Week of August 16, 2019

Miss you, Skeeter


Bo (Bichette) Knows…

This is the year of the baseball kids in Toronto, who have called up three sons whose dads were very prominent names in baseball during my childhood: Cavan Bishop (son of Craig), Bo Bichette (son of Dante), and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (you can guess that one). After a slow start, Vladdy is starting to really heat up, but this story focuses on Bo Bichette, who is tearing up the league in his first couple weeks in the bigs (.365 with 4 dingers, and a double in nine straight game, an all-time MLB record, not just for a rookie).

The Ringer wrote a story about him, and I had to share this hilarious anecdote from when Bo was in the low minors:

One day in 2017, Dunedin Blue Jays manager John Schneider was hanging around the cage, watching his new shortstop take batting practice. Bo Bichette, then all of 19 years old, had recently been called up from Toronto’s low-A affiliate in Lansing, Michigan, where he’d hit .384/.448/.623 over 70 games. As Bichette prepared to go against a superior level of pitching, Schneider and Dunedin hitting coach Corey Hart came to him with an idea. With less than two strikes, the 2016 second-round pick liked to rear back with a big leg kick and try to clobber the ball, whereas with two strikes he’d spread out his stance and moderate his swing in an attempt to make contact. Schneider and Hart wanted Bichette to moderate his leg kick early in at-bats too. “His batting average with two strikes was astronomically high that year,” says Schneider, who in November was promoted to a spot on the Blue Jays’ big league coaching staff.

The suggestion should’ve carried serious weight: Schneider had nearly a decade’s worth of minor league coaching experience at that point, while Hart had coached in the minors since 2006. But when the pair told Bichette what they wanted him to do, he looked back at them (up, really—Bichette is an even 6 feet; Schneider is 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and said, “No.” By way of explanation, Bichette asked his coaches whether they remembered when Tiger Woods was the best golfer in the world.

“We said yeah, but we didn’t really know where he was going with it,” Schneider says. “Bo said, ‘He would get on the tee box and he would just let it rip. He’d crush the ball 360 down the fairway and he didn’t care if he was off in the rough a little bit because he had confidence in his short game to get it on the green in two out of the rough.’

“And he just looked at us and said, ‘My two-strike approach is my short game.’”

Cocky? Sure. But, when you got it, you got it. -TOB

Source: The Growing Legend of Bo Bichette”, Michael Baumann, The Ringer (08/09/2019)


Clayton Kershaw Doesn’t Want to Be Exposed as a Fraud, Hates RoboUmps

Jayson Stark wrote a really interesting article about how things are going in the Atlantic League since they started using RoboUmps. The short of it is: there are kinks to work out, but it’s not bad. But I wanted to call attention to the whining by Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who knows RoboUmps will prevent him from getting all the B.S. calls he presently gets – calls that make him a much better pitcher than he really is. Here’s Kershaw:

How would there not be more offense? If they shrink the box and there’s no give at all, it’s going to be crazy. There’ll be more walks. And then the walks are going to slow down the pace of play. And then the games will be longer. And then the pace of game is gone. So it’s, like, what do you want? You want a fast game with more offense but not too many walks? So I mean, that’s embarrassing, honestly.

Think about what he’s saying here: there will be more walks because pitches outside the strike zone that are currently called strikes will no longer be called strikes. Well, if Clayton Kershaw hates it, I love it. Bring on the RoboUmps! -TOB

Source: The Robots are Coming! Examining Big Leaguers’ Biggest Fears About Their Future Electronic Overlords”, Jayson Stark, The Athletic (08/14/2019)


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“This could be perfect! My full time job could be our relationship. I could wear stretch pants and wait for you to come home at 5:15. This could work!”

-Jan Levinson

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Week of August 9, 2019


So Long, Joey Baseball

In sports, there are guys whose contributions in big moments far outweigh their lack of performance in others. No, I don’t mean clutch. But sometimes a guy has a couple moments so important to a team and a fanbase, that other fans look at the numbers and don’t understand. When the Giants honored Ryan Vogelsong a couple years back, opposing fans said, “Ryan Vogelsong?” Then they looked at his numbers and said, “Huh?” But they don’t remember the times Vogey stepped up and saved a playoff series. They don’t remember the times it looked like the opposing team was about to hang a big number on the Giants in the postseason, and Vogey got a strikeout and a double play to escape a jam.

Joe Panik is probably another guy like that. His numbers are…fine. 

That’s one very good season (2015, his second in the league), two average ones, and three bad ones. There’s a Gold Glove (we’ll get to that) and an All Star appearance. All in all, a very average six seasons. 

But to Giants fans, he’s beloved. The Giants absolutely do not win the 2014 World Series without him. He was not a highly rated prospect headed into the 2014 season. Hell, they brought in Brandon Hicks (the near-all Brandon infield was kinda cool, though) and Dan Uggla at the start of the year. Those two sucked. Uggla batted .000. Hicks just .162. So they decided to give Joe Panik a shot. He was still in AA when they called him up. He struggled immediately, hitting just .211 heading into the trade deadline. But the Giants didn’t panic (sorry, sorry!), and it paid off: Panik went 2012 Scutaro, hitting .338/.367/.414 over the final two months of the season. They finished six games clear of the third place Wild Card team, sure, but who knows – without Panik’s hot bat and sweet glove, maybe they tailspin and miss the playoffs entirely.

As it was, they made the playoffs and Panik made perhaps the biggest contribution outside of Bumgarner, on the way to the World Series title: The Double Play. Many have called it among the best defensive plays in World Series history, and I’ve never seen anyone argue against that position. Given the stakes, the point in the game, the difficulty of the play…it’s hard to beat.

As Brisbee points out, if Panik doesn’t get to that ball, it’s first and third with out out. In a game where every single base mattered, Panik saved four in one play. Here’s what I wrote about Panik in our World Series recap:

Joe Panik deserves mention. I have been watching the World Series since 1988. That is a total of 27. And while I don’t have total recall, I can’t recall a better and more important defensive play than the double play he turned in the third. It was only the bottom of the third, but until Gordon’s hit in the 9th, it was the last time the Royals would threaten. Cain led off with a single, and the Royals’ best hitter, Eric Hosmer, came up. He ripped a ground ball up the middle, and Panik came out of nowhere to glove it. Cain is fast, and he didn’t have much time, so before he even stopped sliding, Panik flipped the ball directly from his glove to Crawford, and Crawford threw an absolute bullet to get Hosmer at first. If that ball gets through, I think the game does not end well for the Giants.

After Game 5, my mom sent me a very cute and funny e-mail. After talking about how much she and my dad love Hunter Pence, with his “Marty Feldman eyes” and his high socks and pants pushed above his knees, she said, “Of course, Dad also has his other favorite, Panik. He loves him. He thinks he’s Mr. Baseball.” That nickname is official. Joe Panik is Mr. Baseball.

We started to actually call him Joey Baseball, and the nickname fit. The dude just knew how to play. He followed up that 2014 postseason run with an incredible 2015 season, hitting .312 with an OPS+ of 129, and made the All Star team. He continued to make plays like the one in the World Series, and won the Gold Glove in 2016. At age 25, it seemed the Giants had their second baseman for the next 7 years. KNBR’s Derek Jeter even declared him a “mini Wade Boggs.”

But sports are weird, and not always linear. 2016 saw Panik’s batting average drop almost 100 points, to .239 with an OPS+ of just 88. 2017 was better, but 2018 and 2019 were very bad. He’s still only 28, when players should be peaking. But when the Giants traded for two second basemen this trade deadline, the writing was on the wall. Sure enough, Panik was gone in less than a week.

By all accounts, Panik is a good guy and a great teammate. He made one of the most memorable baseball plays I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’m sad to see him go, even while recognizing it had to be done. I highly recommend you check out the Grant Brisbee article below, which chronicles the ten best moments of Panik’s Giants career. It’s awesome. So long, Joe – and thanks! -TOB

Source: The 10 Best Moments of Joe Panik’s Glorious Giants Career”, Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (08/07/2019)


Just How Bad Are MLB Umpires?

If you read this blog, you know I am ready for so-called RoboUmps. It’s frustrating to watch a game and see umpires inconsistently call balls and strikes. To see an obvious strike three called a ball, and then see the next pitch hit over the fence (Phil knows that feeling all too well). Or to see a 9th inning rally stopped short by a strike three call on a pitch way out of the zone. Umpiring is hard, and how we do it is imperfect. Have you ever umpired? It’s so hard. When I was umpiring a few years back, I realized I had a blind spot low in the zone. If it’s in the dirt, it’s obvious. But on any pitch close, your eyes are up at the batter’s chest and you are staring down at the ball – you don’t have the perspective to make the call correctly every time. But, I’m just an amateur, umpiring for 12-year olds. Do MLB umpires have the same problems? And just how often do they get calls wrong?

A team of graduate students at the Boston University School of Business decided to answer those questions, and more. To do so, they analyzed data on every single pitch thrown in MLB for 11 seasons – from 2008 through 2018. That’s over 4 million pitches, and they noticed a few trends worth noting.

First, umpires make an incorrect strike call on pitches out of the zone at a far higher rate when there are two strikes in the count (29% of all called strike threes were incorrect) as opposed to when there are less than two strikes in the count (just 15%). This suggests a two-strike bias – umpires loooooove to punch somebody out.

Second, like me, MLB umpires have blind spots – areas where they have trouble making the correct call. Check out this chart – the numbers represents the number of incorrect calls:

I find it fascinating how umpires have improved at calling low pitches, especially with how putrid they were in 2008 (49% incorrect in the lower right zone!!). My guess is MLB recognized this issue and educated umpires on it. Still, pitches in the upper corners remain absurdly incorrect (27%).

Third, umpires, get worse as they age, just like athletes. The ten best umpires from each year 2008-2018 had an average of 2.7 years of experience, and averaged 33 years of age. Those umpires got under 9% of their calls incorrect. None of those umpires had more than 5 years experience or were older than 37. Compare that to the ten worst umpires each year from 2008-2018, who had an average of 20.6 years experience and averaged 56 years of age. Those umpires got 56% more calls incorrect than the ten best umpires, or 13.96% of all their calls.

It’s this last point I find the most intriguing, because it’s very easy to fix. Usually, if you know an umpire’s name, it’s not a good thing. Sure enough, the data shows the big names like Angel Hernandez, Joe West, Mike Winters, and Laz Diaz all stink. Now, it could be that there aren’t better umpires in the minor leagues ready to take their spots. But it seems MLB would be wise to move these guys out from behind the plate once they hit a certain age – vision and reaction times slow as we age, for umpires just as for players, and we could significantly improve umpire performance by culling the herd, so to speak.

The article makes a strong case for allowing the existing radar systems to call balls and strikes. At this point, with MLB testing it in the Atlantic League, it seems inevitable. Thanks to my dad for sending along the article! -TOB

Source: MLB Umpires Missed 34,294 Ball-Strike Calls in 2018. Bring on Robo-Umps?”, Mark T. Williams, BU Today (04/08/2019)


You Didn’t Do Anything Wrong, Twins…

I haven’t been keeping up with sports much on the honeymoon (you have to see the Dolomites if ever possible). Scanning your phone for stories isn’t a good use of time when your day is filled with croissants and cappuccinos, hikes and aperitivos, wine and pasta and strolls around the hamlet. 

But I have been keeping an eye on my Twins. I’m aware that, as of 7:15 AM local time on Friday, the team now clings to a single game lead over the scorching hot Indians after losing the opening game in a big series between the two teams. 

This was destined to happen months ago. It started when I looked up the team’s percent chance of winning the AL Central six weeks ago (it was 93.6% as of 6/1/19, and it’s now 68%). I further tempted fate when I spoke dismissively about another team. I wrote on our wedding website that people interested in joining us for a Wednesday afternoon Giants should have no problem getting tickets cheaply when they arrive because “the Giants aren’t very good this year, so there should be seats aplenty right before the game.”

And so here we are, the Twins double-digit lead on the Indians is down to one game, and sphincters across Minnesota are clinched pretty tight this weekend. Here’s the odd thing: The Twins haven’t cratered as the Indians have made its run over the last month or so. As Michael Baumann points out, since June 2 the Twins have been 4 games over .500 (as of 8/5/19…so now the team is right at .500). In that same time, the Indians have been on a tear. 

So, with all this in mind, you think the Twins would’ve been eager to make a big move at last week’s trade deadline. Their big moves? Two relievers. They simply wouldn’t part with top prospects (or young MLB roster guys) to land a top of the rotation pitcher, and their offense is on pace to break the single-season home run record, so we’re fine offensively. 

Meanwhile, the Indians made bold moves at the deadline. They got creative and, through a three-team trade – moved a top of the rotation pitcher in Trevor Bauer for Yaseil Puig and Franmil Reyes – two power-hitting outfielders. 

The Indians were creative and bold, and the Twins hesitated. It seemed odd. As Baumann points out, just last offseason it was the Twins that had been creative and bold in assembling what is now the most dinger-crazy lineup in baseball history. The team was aggressive in trying to catch the Indians (the presumed division favorite before the season started). Now that Twins have something to lose, they elected the “hold on for dear life” approach. 

Minnesota didn’t do anything that disruptive at the deadline—no other contender did—but adding Dyson and Romo is a finger in the dike, not a counterpunch to Cleveland’s late-July additions. Given the Twins’ head start, and how good their offseason acquisitions have been, that stop gap might be enough. Minnesota closed the gap on Cleveland by being aggressive this offseason, and through their relative inactivity at the deadline, allowed Cleveland to get back on level footing. If Minnesota does cough up its division lead and falls into the bingo cage of the AL wild-card race, the team’s relatively quiet deadline will stick out more than any untimely strikeout or blown save. Inaction carries its own flavor of risk.

No one knows if the Indians gamble will pay off. Bauer is having an off year, but he’s proven to be a top of the rotation pitcher on a good team. Puig is Puig and will no doubt do Puig things, which is to say he’ll have moments of awesome punctuated by bonehead and distracting crap. Franmil Reyes hits a lot of dingers and not much else (his WAR is -0.2). 

Who knows how it will play out, but one thing’s for certain: I find it difficult to be stressed about it as we set off for Lago Maggiore to continue the trip:

-PAL 

Source: Minnesota’s Historic Season Still Might Not Be Enough to Best Cleveland”, Michael Baumann, The Ringer (08/05/19)


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Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “American Girl”


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“If this is about what happened in the bathroom, there was no place to cuddle…”

– Michael Scott