit can be a deadly weapon. Ah, in the classic style of baseball, before the Designated Hitter came about, and still (thankfully) the rule in the National League where pitchers bat for themselves, occasionally there’s a gem waiting to be mined. Although usually the weakest hitter in a given lineup, there is an opportunity for a threat to the opposition: If the pitcher can hit, it’s a formidable advantage.

Such was the case with Yde, and particularly in one game at Forbes Field, on June 25, 1924.

Rookie left-hander Emil Yde entered the game against the Cubs in the 4th inning, facing a 6-1 deficit. Yde would hold the Cubs in check the rest of the way, and at the plate he capped off an improbable comeback in the bottom of the 9th with a game-tying double. Continuing on the bump, Yde would add an RBI triple in the bottom of the 14th to give his Pirates an 8-7 win. The left-handed slinger would end the day having pitched 10 1/3 innings in relief for the victory, and add 5 RBI’s on two extra base hits.

Yde would have a brilliant season in 1924, finishing 16-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 14 complete games while leading the league in shutouts. He was highly effective the following year as well, going 17-9 with a 4.13 ERA and helping the Pirates win the World Series. An inexplicable decline in performance thereafter forced Yde to spend much of the late ’20’s racking up a ton of innings in the minors, and save for a brief stint with the Tigers in 1929, his life in the major leagues had ended. His final major league record of 49-25 was strong overall but ended up being unsustainable, and his career batting average of .233 was nothing to scoff at for a pitcher, either. He remained in the minors for a few more years, fading into obscurity before retiring at the age of 33 in 1933, having never been given another shot. His short, but notable career was a clear case of here one minute/gone the next.

For a brief moment however, Yde was the hero of the day.

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT192406250.shtml

The Grounds Crew: Artists of the Ballpark

Ah, the ballpark. To the players, coaches, and serious baseball fans, the ballpark isn’t just a place where the game of baseball is played. Instead, it’s considered hallowed ground that is so sacred, they may as well be called cathedrals. From their aesthetically pleasing lines and angles to the miraculously landscaped grass (heck, even the dirt looks perfect), and just the general aura of the field itself, ballparks across the world are a sight to be revered.

Today we offer a very special tip of the cap to those men and women who are responsible for so majestically nurturing the (literal) landscape of baseball. In honor of that recognition, we’re thrilled to have a little Q&A with Shaun Thomas, Head Groundskeeper for the Class-A Staten Island Yankees.

Q: Hi Shaun! Thanks for taking a few minutes with us today. What is your current role and with what organization?

A: No problem at all! I’m currently the Head Groundskeeper for the Staten Island Yankees, a Class-A affiliate.

Q: How did you get into groundskeeping as a profession?

A: I finished my baseball career in college and was not fortunate enough to get drafted to pro ball, so I figured groundskeeping was my next best route.

Q: Baseball fields are famous for the various patterns that get cut into the grass (checkerboards, crisscross designs, etc.) How exactly is that done and who chooses the designs?

A: The designs are chosen by me and my grounds crew. The two different colors that you see are just from the direction the mower was being driven on the grass. I have a reel mower which has rollers behind the three reels and the rollers bend the grass in which the direction the mower is going. The bending of the grass blade away from you lets more light reflect upward whereas the darker shade of green the grass blade is folded towards you and the light reflects down. So if you were to see one pattern behind home plate, it would look the exact same from center field, just opposite colors.

Q: Is there a specific type of dirt/clay that you use in the infield and warning track?

A: The warning track is usually just made up of crushed brick. As for the infield, there are two types of materials there: The sub soil is an engineered soil that is designed to retain water and get firmer as the moisture leaves. Then the top layer is calcined clay, which is just clay that is heated at extreme temperatures to harden it. The top layer is very minimal, just enough for the players to slide on.

Q: Is there a standard height the grass needs to be cut? Or is it your call? Or player’s preference?

A: The height of the grass is completely up to the Groundskeeper. Coaches and players can have their say, but it is ultimately the Groundskeeper’s choice. I keep my grass cut at 1 ¼ inches. I mow everyday so that my players have a consistent play with the same grass every day. A lot of teams cut their grass at 1 inch height. I keep mine a little longer because of the extra events we have at the stadium which leads to more wear and tear on my field.

Q: Best part of your job?

A: The best part of my job is waking up and going to the ballpark every day! It doesn’t feel like work! I have been around baseball since I can remember and I couldn’t imagine my life without it. As for the duties themselves I would say mowing is the best part. The grass is the first thing everyone sees when they walk in and I love seeing people’s reaction to a nice looking pattern!

Great stuff there! Thank you for your time Shaun, and keep up the great work making America’s pastime look so beautiful.

 

Gehrig Owns Comiskey For a Day

On this day in 1928, the Bronx Bombers visited Comiskey Park, which just a year before had undergone massive renovations largely to accommodate all the extra fans who wanted to witness the spectacle that was Babe Ruth.

Today however, it was the Iron Horse who put on the real show.

As if on cue, Ruth would belt out his 23rd home run of the season this day, but it paled in comparison to the 14 total bases and five runs collected by Lou Gehrig. His singular onslaught included two triples and two home runs while driving in five in the Yankees’ 15-7 thumping of the Pale Hose.

For good measure, Gehrig also added seven putouts and two assists on the day.

The Sox would add 13 hits of their own but a late surge would fall well short as the incendiary crusade led by Gehrig was too much to overcome. It was certainly not the only time the Iron Horse was the iron fist in a ballgame.

Source: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHA/CHA192806120.shtml

75 Years Ago Today, the Iron Horse Fell

75 years ago today, baseball’s Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, lost his battle with ALS at the all-too-young age of 37.

Widely regarded as one of the true good guys of baseball, Gehrig had a brilliant 17-year career, all with the Yankees, in which he was an integral part of an unprecedented eight World Series championship teams.

Upon retiring from baseball and being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1939 as one of the greatest of all time, his records still sit among the highest in history, even after 3/4 of a century since his passing. As of today, Gehrig still remains:

  • 14th in batting average (.340)
  • 11th in runs scored (1,888)
  • 5th in runs batted in (1,995)
  • 28th in home runs (493)

At the end of a stellar career in which he was a two-time MVP and also batted a career .361 in postseason play, Gehrig delivered, on July 4, 1939, perhaps the most famous speech in the history of the game:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Farewell, Buster. Baseball will never forget you.

                    http://www.baseballhall.org

Milestone for Gramps Is Just Another Contribution

In the fourth inning of yesterday’s 6-2  win over the visiting Phillies, veteran catcher David Ross blasted his 100th career homer, a 3-run, 417 foot rocket out of Wrigley Field, sending the home dugout and 38,000-plus fans into a frenzy.

 “The boys were excited, I was excited,” Ross said. “My favorite part while this has been going on is rounding second base and looking in the dugout. It makes me smile every time seeing everybody so happy for me and counting down for me. They’re as happy as I am. That makes me feel good.”

The new milestone was one of three 2016 Bucket List items for Ross, affectionately known as “Gramps” by his teammates and fans, in his final season before retirement.

As a journeyman backup catcher who’s long been known as an outstanding defensive player but not the greatest hitter, reaching the century mark in homers is a sizable accomplishment. For Ross is a throwback type to the old days when catchers were regarded as the field generals, defense-first players who called great games, mentally and spiritually guided the pitching staffs and terrorized opposing baserunners. 100 homers is nothing to scoff at from such a player. But nor is it a fluke.

“He brings so much more to us and to the game than just being a backup catcher,” says Jon Lester. “He makes our clubhouse better, he makes our guys better. He knows how to go about pushing buttons with certain guys and getting the best out of them. I know that’s true for myself. He knows how to say the right things without going too far.”

Ross’ swan song season has been nothing short of terrific to this point. In just 25 games so far, he sits among the league leaders in Defensive WAR, Assists, Stolen Base percentage and Range Factor, all categories that effectively measure a catcher’s performance. His bat isn’t too shabby either, as he’s hitting a solid .254 with 4 homers and 17 runs batted in. A noticeable increase in walks, long at-bats and sacrifices have rounded out his endless contributions to the Cubs’ early success. In addition, the extremely likable, always humble, team-first Ross provides immense value to this Cubs team both on and off the field, and has developed into a fan and league favorite.

“I’m proud to contribute to a good team,” Ross said. “None of us like to fail. Failing is not fun. I had a lot of failure at the plate last year. You’ve just got to keep working and you never know what’s going to happen the next at-bat, the next month or the next year. You have to keep working hard and trying your best. That’s what I’ve learned over my 14 years is, you know what, I’m going to go out there and put my best foot forward and play hard for my teammates.”

Catch a no-hitter? Check. Hit that 100th home run? Check.

We all know what that third Bucket List item for this season is.

Sources: http://www.cubs.mlb.com