Category Archives: baseball

It didn’t have to be this way

This is not a post about COVID-19, or Afghanistan, or the slow-then-fast dissolution of the journalism industry, or somebody’s tweet that made me mad. It’s about the Baltimore Orioles. If you don’t care about the Baltimore Orioles — and honestly, if you are not, like me, a lifetime fan, why, why, why would you? — feel free not to read. But I’m gonna write.

The Orioles are rebuilding. Or so we are told. Rebuilding takes time. You lose a lot as the pieces of the next good team comes into place. Or so we are told. You trade away everybody who can place a fastball or hit a curveball for prospects and some of them pan out. You lose so much you get high draft picks and those draft picks pan out. Fan patience will be rewarded. Or so we are told. But some of us don’t live in Baltimore anymore. I, for instance, live in Wisconsin, and have taken on as a secondary rooting interest the Milwaukee Brewers. And that’s how I know it didn’t have to be this way.

If you spend your life in the American League East, you can say to yourself, well, there’s the big-market teams, the Yankees and Red Sox and Blue Jays, who never have to resist the temptation of the big-ticket free agent, and there’s the Rays, who have some kind of Magic Savvy, and then there is us.

But look at the Brewers. They’re not rich; payroll is 19th out of the 30 teams, right between the Rockies and the Rangers. There’s nothing really special about them, to be honest. There are no books about the genius of the Brewers. Right now they’re really good. But they’re not always good. They’re sometimes bad. But not as bad as the Orioles are right now. The Brewers have had a winning percentage under .400 exactly once in the team’s entire history, twice if you count their first year as the 1969 Seattle Pilots when it was .395. Milwaukee had some really good teams about a decade ago and then they weren’t so good and now they’re contenders again.

They’re normal. This is what following a normal team is like.

The Orioles have had a winning percentage under .400 in three of the last four years (barring a miraculous renaissance in the closing weeks of 2021.) And in the short season of 2020, they just cleared it, playing .417 ball.

How did the Brewers do it? Well, they did put together the best farm system in baseball by the middle of 2016. But they didn’t do it by putting a AAA team on the field. They still had Ryan Braun, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Lucroy, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, well-liked players who’d been on the Brewers for a while. (Lucroy was traded for a couple of prospects in mid-season, and my beloved Carlos Gomez had departed the year before in a trade that brought them Josh Hader — it’s not like they didn’t do any tearing down.) They had a free agent pitcher, Matt Garza, who’s signed a big contract with them after the 2013 season when the Brewers finished 23 games out of first, and they traded a young shortstop, Jean Segura, who turned out to be pretty good, for Chase Anderson, so they had a couple of major league starters, and some of the guys they already had pitched OK too. They signed Chris Carter as a free agent. They went 73-89. The next year they won 86 games and didn’t make the playoffs, and then they added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and then they were very, very good.

The Brewers did everything the Orioles said you have to resist doing in order to improve; and they improved. They took the Dodgers to game 7 in the NLCS in 2018. and they’re running away with the NL Central right now.

I’m not saying the current Orioles disaster isn’t a way to get better. Yeah, yeah, the Astros did it, I get it. I’m saying it’s the worst way to get better. It stinks to watch. The Orioles just lost their 14th game in a row. It’s their second 14-game losing streak this season. They are 38-81. I feel sorry for the players who have to be on the field for this. Especially because it didn’t have to be this way.

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This is it, right? This is as dogshit as the Orioles get?

That’s it. That’s the post.

[Dean Kremer allows six runs in 1/3 of an inning including a grand slam. Yesterday we lost 13-0. The day before that we lost 10-2 in a game where we were getting no-hit into the 8th. Two days before that we took a 7-4 lead into the ninth and lost 10-7.]

Pandemic blog 38: The greatest Ray/Dodger

The greatest Rayger?

Anyway, this is one I do every year for the World Series. This one was pretty simple; the Rays haven’t been around very long, so there aren’t very many players who logged serious time on both teams. There are two contenders with a case. James Loney was either a Dodger or a Ray for most of his career, and he had a solid 11-year career. Never an all-star, 6th in Rookie of the Year voting for LA in 2007. J.P. Howell also played most of his career for LAD and TBR, but never on the same team as Loney. He had some very good years in the bullpen for some very good Dodger teams but the only time he saw the World Series was with the 2008 Rays, and he was bad, losing two of the games.

Wilson Alvarez also played for both the Dodgers and the Rays! But he just feels like a White Sock to me.

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Pandemic blog 37: the short season

We are heading for a World Series and while the rest of the world has been turned awry, one thing is as usual: the Baltimore Orioles are not in it.

But!

I have been high on the Orioles in the past. I thought the team had much more talent than their awful record in 2018 suggested, and indeed they were not quite as bad in 2019. But last year, I think their still-terrible 54-108 record was roughly in line with who was on that team. Now you take that team, which already traded Andrew Cashner at the deadline, and you also trade Dylan Bundy, Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier, and Mychal Givens, so you’re now down two starters and three of the guys who threw the most bullpen innings, and oh yeah, the best hitter on the 2019 Orioles, Trey Mancini, is getting cancer treatment and is gone for the year, and Jonathan Villar, probably the best all-around position player, is traded away too, and oh yeah, Anthony Santander gets injured halfway through the season, what are you looking at?

People were saying this team could be worse than the awful 2018 team. They were saying this team could lose 50 out of 60.

They didn’t! Instead, they took another step up towards respectability, going 25-35, with a Pythagorean record of 28-32. They didn’t even finish last in the AL East this year (sorry, Red Sox.)

How did it happen?

Well, first of all, everybody hit. Pedro Severino hit. Renato Nuñez hit. Rio Ruiz hit. Anthony Santander hit until he got hurt. Ryan Mountcastle, whose star as a prospect seemed to have dimmed, finally came to the majors and did nothing but hit. A joy to watch. Players who in previous years seemed to have clearly established that not even a lick could they hit, like Cedric Mullins and Chance Sisco, hit. They hit in weird ways. DJ Stewart hit .193 but walked and homered a ton and ended up with a solid .809 OPS, the best ever by a player hitting below the Mendoza line in 100 or more PAs. (He edged out old 2001 Mark McGwire at .808.) On the other side, Jose Iglesias had one of the strangest batting seasons ever, hitting .373 (36 PAs short of qualifying for the batting title, which no Oriole has won since Frank Robinson’s tricoronation in 1966) but walking and homering just 3 times each. It’s hard to walk and homer that rarely and still be a good hitter! But this guy doubles off the wall like mid-2000s Brian Roberts. His .956 OPS was by far the best ever for hitters with 100 PA, at most 3 homers and at most 3 walks. Jerald Clark of the Twins in 1995, a player I have no memory of at all, comes closest, and it’s not that close.

What remained of the bullpen was pretty good, too, making up for an expectedly spotty starting rotation.

What’s the future? The hitters, let’s be honest, are probably not as good as they looked this short season. On the other hand, by 2021 the first of the prospects should start to show up. Dean Kremer, who came in the Machado trade, is already here and showed signs of real promise. Yusniel Diaz should be up. Mountcastle is here to stay. And maybe, just maybe, it’s Adley Rutschman time.

I don’t think the 2021 Orioles are a .500 team but I think there’s reason to think the absolute wretchedness is past — if ownership wants it to be.

Pandemic blog 30: opening day

I have been generally feeling: it is OK to start relaxing restrictions on in-person contact, because there seems some decent chance that barring the most infectiogenic scenarios might be enough to keep outbreaks small and manageable. And that still might be true, in some contexts; in Dane County, we had a big spike of cases when the bars re-opened, and when the bars shut down again, the case spike went away, and hasn’t come back, though people are certainly out and about. But statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked. But I wouldn’t fight you if you said it was an expectable consequence, the consequence you thought most likely.

Similarly, if you rigorously jettison everyone with a demonstrated ability to play baseball from your team, and sign a collection of promising young players but keep them off the roster in order to avoid starting their service time, and then put that team on the field against major league competition, you might find that the nobodies and never-weres and used-to-bes find it within themselves to go on a scrappy “Why not?” run of success; or you might, as an expectable consequence, give up eight doubles and get beat 13-2.

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The real diehard

Yesterday a guy saw my Orioles hat and said, “Wow, you’re a real diehard.”

He was wearing a Hartford Whalers hat.

Pete Alonso was a Mallard

Pete Alonso of the New York Mets is the NL Rookie of the Year and the all-time home run king among both rookies and Mets. I’m proud to say I saw him hit a 407-foot three-run moonshot in June 2014, when he was a 19-year-old playing for the Madison Mallards in the summer-collegiate Northwoods League. Go Mallards!

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The greatest Astro/National

Jose Altuve has done what Jose Altuve does and so it’s World Series time again, the Astros back for the second time in three years, the Nationals there for their first time in infinity years, so we return to our annual exercise: who was the greatest Astro/National? (Last year: the greatest Red Sox / Dodger.) By which, just to have a good pool of players to work from, we mean Astro/National/Expo? This time the answer’s uncontroversial: it’s Rusty Staub. I think of Staub as a Met, because that’s what he was when I was a kid, and that’s who he played the most seasons for, but Staub came up with Houston and spent three years of his prime (and, much later, 38 games of his non-prime) in Montreal. I never knew this guy was so good! In 1969 he had a .426 on-base percentage and hit 29 home runs, a lot back then, and got one measly MVP vote.

Anyway, Staub put together 17.4 WAR in his three seasons in Montreal and 13.1 more in 6 years with the Astros. Good satisfyingly balanced answer this year.

If you restrict to players who played for the Nationals, not their Quebecois predecessors, the pickings are a lot slimmer. Looks like Justin Maxwell and Mark Melancon are the best bets. I guess I give the edge to Maxwell just because he played multiple seasons for each team.

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Orioles optimism update

My Orioles optimism from the end of April hasn’t held up too well. When I wrote that, the team was 10-18. Since then, they’ve won 16 more games, and lost — it kind of hurts to type this — 43.

Why so bad? The team ERA has dropped almost half a run since I wrote that post, from 6.15 to 5.75. Their RS and RA for June were about the same as they were for May, but they went 6-20 instead of 8-19.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but — maybe the Orioles aren’t really that bad? Their Pythagorean record is 28-59, which is terrible, but not even worst in MLB right now. (That honor belongs to the Tigers.) John Means continues to be great and Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy have now been pretty consistently turning in utterly acceptable starts.

The thing about baseball is, things happen suddenly. On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, less than two years ago, Manny Machado hit a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 9th to give the Orioles a 7-6 win against the Yankees. The Orioles were 71-68.

The next game after that, they lost 9-1. And then went 4-18 the rest of the way. They haven’t had a full month since then with a record better than .360. The Orioles became terrible in an instant. I don’t see why it can’t go the other way.

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Why not?

I’ve said all along it was wrong to imagine the Orioles being as bad as they were last year. And so far my optimism has been borne out. Don’t get me wrong; they’re bad. But they’re not excruciatingly, world-historically bad. The Orioles, on April 24, are 10-16; last year it took them until May 10 to win their 10th game, at which point they were 10-27. Chris Davis, after starting 0-for-everything, has hit .360 and slugged .720 since the middle of April. Nothing makes me happier than to see this poor guy hit after his long winter, even if it’s only for awhile. And Trey Mancini, who’s just about the right age to have a sudden career renaissance if he’s going to have one, is maybe… having one?

The pitching is terrible. 6.15 ERA in the early going, a half-run worse than anyone else in the league; flashes of goodness from Hess, Cashner, and Means, all of whom could be OK, but there’s no real reason for confidence any of them will be. And of course the team could make the choice, as they did last year, to flip Mancini, Means, and anybody else who’s producing for prospects at midsummer and lose their last 70 games; who knows? But for now; why not?

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