Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 15, 2018

Proof The Older Guys Are Good Too

The date is April 20, 2014. One week ago, Bubba Watson won his second green jacket, claiming the Masters by three strokes over Sweden’s Jonas Blixt and a 20-year-old American named Jordan Spieth, who was playing at Augusta National for the very first time. Watson and Spieth entered the final round tied for the lead, and at one point the young challenger moved two shots clear, threatening to eclipse Tiger Woods as the youngest winner of every golf season’s first major. But Watson reeled Spieth in over the tournament’s final nine holes, winning with a fine final round of 69 and an 8-under par total of 281.

Englishman Lee Westwood, long a star of the European Tour, finished in seventh place at 1-under, the last golfer to break par in a week in which Augusta National proved resistant to scoring. Westwood wasted no time in Georgia after signing his scorecard, winging halfway around to world to tee it up this week at the Maybank Malaysian Open, an event co-sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours. He is just days shy of his forty-first birthday but appears unfazed by either age or jet lag. Westwood took the lead on Thursday with an opening 65, and now coasts to a seven-shot victory over Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. It is his twenty-third European Tour triumph. The win moves Westwood, who once topped the Official World Golf Rankings, back into the top thirty.

Many time zones away and hours after Westwood has lifted his trophy, the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage is nearing its climax. Unlike the peripatetic Westwood most of the finishers at the Masters have traveled less than 150 miles southeast to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Here at the very tip of the barrier island, Harbour Town Golf Links is the long-time site of the Heritage. It’s a Tour stop familiar to casual golf fans by the candy-striped lighthouse that sits across an inlet behind the 18th green and for the red plaid jacket given to the winner, an article of clothing even more garish than that won by Watson seven days ago.

The final round of the Heritage begins with Luke Donald in the lead, but thirty-five-year-old Matt Kuchar makes six birdies on the front nine to turn for home in just 30 strokes, then adds another at the par-4 10th hole to seize the lead. Kuchar and Donald battle on from there, until a three-putt bogey at the 17th drops the popular American back into a tie with England’s former world number one. Playing ahead of Donald, Kuchar puts his approach at the home hole into a bunker fronting Harbour Town’s final green, meaning he now needs to get up and down to save par and remain tied. Instead Kuchar’s sand shot lands softly and rolls straight and true, dead into the cup for a birdie. When Donald comes home with a string of pars, Kuchar has his seventh PGA Tour title and at number five, is solidly ensconced in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings.

Like Westwood, Kuchar presaged his win by playing well at the Masters, where he finished tied with Rickie Fowler for fifth place, six shots adrift of Watson and one clear of Westwood. So this weekend’s two winners, one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in South Carolina share not just a victory on their respective home Tours, but a good performance at Augusta National, a solid world ranking, and one decidedly less desirable distinction, a spot high on the list of best golfers who have never won a major.

The date is November 11, 2018. More than four years have passed since the events described above, and in all that time two things have not happened. Matt Kuchar has not won a PGA Tour event, and Lee Westwood has not triumphed on the European Tour. Neither has been entirely shut out. Kuchar topped the field at the Fiji International, a PGA Tour of Australasia event, in 2015, while Westwood won Asian Tour tournaments later in 2014 and again early in 2015. But that the success of both on their home Tours would suddenly stop could hardly have been foreseen on that spring Sunday four and a half years ago.

Kuchar, who began 2018 still ranked fifteenth, suffered through a particularly miserable season. He recorded just four top-10 finishes, missed three cuts in five tournaments from the U.S. Open to the PGA Championship, and was forced to watch the Ryder Cup from the sidelines as an assistant captain after qualifying for the American Ryder and Presidents Cup squads seven years in a row. Westwood’s slide, as he moved into his mid-forties, has been more gradual but also more sustained, the product of the slow erosion of skills that time inevitably imposes on every athlete.

The one certainty for both golfers was that little was expected of either this week, when Kuchar teed it up at the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic south of Cancun, Mexico, and Westwood began play at the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa. But as play unfolded in the final rounds of both tournaments the two veterans turned back the clock, doing so by swapping the roles each had played four seasons earlier.

This time it was Kuchar who took command of the tournament, opening with a 7-under par 64 that was good for a share of the lead. He matched that score on Friday, and nearly did so again with Saturday’s 65, giving himself a four-shot cushion for the final round. On this Sunday the now forty-year-old needed all that edge, as he turned shaky with a pair of bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes. But Kuchar steadied himself and parred in, holing a final nervy putt from three feet at the last to keep Danny Lee at bay.

On the European Tour it was Westwood’s turn to come charging through the field as the weekend came to a close. He began the day three shots back of Sergio Garcia, the leader from the tournament’s start. But neither Garcia nor anyone else could match Westwood’s stellar play over the final 18 holes. With an eagle three at the par-5 2nd hole and six birdies from there to the clubhouse, Westwood’s closing 64 vaulted him past his competitors to a three-shot victory.

There is of course no cosmic connection between these two golfers. It is but coincidence that the pair won on the same day this week, after also doing so in their previous home Tour wins more than four years earlier. But in a sport that like so many other of our games is increasingly dominated by youth, where the current flavor of the month is monstrously long-hitting twenty-three-year-old Cameron Champ, the twin wins by Kuchar and Westwood reminded us that golf will always be a game for life. Surely neither of the two thought their 2014 wins would be their last. And just as surely, over the long months since, doubts crept into both their minds. Westwood’s raw emotion after winning Sunday was proof of that. But now, once again, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood can turn their thoughts to the next victory.

Advertisements
Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 11, 2018

A Bang-Up Career About To End With A Whimper

As this is written, the Rockets are about to host the Pacers at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston. It’s a welcome return home for the Space City’s NBA franchise after a five-game road trip that started well enough but ended with a pair of losses to the Thunder and the Spurs, two Western Conference rivals that the Rockets are chasing in the early season standings. Actually, Houston is looking up at almost every team in the west, its 4-7 record better than just three other franchises. If the Rockets find a way to defeat Indiana, the win will be the team’s first home victory of the season after four defeats.

That is a shocking reversal from last season, when Houston dropped just seven home games all year, and played nearly as well on the road, finishing with a record of 65-17, seven games better than the Golden State Warriors in the conference standings. The Rockets then tore through the first two rounds of the playoffs, dropping just a single contest to both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz to advance to the Conference Finals and a matchup with the defending champion Warriors. Many fans viewed that conference showdown as the league’s true championship series, believing either Houston or Golden State would dispatch the Eastern Conference representative with ease.

While it’s impossible to know what might have happened if say, Houston and Boston had met in the Finals, what is certain is that Golden State swept Cleveland aside four games to none, proof enough for those prognosticators to claim they had been right. Certainly the Western Conference Finals proved compelling, with the Rockets going up three games to two before getting blown out in Game 6 in Oakland. Then in the decisive Game 7 Houston led by eleven points at the half before being manhandled by Golden State in the third quarter, 33-15. The Rockets were unable to recover from that swing of eighteen points in twelve minutes, and eventually fell to the defending champs 101-92.

Amidst the disappointment of that loss, in which the lowlight was Houston shooters missing an NBA playoff record twenty-seven straight 3-point attempts, the future looked bright for the Rockets. The team signed Chris Paul to a four-year, $160 million contract extension during the offseason, thus assuring fans that he would continue to team with newly names league MVP James Harden. If the challenge of finding a way past Golden State remained large, at least Houston started out as the presumed second best team in the league’s dominant conference.

Or so fans thought. A losing record over the season’s opening three-plus weeks does not necessarily spell doom, but clearly the Rockets are going through some mighty struggles on offense. Last season the team was the pride of the NBA, with an offensive rating of 114.0. Entering Sunday evening’s contest against the Pacers, Houston ranked twenty-seventh in the same statistic, at 103.1. The Rockets have slipped defensively as well, but Mike D’Antoni’s team has always been more about scoring than stops.

Houston’s troubles run deeper than any one player, but the one other significant off-season move by the Rockets was to sign 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony to a one-year contract at the veteran’s minimum of $2.4 million. The move came less than a year after Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to Oklahoma City, where he was supposed to team with Russell Westbrook and Paul George to form a new “Big Three” that would allow the Thunder to compete against the Warriors. Instead Anthony posted the worst numbers of his career, failing to average twenty points per game for the first time ever. Playing a little over thirty-two minutes per game, the lowest number in his career, he averaged just 16.2 points and visibly chafed when he was moved out of the starting rotation.

Last summer Thunder general manager Sam Presti opted to cut his losses and traded Anthony to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a three-team deal that was little more than a salary dump for Oklahoma City. Five days after the trade Atlanta waived Anthony, leaving him free to negotiate his new deal with Houston. Rockets GM Daryl Morey optimistically noted that it’s “easy to find highlights for him!” in a tweet confirming the signing.

That is certainly true. Anthony is a ten-time All Star who will one day be in the Hall of Fame. The prolific shooter has averaged 24 points per fame over a career that is now in its sixteenth season. But perhaps Morey should have taken time to look at the three-minute YouTube video before he included the link to it in his tweet. The first thing one notices about “Top 10 Carmelo Anthony Career Plays,” even before pushing “play,” is that the video is more than five years old. The second glaring feature is that nine of the ten plays show Anthony in a Denver Nuggets uniform, and thus are from the first eight years of his career. Just one play is from his time at Madison Square Garden, where he played his home games as a member of the Knicks from 2011 through 2017. Even given the age of the video, that only one play from his first two seasons in New York made the top ten would be seen by most fans as a warning sign about the direction of Melo’s career.

Now it looks like that career may be coming to an end. Anthony sat out the Rockets’ loss to San Antonio on Saturday with an unspecified illness, and Sunday afternoon word came that he would be out against Indiana as well. In his most recent game, against the Thunder last Thursday, Anthony shot just 1-for-11 from the field while missing all six of his 3-point tries. On the season his production has dropped even below the anemic levels of last year, with his scoring average down to 13.4 points per game.

Against that backdrop the Internet on Sunday afternoon was filled with rumors that Anthony had been told his brief time in a Rockets uniform was about to end, with Houston planning to waive the former star. Apart from his abysmal performance, Anthony and the Rockets are said to be at an impasse over his role, with Melo still believing that he should be a starter.

For now, general manager Morey is denying the rumors, while head coach D’Antoni is sidestepping questions from reporters. But the reports are from multiple sources, which makes it seem likely that sooner or later, and most likely sooner, Carmelo Anthony will be an aging veteran with drastically diminished skills looking for employment. It will be a sad ending for a player who in his prime was a singular scoring talent. But with Melo the emphasis, apparently right until the end, was always on “singular,” and basketball remains a team sport.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 8, 2018

But What Have You Done For Us Lately, Joel?

Joel Quenneville lost his job this week. That might not seem noteworthy unless one lives in Chicago, and even there it’s probably of particular interest only to fans of the city’s NHL franchise. Quenneville woke up Tuesday morning as head coach of the Blackhawks, but went to bed that night a man looking for work. Sometimes, as in this case, a coach’s firing wreaks collateral damage. When Chicago general manager Stan Bowman decided that a 6-6-3 record to start the season wasn’t good enough, especially when the team’s last five games had all been losses, he dismissed assistant coaches Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson as well. Bowman then asked Jeremy Colliton to take Quenneville’s place behind the Chicago bench, promoting the 33-year-old from the head coaching position at the franchise’s AHL affiliate in nearby Rockford, Illinois.

It is one of the harder truths of sports that “job security” and “head coach” are not words frequently used in the same sentence. Although the NHL season is only five weeks old, Quenneville isn’t even the first team leader to be shown the door. That dubious distinction went to John Stevens, who was axed by the Los Angeles Kings three days earlier. The NBA, the other major sports league with a season just getting started, has also seen its first firing with the dismissal of Tyronn Lue from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench late last month.

Yet even if every coach lives with the expectation of eventually being fired, the news of Quenneville’s dismissal is a reminder that even a sterling resume is no redoubt against the twin onslaught of sagging performance and a frosty relationship with a general manager. Because the one thing Joel Quenneville surely possessed was a record of great accomplishment in Chicago. Of the franchises that comprise the Original Six NHL members, only the New York Rangers have fewer championships and fewer appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals than Chicago. But before Quenneville took over early in the 2008-09 season the Blackhawks trailed even the Rangers with three titles to New York’s four, and were tied with the Broadway Blueshirts for fewest appearances with ten.

With just those three Stanley Cups in eighty-two seasons, fans in Chicago were used to disappointment. But Quenneville wasted no time in instilling a different attitude in both his players and the paying customers who finally had good reasons to fill the seats at the United Center. Named head coach after the team took just one of its first four games in the fall of 2008, he took a team that had made the playoffs just once in the past ten seasons all the way to the Western Conference Finals the following spring. One year later Quenneville’s team topped fifty regular season wins for the first time in franchise history and steamrolled to a title without facing a single elimination game in any of four playoff rounds. Three years later, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Chicago won again, this time besting the Boston Bruins four games to two in the Finals. And just two seasons after that Chicago claimed its third Cup on Quenneville’s watch, eliminating Nashville, Minnesota and Anaheim in the Conference rounds before downing Tampa Bay in six games in the season’s final series.

Three titles in six years is a record of dominance. One must go back to the Detroit Red Wings run from 1997 to 2002 to find its equal, so the logical expectation would be that a head coach with such a record would be given considerable latitude by his front office. Fans in Chicago now know how GM Bowman defines “considerable.”

The first sign of trouble for Quenneville came at the end of the 2016-17 season, two years after his team’s last championship. Chicago appeared poised for another deep playoff run, having won fifty regular season games for the second time ever and garnered the number one seed in the Western Conference with 109 points. Instead the Blackhawks became the first top seed to be swept by a number eight seed in the opening round. Chicago skaters failed to light the lamp on home ice, shut out 1-0 and 5-0 by the Predators in the first two games. Quenneville’s team at least managed to score in Nashville, but still went down by scores of 3-2 and 4-1.

That bitter disappointment was compounded last season, when Chicago lost more games than it won and missed the playoffs for the first time during Quenneville’s tenure.

This year started hopefully, with the team skating to a 6-2-2 record over the first three weeks. But since a 4-1 victory over the Rangers on October 25th Chicago has managed just a single point in five games while being outscored 22-9.

While many coaches responsible for three championship banners hanging in an arena’s rafters would be given a chance to lead a franchise out of such a slump, Quenneville had the added burden of an often-fraught relationship with Bowman. The general manager’s calculations surely considered the reality that Chicago’s biggest problem is a roster that had to be torn apart because of the NHL’s hard salary cap. That’s a burden that isn’t going away any time soon, and one that ultimately falls not on the coach but on the front office. By firing Quenneville, Bowman is trying to point the finger of blame elsewhere. Hiring the youngest head coach in the NHL, one with no prior major league coaching experience, might also give the GM some additional job security, something that Chicago’s salary cap woes strongly suggest he’s done nothing to earn.

With those three Stanley Cups and a .627 regular season winning percentage during his time behind the Chicago bench, Joel Quenneville won’t be unemployed for any longer than he chooses. An article on ESPN.com listed eight teams – more than one-quarter of the league – as possible landing spots, and that number didn’t include the option of continuing to cash the Chicago paychecks due him by contract while waiting for the NHL’s next expansion into Seattle in 2020. Still, his firing is a stark reminder that in all our major leagues, few positions are as tenuous as that of head coach. The message to Jeremy Colliton is clear, don’t get too comfortable kid.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2018

Game Winner Won, Enable Was Able, And Accelerate Did

Thirty-five editions later, it is hard to imagine that the idea of the Breeders’ Cup was met with skepticism when first proposed by John Gaines at the 1982 Kentucky Derby Festival awards luncheon. The pet food heir turned thoroughbred breeder and owner was hoping to burnish the image of a fading American sport by giving the racing calendar, which for most casual fans is heavily weighted toward the spring and the trifecta of Triple Crown races, a season-ending spectacle. Gaines, who passed away in 2005, would be fully justified in proclaiming a hearty “I told you so” to all the naysayers he encountered in Louisville. First staged as a one-day card with eight races two years after he proposed it, Gaines’s concept is now run over two days, with five races for 2-year-olds on Friday and nine more for older horses on Saturday. It has also spawned the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, in which the winner of more than eighty races around the world, from January through October, automatically qualifies for one of the Breeders’ Cup stakes races.

This year the event returned to the site of its conception, Churchill Downs, for the ninth time. That ties the venerable old racecourse with Santa Anita Park as the most frequent host, at least until next November when the Breeders’ Cup will again be staged against the stunning backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. With purses ranging from $1 to $6 million and totaling a record $28 million, and every race but the new Juvenile Turf Sprint a Grade I, the Breeders’ Cup is now widely recognized as the premier event of American thoroughbred racing.

With Friday’s focus on 2-year-olds more than 43,000 fans turned out hoping to catch an early glimpse of the contenders for next year’s Triple Crown. That naturally meant the greatest focus was on the 1 1/16 mile Juvenile, the winner of which often garners Horse of the Year honors for his or her age group and is always conferred early favorite status for the following spring’s Kentucky Derby. With Joel Rosario aboard, the Bob Baffert trained Game Winner was sent off as the even money favorite. Rosario was content to run mid-pack through the first three-quarters of a mile, while Complexity, the second betting choice, set the pace. On the far turn Game Winner moved up on the outside, and as the field turned for home Rosario may have been surprised to find his competition was not Complexity, who began to fade, but the 40-1 longshot Knicks Go. The two ran side by side into the final furlong, even bumping at one point. But in the end the favorite was just too good, pulling away to win by just over two lengths.

His shock of snow-white hair alone makes trainer Baffert the most recognizable figure in thoroughbred racing. It’s hardly a surprise that he would saddle the early Derby favorite, as he guided first American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 and then Justify to the same horse racing glory earlier this year. But Baffert also understands the vagaries of the sport, so it’s certain that he’s not overly impressed by the accolades being tossed Game Winner’s way. It took more than ten runnings of the Juvenile before a winner went on to capture any of the three Triple Crown races the following year. That was Timber Country at the 1995 Preakness. Only two Juvenile champions have emerged victorious at the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist two years ago. It’s a long way from Churchill Downs in November to the same starting gate next May.

More than 70,000 were in the stands on Saturday, making the two-day attendance the third highest in Breeders’ Cup history. As always, the richest races were the last two on the card, the $4 million Turf, run at a mile and a half, and the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, run as always at the classic American thoroughbred distance of a mile and a quarter.

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, run at Longchamp in Paris every October, is the most prestigious horse race in mainland Europe. Eight times before a winner of the Arc, as it is popularly known, had shipped over to compete in one of the Breeders’ Cup races, and eight times the trip had been in vain. That didn’t stop the punters from making Enable, the 4-year-old filly who has dominated European racing and who won her second Arc last month, the 4-5 favorite in the Turf. Louisville saw heavy rains in the days leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori were both concerned about the inner lanes of the turf course. Churchill’s turf layout drains inward, meaning the portion closest to the rail was likely to be the wettest.

So after breaking from the two hole Dettori quickly steered Enable toward the center of the track, three and even four spots wide of the rail, running comfortably in fifth place for much of the lengthy race. Dettori urged Enable forward and even further outside on the far turn, and she was the widest of a four-horse wall that charged into the final stretch as one. Others fell back but Magical, the only other filly in the race, kept pace with the favorite as the final yards slipped by. The two raced together down the center of the turf course until at the last Enable moved half a length clear for the victory, cementing her place in the record books as the first Arc winner to score a Breeders’ Cup win.

That left only the Classic, where Accelerate, the 5-year-old chestnut stallion, was sent off as a very slight favorite in the fourteen-horse field. Accelerate had won repeatedly throughout his career in California, but there were a few in the crowd who questioned whether he would travel well. It’s likely that more fans had doubts about his trainer. With three earlier losses at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, veteran John Sadler was an unsightly 0 for 44 at the season-ending spectacle when he gave jockey Rosario a leg up on Accelerate in the Churchill Downs paddock.

But as Sadler pointed out, it takes great skill over many years to get that many horses into Breeders’ Cup fields. He was confident that in time his efforts would be rewarded, and on Saturday that time came. It was Mendelssohn who took the early lead, as Rosario focused on moving Accelerate in from his break out of the fourteen post. The field ran a scorching first quarter before the pace moderated on the back stretch. Then just like Enable in the Turf, Accelerate moved to the outside and was one of four horses vying for the lead on the far turn. The favorite moved in front the lead at the top of the stretch, then finally began to pull clear at the sixteenth pole. Late runners Gunnevera and Thunder Snow made their charges, but too late to catch the winner.

It was a magnificent run that capped an outstanding campaign, one that has some pundits touting Accelerate for Horse of the Year. That seems unlikely in a season that featured a Triple Crown champion, and an undefeated one at that, even if Justify was retired early after a leg injury. No doubt John Sadler will be content with no longer being 0 for the Breeders’ Cup.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2018

Red Sox Are Winners, Some Fans Less So

On Wednesday, for the fourth time in fifteen years, the championship parade marking the end of the longest season rolled through the streets of Boston. Fans lined the city’s streets, striving to catch a glimpse of and cheer on their heroes, who rode in a long line of duck boats that made slow but steady progress from Fenway Park to the North End. That this year’s parade should return to New England was hardly a surprise. The Red Sox began the season with by far the fattest payroll in the Great Game, more than $30 million over the luxury tax threshold. While Boston fans have historically complained bitterly about the free-spending ways of the New York Yankees, they were somehow able to temper their moral outrage when the open checkbook belonged to Sox owner John Henry instead of a Steinbrenner.

Who could blame them? For Henry’s largesse stocked a roster with one former Cy Young Award winner in David Price, and another starter in Chris Sale who, when this year’s voting for that award is announced, will finish in the top five for the sixth straight year and who would likely have joined Price as a winner but for time lost to injury in the second half of the season. Boston also had plenty of money to lure free agent slugger J.D. Martinez away from Arizona, to pay a promising group of young homegrown talent at various positions, and to meet needs during the season by trading for first baseman Steve Pearce and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi. Pearce was named MVP of the World Series while Eovaldi delivered an ERA of 1.61 over 22 1/3 postseason innings.

Under first year manager Alex Cora the Red Sox spent exactly one day under .500, when they dropped their Opening Day contest against Tampa by a score of 6-4. Boston then reeled off nine straight wins and followed their second loss of the season with an eight game winning streak to start the campaign at 17-2. It was still April but the Red Sox already led the Yankees by 7 ½ games, with the Toronto Blue Jays between them, four games adrift of the division leaders. The fast start was important, for while the Jays faded to finish well below .500, Boston and New York essentially played to a draw from that early point on, with the final standings showing the Red Sox eight games in front of the second place Yankees.

The Sox kept right on rolling through the postseason, dropping just a single contest in each of the three playoff rounds, finally capping their run with a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series last Sunday night. Boston’s 108 regular season wins and 119 total victories both set franchise records. One year after finishing last in the American League in home runs, the Red Sox became an offensive juggernaut, leading the majors in batting average, OPS, extra-base hits, and total bases. If the team’s pitching wasn’t quite as dominant it was certainly more than good enough. Boston’s moundsmen finished third in the AL in both ERA and strikeouts. And just to complete the picture, defensively the Red Sox tied for second in the league in fielding percentage.

Despite all those gaudy numbers, Boston was constantly criticized and second-guessed. In the brief interval between the ALCS and the Series, David Waldstein penned an article in the New York Times chronicling the litany of complaints – “Their record was inflated with easy wins over inferior teams, critics charged. The bullpen middle relief is terrible, others complained. The starting pitching is suspect, and the ace of the staff is hiding a shoulder injury. There is no solid third baseman, second base is a hole, and the closer can’t throw a strike that isn’t hit into the stands or close to it.”

What Waldstein’s piece didn’t mention was the stunning extent to which the carping originated within driving distance of Fenway Park. An otherwise uninformed tourist stuck in traffic on Route 128 and listening to one of Boston’s sports talk radio stations during the season would have been excused for assuming that the local team was plunging toward the AL East cellar rather than ascending to unheard of heights. Caller after caller cast doubt on the team’s performance and predicted its demise, as if everything that was happening on the field night after night was but an illusion, perhaps some trick of the lighting thrown off by the giant Citgo sign beyond the Green Monster. Worse than the know-nothing opinions of the callers was the failure of most of the supposedly expert radio hosts to object to the dismal assessments. Fans may not have minded John Henry opening his checkbook, but throughout the summer they harbored plenty of doubts that the dollars had been well spent.  All the more remarkable is that many of these same callers, when speaking about the Patriots, display a confidence that often crosses over into arrogance.

When the season’s result proved both their fears groundless and their team’s dominance no chimera, the reactions of many fans was even more off kilter. After the final out was recorded at Dodger Stadium Sunday night, the initial cheers from the Boston fans in the crowd soon gave way to a familiar taunt, “Yankee suck! Yankees suck!” Three days later the cry again sounded at various points along the parade route, and a large banner with the same two words hung from a building.

Rivalries are an important element of every sport, and few are as enduring as the one between the denizens of Fenway and the team that calls the Stadium home. But the Yankees were of course nowhere near Chavez Ravine during the World Series, nor for that matter Minute Maid Park in Houston during the ALCS. If fans really considered outlasting New York the crowning achievement of Boston’s season, perhaps Wednesday’s parade should have been held three weeks ago (without the Commissioner’s Trophy, of course), right after the American League Division Series.

That is presumably not really the case for Red Sox fans, who this week are rightfully reveling in their team’s championship. But both the widespread doubts of so many of them throughout the campaign, and the immediate focus on their Gotham rival after the title was secured, speak volumes about the psyche of generations of the Boston faithful. For while this is the team’s fourth title in fifteen years, it is also the fourth in one hundred, and therein lies a history that is apparently still not easy to escape.

In the eighty-six year stretch between Boston’s fifth World Series championship in 1918 and its sixth in 2004, the Red Sox made just four trips to the Fall Classic. Each ended in heartbreak. In 1946 Boston squandered a three games to two lead against St. Louis. Twenty-one years later, again versus the Cardinals, the Red Sox rallied from down three games to one to tie the Series, only to badly lose Game 7 at home by a final of 7-2. In 1975 they beat the heavily favored Big Red Machine in a taut 12-inning Game 6, only to again go down to defeat at home in the decisive contest. And in 1986 the Red Sox traveled to Shea Stadium needing just one win in the Series final two contests to defeat the Mets. Then in Game 6 Boston needed just one more out in the 10th inning, then just one more strike, before it all came undone.

Over that same march of seasons, the Yankees represented the American League in the Series thirty-nine times, winning a total of twenty-six titles. For many if not most of those seasons the rivalry between the two clubs was in name only, though there was Bucky F’n Dent in the one game playoff in 1978, and Aaron F’n Boone in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003. So when at last the Red Sox pulled off the impossible, rallying from three games down to vanquish New York in the 2004 ALCS, there was catharsis. But not, it turns out, a turning of the page.

As if stuck forever in the long years of despair, some Sox fans still habitually see the glass as half empty, even in the very best of years. And no matter what team Boston beats, there will always be an element of the fan base that responds like angst-ridden younger siblings, forever measuring achievements not by their own merit, but by how they compare to those of the more accomplished big brother. Congratulations on a tremendous season to the Red Sox and their fans. Even the ones incapable of fully appreciating the moment.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2018

Book Review: Nine Innings In The Postmodern Era

As this is written, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to play Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. With Boston holding a three games to one advantage, the final out of the longest season may be just a few hours away, perhaps already recorded by the time many readers turn their attention to this post. If not, then the moment will come in Fenway Park on Tuesday or Wednesday.

With the first days of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona a distant memory, the curtain is coming down on another season of the Great Game. Or Baseball, as Rob Neyer prefers in his new book “Power Ball,” which On Sports and Life highly recommends. Not baseball, with a small “b,” but Baseball. Neyer’s capitalization, like the two-word term used in this space, distinguishes the game at its highest professional level from the underlying sport. The latter finds its origins not with Abner Doubleday but with eighteenth century stick and ball games played in England. In its evolved form baseball is played around the globe, from sandlots to side streets to schools and colleges and in countless minor league parks and numerous professional leagues on other continents.

The Great Game, Neyer’s Baseball, is the epitome of the sport, thirty Major League Baseball franchises playing a 162-game schedule leading to a multi-round tournament that culminates with the World Series. The current state of that level of the game is the subject of considerable debate. While Neyer’s book won’t end the discussion (sports fans love nothing more than a good argument), it makes a worthy contribution to it, with the added benefit of being a compelling read.

Neyer began his career working with Bill James and then STATS, LLC, before writing for ESPN, SB Nation, and later Fox Sports. Earlier this year he became commissioner of the West Coast League, the premier west coast summer college league. Given his start, it’s no surprise that he’s committed to the use of advanced analytics, even while understanding the significant changes brought on by increased reliance on sabermetrics. For Neyer the most dramatic change, as his title suggests, is the heightened importance of power; not just in the form of increased slugging, but also power on the mound with pitchers throwing ever harder, and power in the front office with general managers sifting through more data while making personnel decisions.

The book’s subtitle is “Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game,” and Neyer builds his analysis around a detailed description of a late season contest in September 2017 between the visiting Houston Astros, well on their way to the playoffs, and the home Oakland Athletics, stuck in last place in the AL West. Some fans may recognize the construct, famously used by Arnold Hano with “A Day in the Bleachers” more than six decades ago, and by Dan Okrent in “Nine Innings” in 1985. Neyer pays homage to both Hano and Okrent, as well as to Michael Lewis, whose seminal “Moneyball” introduced most fans to the concept and growing use of advanced analytics and set the stage for an entire new lexicon of statistics that have rendered familiar numbers like batting average, ERA, and a pitcher’s win-loss record increasingly obsolete. He suggests that if “Moneyball” described what was then the modern game, the current reliance on reams of data has taken the Great Game into its postmodern era, one made possible not just by stat nerds capable of making sense of the new numbers, but also by enhanced technology able to capture the data in real-time.

At the same time, and this is a welcome development coming from a committed sabermetrician, Neyer is dismissive of the growing use of statistics without context. He reports not just on the game between the Astros and A’s, but also on the television coverage by the two team’s media outlets. Both sets of announcers’ report on the launch angle and exit velocity of every well-struck ball, and Neyer rightly questions the value of such information for the average fan. What does an angle of 23.6 degrees, or a velocity of 98.7 miles per hour mean, and if the numbers can’t be given useful meaning, why bother mentioning them?

Neyer uses the unfolding game to highlight the major features of the postmodern game, from defensive shifts to uppercut swings to pitch counts and specialized relievers. But he also goes beyond the importance of analytics to discuss other ways in which Baseball is, and sometimes isn’t changing. In the latter category he notes the absence of even a single openly gay player, the halting and inadequate efforts by MLB to grow the game in the inner city, and the yawning pay gap. No, his concern on that last point isn’t about the difference between the $35 million Clayton Kershaw made this season compared to the league minimum of $545,000 paid to the Yankees’ breakout rookie Gleyber Torres, but rather the gap between Torres’s paychecks and those of most minor leaguers.

He also notes the concern of many fans and pundits over the decline in on-field action, as postmodern Baseball increasingly becomes a game of Two True Outcomes – home runs and strikeouts – neither of which results in a batted ball in play. Here Neyer has a warning for his fellow writers, suggesting that too many members of the baseball media see the game as a two-sided coin, with players on one side and owners on the other. But “they forget,” Neyer writes, “about the millions of fans who pay for all these nice things.” Attendance fell about four percent this year from 2017 and is down more than ten percent over the last decade. Those are the numbers that Neyer believes will ultimately get the attention of the Great Game’s decision-makers. When that happens, he lists several possible changes they might consider, from changes in the strike zone to smaller gloves for fielders to calling balls and strikes by technology rather than a fallible human eye.

At heart Neyer remains a fan of Baseball, and thus is confident that the Great Game will survive, as it has through myriad other challenges over its long history. That confidence is grounded in the simple truth that no amount of analytics can ever negate the randomness of a single at-bat. Like in the bottom of the 9th of a meaningless September 2017 game between a team that would shortly be crowned champion, and one mired in the cellar of its division. That was when Astros closer Ken Giles was called upon to preserve an 8-7 lead. While on the mound Giles threw four pitches at 99 MPH, and one at 100, the five fastest pitches in the entire game. Oakland batters recorded three hits in the inning, none of which were among the twenty hardest-hit balls of the contest. Home run by an unheralded rookie to tie the score. Single to right. Walk. RBI single to left center, and a walk-off win for the underdog A’s. That randomness is, and always will be, Baseball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 25, 2018

With More Than Just Power, Red Sox Are Halfway To A Title

The requisite number is of course four wins, not two, so in a sense observing that this year’s World Series isn’t yet over is merely stating the obvious. Starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, ten teams have overcome two games to none World Series deficits. In each of the three most recent occurrences – the Royals in 1985, the Mets one year later and the Yankees in 1996 – those first two losses came at home, surely a more parlous situation than the one the Los Angeles Dodgers now face.

Dodger fans can take heart in the knowledge that in addition to their team being the first, more than six decades ago, to rally from two games down, two of L.A.’s three most recent titles, in 1965 and 1981, were achieved after dropping Games 1 and 2. And perhaps a few of the Red Sox faithful are mindful that when the Metropolitans stormed back to capture the title in seven games in 1986, it was at the expense of the Fenway nine. Given that it’s been more than two decades since the Yankees rallied against Atlanta in ‘96, and since the previous ten instances happened about every four seasons on average, one might even posit that the Great Game is long overdue for another such comeback.

Still, as the two teams wing west on Thursday before resuming hostilities in Game 3 Friday evening at Chavez Ravine, Red Sox fans are both joyous and confident, and a neutral observer can understand why. Los Angeles still has time to turn the Series around, but everything about the first two contests made the many pundits who predicted domination by Boston look prescient.

In winning by scores of 8-4 and 4-2 Red Sox hitters posted a .297 batting average and an on base plus slugging percentage of .772. The corresponding numbers for Dodger batters are anemic, just a .175 average and .462 OPS. Other than Matt Kemp’s 2nd inning home run off Red Sox ace Chris Sale in Game 1, the Dodgers’ hits have all been singles. In contrast Boston has five extra base hits. The Red Sox are batting .333 with runners in scoring position, against only .200 for L.A. Most impressive has been the ability of Boston hitters to grind out at-bats in high pressure situations. Ten of the twelve Red Sox runs have scored with two outs. The Dodgers have plated just a single run with two away.

As for pitching, Boston’s bullpen was viewed as a weakness prior to the start of the Series. But so far Red Sox relievers have surrendered just one earned run in eight innings of work, for an ERA of 1.13. L.A.’s bullpen has seen eight and a third innings of action. The six different Dodgers who have been handed the ball have compiled a 3.24 ERA, which is a decent number until it’s compared to 1.13. Ryan Madson was the first reliever called upon by L.A. manager Dave Roberts in both games, and each time he walked the first man he faced and allowed all the runners he inherited, two in Game 1 and three in Game 2, to score.

Perhaps Los Angeles will thrive in the more hospitable environment of Dodger Stadium. The difference in Game 3’s location will be measured not just by the vocal support of the crowd, but also by the temperature. Game 1 was played under windy and chilly conditions Tuesday night, and by the latter innings of Game 2 Fenway Park was frosty. When Walker Buehler toes the rubber to get Game 3 started late Friday afternoon West Coast time, the forecast is for the low 80s. That and the fact that with right-hander Rick Porcello starting for the Red Sox the Dodgers will finally have their left-handed bats in the lineup may help to warm up L.A.’s offense. The Dodgers are a team that’s already overcome adversity, rising from ten games under .500 in mid-June to win the NL West, and rebounding from a two games to one deficit in the NLCS against Milwaukee.

But should the Red Sox go on to win their fourth title in fifteen years, whether it be in a four game sweep or a seven game marathon, then perhaps the real lesson of this World Series will be that the sport has not changed quite as much as is widely believed. By now it counts as received wisdom that the Great Game has entered an era in which power trumps all. Through a combination of factors, from changes in the aerodynamics of the baseball itself to hitters altering their swings to lift balls over extreme defensive shifts and into the seats, the number of home runs rose dramatically for several seasons in a row before declining slightly this year. The concomitant effect of all that free swinging has been a steady climb in the number of strikeouts. Whether it’s a ball over the fence or a batter walking back to the dugout after fanning, the decrease in balls in play has, we are told, led to a decline in action on the field and a deadening of the sport.

The overall numbers across the Great Game don’t lie, but what they perhaps disguise is that playing an extreme version of the so-called modern game is not the surest route to a November parade with the Commissioner’s Trophy. While the Red Sox won their division in 2017, the team managed only 168 home runs, better than just three other franchises. With the addition of designated hitter J.D. Martinez and improved slugging from the rest of the lineup, this year Boston hit 208 homers during the regular season, good for ninth place. But Red Sox hitters were also able to temper the urge to flail away. Boston batters struck out 1,253 times, the fifth lowest total in the majors. Last year’s champions, the Houston Astros, did even better, ranking second in home runs and dead last in strikeouts in 2017. Houston was disciplined at the plate this season as well, finishing tenth in homers and twenty-ninth in K’s. Both teams have proven that it’s possible to display plenty of power without a matching increase in strikeouts. Boston of course won a franchise record 108 games this year while the Astros notched 103 and 101 wins the past two seasons.

By way of comparison, L.A. ranked second this year in home runs, behind only the Yankees, but also eighth in strikeouts, fanning more than just one other team that made the postseason. If the two stats must go hand in hand, the Dodgers numbers wouldn’t be surprising. But the Astros, with a title, and the Red Sox, now halfway to one, prove otherwise. To provide some context, compared to five years ago, before the supposed shift in the game, the Red Sox increased home runs this season by seventeen percent while slightly decreasing total strikeouts. The Dodgers hit nearly fifty percent more balls out of the park than in 2013, but at a cost of a more than twenty-five percent increase in strikeouts.

Of course, if L.A. batters, who like their foes hit one home run in the first two games, put several balls into the Dodger Stadium outfield seats and rally this weekend, advocates of the modern game will feel a whole lot better. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra said in 1973. The Mets team that he was managing that season proved his wisdom by rallying from last place with a month to play to win the NL East. But several years earlier, when Berra’s playing career was winding down and he had ceded catching duties for the Yankees to Elston Howard by moving to the outfield, he was asked about dealing with the long late afternoon shadows in left field at the old Stadium. “It gets late early out there,” Berra observed. Dodger fans are hoping that this World Series will yet prove to be an example of the Yogism uttered when he was a manager. But unless things turn quickly, it’s the older expression, from Berra’s playing days, that will apply.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 21, 2018

Then There Were Two

Now at last, the final act. The longest season wound its way through 2,429 games, one less than planned after an ultimately meaningless rainout between the Pirates and Marlins was not rescheduled. Yet after all those innings, pitches, and plays, the postseason bracket could not be determined without the addition of a pair of tiebreaker contests to determine the winners of the National League’s Central and West divisions. So 2,431 regular season games in all, followed by 28 more through the Wild Card, Division, and League Championship rounds of the playoffs. Now at most just seven games remain, and possibly as few as four. No wonder the drama is so intense. All the months that have gone by since Opening Day are now merely prelude to what is about to unfold between the Dodgers and the Red Sox.

The Dodgers and the Red Sox. The first franchise was born in Brooklyn in 1883 and played under eight different names before settling on its ninth and current one in 1932. The second was founded in 1901 as the Boston Americans, switching to Red Sox in time for the 1908 season. Both teams have thus been eligible for every World Series since the first one in 1903, and each has plenty of Fall Classic stories to tell. The Americans prevailed over the Pittsburgh Pirates in that very first Series, rallying from a three games to one deficit with four straight wins to claim the best-of-nine showdown. Eleven decades later, this will be Boston’s twelfth appearance, the third most of any American League franchise. The Dodgers, representing the National League for the second year in a row, are making their twentieth trip to the Series. That ties them for the most appearances by a National League club with their one-time inter-borough and for the last six decades California rivals, the San Francisco Giants, though both are a distant second to the forty World Series in which the American League has been represented by the New York Yankees.

Despite the frequency with which both teams have made it this far, they have met in October only once, and that was more than a century ago. In 1916 the Red Sox downed the Brooklyn Robins, as the future Dodgers were then known, four games to one. Although Fenway Park was just five years old, the Red Sox chose to play their home games for that Series at the much larger Braves Field. Right fielder Casey Stengel led the Brooklyn offense with a .364 average in the Series, but overall Red Sox pitching dominated. Game 2 went 14 innings before Boston pulled out a 2-1 win in front of more than 47,000 fans, 12,000 more than could have been squeezed into Fenway. Babe Ruth surrendered an inside-the-park home run in the top of the 1st inning, and then pitched thirteen shutout innings to earn the win.

Now after a 102-year hiatus these two storied franchises prepare to resume World Series hostilities. In that interim L.A. and Boston haven’t seen much of each other in the regular season either. Since the advent of interleague play in 1997, the only NL franchise to play fewer games against the Red Sox than the Dodgers is Cincinnati. In what could be an ominous sign, Los Angeles has only a single win at Fenway Park.

For more reasons than that the oddsmakers like Boston, and at least at first glance who can blame them? The Red Sox rolled through a historic season, winning a franchise record 108 games. So far in the playoffs Boston has been even better, posting a 7-2 record through the Division and League Champion rounds. That mark was achieved against the only two other teams to win 100 or more games this season, the Astros and the Yankees. Most remarkably, Boston is a perfect 5-0 on the road during the playoffs. Against an outstanding Houston rotation, Boston scored seven or more runs in three of the five ALCS games, the only time all year the Astros allowed that many runs in three straight contests. Having closed out the defending champions with a 4-1 Game 5 victory last Thursday, the Red Sox will be well rested for Tuesday’s Series opener. In contrast the Dodgers were pushed to the limit by the Milwaukee Brewers, with the outcome of Saturday’s Game 7 hanging in the balance until Yasiel Puig launched a 3-run homer to center in the top of the 6th, pushing L.A.’s lead to 5-1 and deflating the capacity crowd at Miller Park.

Still the rules require one team to win four games on the field before the Commissioner’s Trophy is awarded, and by at least one measure the Dodgers and Red Sox appear closely matched. While the regular season’s final standings show Boston 16 ½ games ahead of Los Angeles (L.A. had the extra tiebreaker game), the two teams posted similar run differentials. With 876 runs scored against 647 allowed, the Red Sox had a positive differential of 229. The Dodgers numbers were 804 and 610, for a net of 194. Run differential has long been recognized as a good predictor of a team’s winning percentage, using a simple formula devised by Bill James, which is runs scored squared divided by the sum of runs scored squared and runs allowed squared. The resulting percentage reflects the “expected” win rate for a team over a large enough sample size.

Based on the numbers Boston’s expected win total was 103, just two more than L.A.’s expected total of 101. Obviously over the course of the season the Red Sox overperformed while the Dodgers came up well short of expectations. One can debate the reasons for both, from team chemistry to injuries, and fans certainly will do so well into the offseason. Perhaps that pattern will continue through this year’s final series, and the parade through the streets of Boston will soon be taking place. But if as often happens performances revert to the mean, then this series could in fact be quite close. It’s also worth remembering that on May 16th the Dodgers were ten games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL West. On that same date the Red Sox were already fifteen games over .500. From that point on the two teams’ records are quite close, and it’s the underdog squad that has had to overcome more adversity.

Both clubs have earned their spot in this year’s Series, but only one city gets to have a parade. Some fans will just assume its location, while others will let the Dodgers and Red Sox play.  Starting Tuesday night, the latter group is going to have more fun.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2018

Was It The Fan, Or The Man In Blue?

For many fans, the first two names do little more than stir a vague memory, the third not yet even that. But for partisans of the Orioles, the Cubs, and now the Astros, Jeffrey Maier, Steve Bartman, and Troy Caldwell are instantly recognizable. Though none of the three ever wore a big league uniform, each played a key role in the outcome of a League Championship Series, the penultimate round of the Great Game’s postseason tournament. Or did they?

Let’s begin with Jeffrey Maier, who in 1996 was a twelve-year-old sitting in the first row of the right field seats at the old Yankee Stadium. In Game 1 of that year’s ALCS, the Orioles were clinging to a 4-3 lead over the Yankees as New York came to bat in the bottom of the 8th inning. The leadoff batter for the home squad was a young shortstop completing a season for which he would earn the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Derek Jeter lifted a fly ball into deep right, sending Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco racing back to the warning track. Right at the wall Tarasco looked to settle under the ball. But even as he reached up with his glove to snare Jeter’s drive for the inning’s first out, another gloved hand reached over the wall and caught the ball.

That hand was Maier’s, who in that moment was living out the dream of every kid who has ever brought his or her glove to a major league park. But as Oriole fans will be quick to remind anyone who will listen, replays of the moment left no doubt that Maier reached over the wall and into the field of play to catch Jeter’s fly ball. Tarasco immediately protested, but umpire Rich Garcia, working the right field foul line as part of the expanded six-man crew used during the postseason, had already signaled, incorrectly, that Jeter had tied the game with a home run. Tarasco was joined by Orioles manager Davey Johnson, who was eventually ejected. While fans at home may have been able to see the clear evidence of fan interference as the play was shown again and again on television, 1996 was long before Major League Baseball instituted the video review and challenge system now in effect.

Seven years later the scene was Wrigley Field, where the long-suffering Cubs were five outs away from advancing to the World Series for the first time in more than half a century. Mark Prior was twirling a three hit shutout and Chicago led the Florida Marlins 3-0. With one out in the 8th and Juan Pierre at second base, Florida second baseman Luis Castillo worked the count from Prior to full. He then lofted a high fly ball down the left field line. Moises Alou, the Cubs left fielder, tracked the ball even as he raced toward the line, with only a few feet of foul ground between it and the stands. Sitting in the front row of those stands, wearing a Cubs cap and headphones so he could listen to the radio play-by-play, was Steve Bartman, a lifelong Chicago fan then in his mid-twenties. As the ball drifted toward the seats, Bartman and those around him stood, and his were but one of several pairs of hands that reached for the baseball as it fell from the sky. Alou braced himself against the wall with his right hand and leaped up, attempting to make the catch. But before the ball could reach his glove it ricocheted off Bartman’s left hand, bouncing away into the swarm of spectators around him.

Alou reacted with fury, clearly believing that had been a victim of fan interference. But umpire Mike Everett ruled that the ball was in the seats, and thus fair game for anyone. Alou’s protests got him nowhere, and Cubs manager Dusty Baker couldn’t join in the argument because the curve of Wrigley Field’s stands and the location of the Chicago bullpen along foul ground blocked a clear view of the play from the home dugout. The Great Game was still five years away from its first experiment with replay review, and more than a decade short of 2014, when the question of fan interference in foul ground was made reviewable.

Now video review by officials at MLB headquarters in New York is fully integrated into the game, and fans are used to having a contest delayed while the umpires gather around the crew chief, who is wearing a headset and communicating with the replay official. That was the scene Wednesday night in the bottom of the 1st inning of Game 4 of this season’s ALCS. The Boston Red Sox, already leading the series two games to one, had plated a pair of runs in the top of the inning, putting pressure on the defending champion Houston Astros to respond quickly. The home team appeared to do just that, with George Springer lining a single to center with one out, and Jose Altuve following with a high fly ball to deep right field. Mookie Betts drifted back to the wall and leaped up, trying to prevent a home run.

Troy Caldwell, an Astros fan living in Georgia who had traveled to Houston to attend the game, was one of five fans in the front row who stood and reached for the ball. Even as Betts made his jump and his glove flashed up and over the wall, someone’s hand appeared to brush Betts’s glove and the ball bounced off Caldwell’s hands and back onto the field. Joe West, who in a 2011 poll of players was cited as the worst umpire in the majors by forty-one percent of respondents, was working the right field line and signaled fan interference, meaning Altuve was out. West’s snap decision was crucial, because a camera that had been placed in position to look directly along the top of the outfield wall was blocked by other fans standing in front of it. That meant that while the replay official had several angles to look at, the one that would have instantly told him if Caldwell had reached onto the field or if instead it was Betts who had reached into the stands was unavailable. MLB’s replay procedures state that if video review can’t definitively overrule or confirm the ruling on the field, then that ruling stands. That’s what happened Wednesday night.

Baltimore lost Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS when Bernie Williams hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. New York went on to take the series four games to one. Castillo continued his at-bat in 2003, drawing a walk. He would eventually make the third out of the inning, but only after the Marlins had batted around and plated eight runs. One night later they eliminated the Cubs. Wednesday night’s first inning drama was but prelude to a wild game eventually won by Boston, 8-6, putting the Red Sox on the cusp of a return to the World Series.

Orioles fans blame Jeffrey Maier for their failure to reach the 1996 World Series to this day, and Steve Bartman was vilified in Chicago for years. But perhaps the fairer response was in Houston, where fans directed their ire not at Caldwell but at West, for a call that was questionable at best. Even here in New England, a devoted Red Sox fan said today that after multiple views of the video from Wednesday night’s game, he believed Altuve’s shot was in the seats. In fact, the video evidence of all three incidents suggests three bad calls by three different umpires. Unquestionably so by Rich Garcia, almost certainly so by Joe West, and very possibly so by Mike Everett. They are all human of course, even the execrable West, so mistakes will be made. But Wednesday night proved that video replay can’t fix all such errors, which means there will always be times when fans will deservedly think of the men in blue as a bunch of bums.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 14, 2018

Testing The Limits Of Moneyball

Much has been written over the last few seasons, including in this space, about how the Great Game is changing. The concept of relying on advanced metrics rather than the subjective judgments of scouts and coaches was popularized by “Moneyball,” the 2003 Michael Lewis book that highlighted how the low-budget Oakland A’s made it to the playoffs in the previous season. The book became a critically acclaimed movie in 2011, giving A’s general manager Billy Beane the luxury of forever being able to remind anyone listening that he was played by Brad Pitt. But in recent seasons faith in sabermetrics has accelerated among all thirty major league teams, with detailed statistics on every aspect of the game far beyond the days of “Moneyball.”

Every front office now has an entire department devoted to statistical analysis, and scoreboards across the land let fans know the exit velocity of every ball put into play. The data now available on every hitter’s proclivities has led to a dramatic increase in defensive shifts, which in turn has spawned a new generation of players with uppercut swings trying to lift the ball over the picket fence of defenders on one side of the infield and into the seats. Home runs have spiked, while traditionalists have lamented the loss of the stolen base, the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt, all key elements of baseball offense in another time.

But as has been highlighted this postseason, it is not just defensive positioning and the response of players at the plate that has changed. So too, fundamentally so for some teams, has the role of the starting pitcher. Increased reliance on a team’s bullpen, and with it the emergence of specialty relievers who are called upon in specific situations, has been a growing trend for decades. Starters, who once were handed the ball and expected as often as not to finish the game, have seen their innings steadily shrink. In 1975 Catfish Hunter threw thirty complete games for the Yankees, just three years after Steve Carlton led the National League with the same number for the Phillies. That was the decade that the major leagues last saw a thousand complete games in a season. By the end of the next decade the number had dipped below five hundred. This year eleven starters, six in the American League and five in the National, tied for the lead in complete games by going the route just two times. Those twenty-two complete games were just over half of the forty-two thrown in the majors in 2018, a record low.

A major reason for the willingness of managers to go with a quick hook on their starting pitcher has been clear statistical evidence that in the relationship between the man on the mound and his opponents in the batter’s box, familiarity breeds contempt. The success rate for batters, be they elite hitters with gaudy averages or journeyman struggling to hit .220, spikes once they step in to face a pitcher for the third time in a game. In an ideal world from the pitcher’s perspective, that might not happen until the 7th inning. But under the right circumstances it could come as early as the first batter of the 4th inning, even in a scoreless game.

That statistical evidence has made the third time through the order, whenever it takes place, the time that most managers now think about calling the bullpen, even when their starter is doing well. This season it also led to a few teams, most frequently the Tampa Bay Rays, to go with a so-called “opener,” a relief pitcher who starts the game with the purpose of pitching just one or at most two innings. The idea is to force batters to face several different pitchers during the game, eliminating the increased success rate from seeing the same hurler multiple times. Bullpen games, when a team might use six or seven pitchers, used to be a sign that the starter had imploded early. Now for some teams they are both intentional and not infrequent.

The Milwaukee Brewers captured the NL Central crown by closing the season with seven straight wins to tie Chicago and added an eighth with their victory over the Cubs in the tiebreaker game. The Brewers then won their ninth, tenth and eleventh in a row as they swept the Rockies in the NLDS. During that streak Milwaukee’s starting pitchers averaged less than four innings pitched per game, and manager Craig Counsell used on average just a fraction under six pitcher per game. The second game in the streak, a 6-4 win over the Cardinals, was a bullpen game. In his only start of the entire season Dan Jennings retired the only batter he faced before giving way to a parade of fellow relievers that eventually numbered nine. Members of the Brewers starting rotation notched just two of the eleven wins, in part because they only reached five innings pitched, the minimum required for a starter to be credited with a win, in four games.

Milwaukee’s approach is a product of statistics that suggest the team’s bullpen is very strong, while its starting rotation is not. Not surprisingly, Counsell stuck with the tactic through the first two games of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game One Friday night, starter Gio Gonzalez lasted just two innings before giving way to the first of six relievers who were called upon the record the final twenty-one outs. On Saturday Wade Miley went five and two-thirds, a remarkable outing by Milwaukee’s recent standards. Five relievers followed Miley to the mound.

But the Brewers are heading west, where the next three games will be at Chavez Ravine, all square against their NLCS foe. That fact, and what took place in the two contests at Miller Park, should be a reminder to fans, pundits, and members of every team’s analytics department, that the Great Game is not played on a spreadsheet, and that there is still value in paying attention to what’s taking place on the field.

Gonzalez left Game One trailing 1-0 after surrendering a home run to Manny Machado. But he allowed just one other base runner and obviously had not run up a big pitch count. The Brewers came back against Clayton Kershaw, but what looked like a safe 5-1 lead nearly evaporated in the late innings as L.A. pecked away against the vaunted Milwaukee bullpen. The final was 5-4, with Milwaukee relievers giving up four earned runs on seven hits for a less than lights out ERA of 5.14.

When Miley was lifted Saturday, he had thrown just seventy-four pitches and was blanking the Dodgers on two hits, both singles. But the second of those was off the bat of Chris Taylor, the final batter he faced. Taylor was the Dodgers leadoff hitter, meaning Miley was starting his third time through the L.A. order. So Counsell marched in lockstep with the statistical evidence and went to his bullpen. Corbin Burnes got Justin Turner to fly out to end the inning but failed to retire a man in the 7th. The Dodgers plated two in that inning and two more in the 8th on Turner’s drive into the left field seats. The final score was 4-3 L.A., with Milwaukee relievers giving up all the runs while posting an ugly 10.80 ERA.

Any single game is of course an exercise in small sample size. Perhaps over the course of the series Milwaukee’s approach will win out. Perhaps Counsell has so little faith in his starters that he genuinely believes he must continue down his chosen path. But before the Great Game turns managing over to robots, perhaps he might consider going with his gut.

Older Posts »

Categories