Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Midsummer Meanderings - TWTW's Review of the 2015 MLB Season thus far


Danville, Kentucky – How will the world remember Will Hart when I die? After I go down in a blaze of Limearita-fueled glory, I imagine my family will search through my belongings. As they rummage through the mountainous stacks of divorce papers and subpoenas, they’ll discover my baseball card collection. After all my years of enjoying baseball, divorcing, eating appetizers and drinking Kentucky Deluxe, my only legacy will be this collection and its centerpiece: my 1960 Jimmy Maloney rookie card. Existence, cold and uncaring as it is, will proceed unhindered by the loss of one individual from Danville. My family might throw out my cards, or sell them to some nerd on EBay. Time reduces mountains to dust, and eventually lays claim to even the most glorious human accomplishments – one day, the pyramids of Egypt will be torn asunder while my cherished ’75 Topps Pete Rose card lays in the bottom of a landfill or behind the glass showcase display of a collector. Given this reality, many human aspirations appear futile.

Yet here I am, emotionally invested in a bunch of strangers I will never meet who get paid billions of dollars playing a children’s game. And I do it, because the game brings me happiness. Part of the enjoyment of the game is its unpredictability – baseball makes a fool out of those who attempt to understand it via formulas and math. This season, baseball has been particularly cruel to those who attempt to reduce it to a series of integers on a heat map. Let’s check back in on a few plotlines I’ve been writing about so far this season.

CINCINNATI REDS

Walter Jocketty and his cronies in Cincinnati’s front office have broken the heart of this Danville native. This team had unbounded potential – how many franchises can claim to have high-end talents such as Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Billy Hamilton, Brandon Phillips, and sometimes Joey Votto when he decides to actually swing at a pitch? Not many franchises can. This team was perfectly fixable. Yet, Jocketty pulled a Barry Sanders, or a King Edward VIII, electing to be a quitter rather than attempting to triumph in the face of adversity. He’s already traded Cueto and it looks like more pieces are being shipped as I type this. Jocketty broke my heart. And he broke Brayan Pena's too.
Will this affect my relationship with the Redlegs? No. I will watch them while eating the same appetizer in the same smoking section of the same Chilis in the same great state that I always do. I believe in this team. If the front office is intelligent enough to extend the ebullient Brayan Pena, he will steward young talents like Eugenio Suarez and the World Series-proven Brandon Finnegan to greatness in 2016 and beyond.

CLEVELAND INDIANS


Stuff is looking better for the Reds than it is for that other team in Ohio – the one that plays in a footb—erm, basketball city. To the bitter disappointment of the nerds who prematurely crowned them World Series champions, the Cleveland Indians have underperformed like a foreign-made automobile. It would be easy to attribute their failure to the loss of Jason Giambi’s veteran leadership in the clubhouse, but it goes deeper than that.

"We've been playing like shit. There's no way around it. It's embarrassing. There's no fight. [We're] giving up early. We've got people worrying about their own things. Nobody is held accountable. It's just not the way we're going to do business here. So, we held a team meeting today to rein the guys back in, get us back to where we need to be, get our heads straight, get our heads out of our butts and start playing like a better baseball team."
It’s a team that has never shown the desire to fulfill their mammoth expectations. A team that’s not clutch.
 All season, they’ve had the exact wrong mental approach. The Indians go up to the plate swinging for the fences, rather than trying to lay down a bunt or advance the runner. They don’t play team baseball. They don’t catch the baseball. They look like a team that checks their fangraphs playoff probability percentage before taking the field. It isn’t a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for the type of perennial disappointment that only Cleveland fans can understand.

The Indians have all but thrown in the towel, trading David Murphy to Angels. It was a perfect trade match because the Angels are desperate for outfield bats in the wake of Trout’s documented post-season ineptitude. When the dust settles, the Indians look primed for a last-place finish, just like I predicted.

RICK PORCELLO


Rick’s struggles have been just as disheartening. I’ve written about them semi-extensively – in a character study of Rick and a preview of a recent Red Sox series. After taking the time to watch some Porcello game-tape, I can see why he’s struggled. When Ricky pitched for Detroit under the guidance of ace-whisperer Jeff Jones, he worked down in the zone, trusting his stuff and using his sinker to induce groundballs. It was a democratic way to pitch – giving his teammates an opportunity to participate and have fun, even if those teammates were sometimes iron gloves/traffic cones like Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta. Using this formula, Rick threw 3 complete game shutouts and had a breakout season in 2014. Boston’s pitching coaches have broken him by attempting to convert him into a strikeout pitcher that only cares about FIP and relies on high cheddar to induce flashy K’s. So what if advanced metrics thought Porcello didn’t have a good enough K/9 or was too reliant on BABIP luck? Rick had a good thing going. And now, Boston has turned Rick into a pitcher I don’t even recognize anymore. It’s more heartbreaking than the time my second wife literally didn’t recognize me anymore after an accident with a malfunctioning electric razor at the Danville barbershop and several months of Southwestern Eggroll-accelerated weight gain.

MINNESOTA TWINS

The Minnesota Twins, consensus last place pick for the AL Central, have turned into playoff contenders. This took a lot of folks by surprise, but not me, who was bold enough to tell it like it is: you could only doubt the Twins if you’re ignorant enough to analyze baseball without even bothering to watch the games on the field. The return of Ervin Santana had exactly the effect I predicted it would – it’s solidified a fierce-some rotation that already included the two-headed monster of Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson. Their future remains cloudy, but don’t count them out no matter what ZIPs rest-of-season projections say.

DETROIT TIGERS


Folks, I haven’t said it out loud, but for me, this Tigers team has looked finished since July 10th, when the scrappy Twins mounted a spine-cracking rally in the 9th inning.

Earlier that evening, the long-anticipated Tigers turnaround seemed to be in motion. They won the previous night’s game when David Price improbably outdueled Pelfrey’s wicked arsenal, allowing the Tigers to inch closer to the Twins in the standings and position themselves for a run at a Wild Card spot. Justin Verlander pitched into the 8th inning, surrendering only 1 run, heralding the long-awaited return of Detroit’s Autumnal savior. His swing-and-miss stuff was back, and so was his swaggering superhero confidence. Like many Tigers games before it and many Tigers games after it, Verlander’s return-to-form gem was wasted by a bullpen that’s worse at putting out fires than a flamethrower. It was the same “Tigers bullpen implosion loss” that is doomed to be eternally repeated into the abyss, like game 2 of the 2013 ALCS or game 2 of the 2014 ALDS, etcetera, etcetera. A team can only take so many crushing losses before its spirit breaks like a wayward tortilla chip caught underneath the unassailable pressure of an overweight man’s barstool. Throw in Miguel Cabrera’s injury, and it might be enough to break any team. Sometimes it’s just not your year. Sometimes, things aren’t meant to be, like my second wife’s ill-conceived unlicensed nail salon. In those situations, it’s best to just cut your losses and move on.

For several more weeks, this Tigers team will lack the greatest hitter of a generation, Miguel Cabrera. It will soon lack its ace David Price and its electrifying leftfielder, Yoenis Cespedes. Even 8 magnificent innings of 1-run, 10-K ball from Justin Verlander vs. the Tampa Bay Rays were not enough to convince Dave Dombrowski to salvage the team’s season.

So far, I appear to have gotten the Tigers wrong. I predicted that they’d get at least get a Wild Card spot. I still think this Tigers roster would’ve been good enough to achieve that, if they could only all stay healthy at the same time. Maybe I underestimated the effect losing Torii Hunter’s veteran presence would have on this team. Sometimes, baseball makes a fool out of the best of us – folks like me who actually watch the games. Meanwhile, as Dave Dombrowksi announces the Tigers are "re-booting," the sun sets on a great era of baseball in the Motor City – one that included four straight division titles, no-hitters, triple-crowns, MVPs, and Cy Youngs, even as the dream of a World Series remained as elusive as the dream of President Goldwater. The sun sets, but it is not quite nightfall; the Tigers are not yet the Phillies.

I’m normally one to think Buster is a nerd, but he has a point. Hope for 2016 remains as long as Jose Iglesias remains a defender extraordinaire, and as long as J.D. Martinez continues to defiantly put up MVP numbers in spite of the nerds who label him a regression candidate. Yoenis Cespedes will be traded now, but La Potencia’s sense of belongingness in the Detroit clubhouse may lead him back to the Motor City in the offseason. As the orange sun recedes in the West, Miguel Cabrera will stare longingly onto the horizon. “There’s always next year” may be a tired refrain, but in baseball it rings true.


KANSAS CITY ROYALS


A lot of things have gone wrong for teams like my Reds, Cleveland and Detroit this year. For the Kansas City Royals, it’s been a year of things going right, of wise decisions paying off. Some call it luck – others call it destiny. The Royals have been a team of underdogs that believed in each other – even when nerds pointed out the canyon-like disparity between the unhittable Chris Young’s ERA and FIP, and scratched their heads at the inexplicable dominance of ex-Phillies Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson. Dayton Moore’s faith in Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas was rewarded as both have turned in the breakout seasons they were supposed to have all along. The end-product is a Royals team running away with the American League in a way that nobody thought was possible. Did Kansas City give up when PECOTA projections said they would lose 90 games? No. They’ve played like a team that believes they’re unstoppable – sitting at a monumental 23 games over .500 before their deadline acquisitions Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist have even taken the field, and in spite of the loss of Alex Gordon. This is a resilient Royals team. They are not weighed down by the years of disappointment and bullpen implosions like their counterparts in Detroit. 

The acquisition of Johnny Cueto should make the Royals favorites in the AL. The idea of having to beat both Cueto and Jeremy Guthrie in a seven-game set should be enough to make any potential playoff opponent quiver like Lyndon B. Johnson at a Warren Commission hearing.

I was less enthusiastic about the Ben Zobrist acquisition for several reasons. First, Zobrist and his shiny OBP have the potential to cut into the gritty Omar Infante’s playing time – something that should give many Royals fans pause. Second, the clubhouse chemistry impact of the deal remains uncertain. Zobrist is a member of the Oakland A’s team that tried to murder Alcides Escobar, triggering a brawl more violent than the Mexican cartels which Donald Trump has vowed to defeat. Nonetheless, I don’t expect the trade to negatively affect Kansas City. Zobrist has the Billy Butler seal of approval. The vets in the KC house will make the transition smooth. The team will persevere, powered by their own unshakeable bonds of friendship. They have all the makings of a team of destiny – just as I predicted.

CONCLUSION

Baseball is unpredictable, but also predictable. My Reds are certainly done for. So are the Indians. But my love of baseball isn’t done for. I’ll continue to root for former Reds like Shin-Soo Choo, Alfredo Simon and Johnny Cueto, as they chase glory on their new teams. I can only hope that when I’m dead and buried, my contributions to baseball – my card collection, my blog – aren’t lost and forgotten. One day, when he’s old enough to understand why I would drunkenly holler at other parents at his little league games, my nephew might discover my card collection and form a dangerously obsessive relationship with baseball just like his old man. Then, my life might’ve served a higher purpose that could truly stand the test of time.