Ike Davis’s Day Off

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It’s like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, only with beer.

There were numerous reasons to give Ike Davis a night off against the Phillies last night. That he’s batting .148 and Cliff Lee was pitching for the Phillies were the two most prominent and viable, but none were good enough to justify the decision. Davis needs to play every day and he needs to play against the toughest pitchers, righty or lefty. His slow starts have become customary now and he already struggles against lefty pitchers (.214/.277/.364 career slash line and 1 for 11 vs. Lee). If the Mets had a veteran righty bat to replace him or even someone nondescript and limited like Juan Uribe who happens to hammer Lee, then sitting him down for a night made sense. In Davis’s place, however, the Mets played Justin Turner who: A) is a journeyman utility player; B) is not a first baseman; and C) before last night was 0 for 10 against Lee with one walk and one hit by pitch. Was this a better option than playing Davis and hoping he’d catch a Lee fastball and hit it out of a park in which many fly balls wind up being homers?

Davis is a George Brett/David Cone type of happy-go-lucky who enjoys big league life, has a big chaw of tobacco in his cheek like an old-school big leaguer, likes his nightlife and maintains a constant mischievous, carefree look on his face. The worst thing to do with a player like this is to give him days off. Were they afraid that facing Lee would put him into a slump? He’s already in a slump. Hitting against good pitching is a positive. Perhaps facing a Cy Young Award winner against whom nothing was expected from him would’ve relaxed Davis into getting a couple of hits and put him back on the right track.

Barring a tweak or slight malady, there’s no reason for the 26-year-old, 6’4”, 230 pound Davis to need a day off one week into the season to give him a break or otherwise. If the Mets want him to have a pseudo-break, they can DH him when they’re playing in AL parks starting this weekend in Minnesota. The night off was a silly decision made even more absurd by the fact that they don’t have a legitimate backup first baseman to replace him and it probably won’t do any more good to break him out of his slump than just putting him in the lineup and rolling the dice against Lee. The odds are he wouldn’t have done much more against Lee than the overall Mets lineup did, but at least he’d have had a better shot than Turner. That, more than anything, was why he should’ve been playing and should be playing from now on for the rest of the season with a day off given if he really needs it, not to shield him from a great pitcher.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available onAmazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part I: For the Braves

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In exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves gave up infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, righty pitcher Randall Delgado, minor league infielders Nick Ahmed, and Brandon Drury, along with righty pitcher Zeke Spruill. They held onto defensive wizard and All-Star talent Andrelton Simmons who, in earlier trade discussions, was the player the Diamondbacks wanted to front the trade.

The Braves made this deal based on winning immediately, filling holes and achieving cost certainty. They were moderate title contenders as constructed, but with the retirement of Chipper Jones, they needed another power bat in the lineup; if they were trading Prado they needed someone that could play third base. Justin Upton is the bat and Johnson is the third baseman to achieve those ends.

With the free agent signing of B.J. Upton, they acquired a defensive ace in center field and a potential do-it-all player. The question with B.J. Upton has always been motivation. In short, he’s lazy. Of course the money that the Braves agreed to pay him (5-years, $75.25 million) should be enough to receive an all-out performance on a daily basis, but this is the same player who didn’t run hard on a double play grounder in the Rays’ 2008 World Series loss. Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout after a particularly egregious bit of lollygagging in 2010. Given that it was a public scolding and that manager Joe Maddon had repeatedly disciplined him, it’s a sound bet that it wasn’t the first time a teammate got in the face of the gifted and flighty B.J. Upton.

Combined with the money, what better way to get B.J. Upton on the same page with the club and make sure he plays hard than to acquire his brother Justin? It’s not as if this is a Ken BrettGeorge Brett case where Ken was signed by the Royals in 1980 to inspire his brother in his quest to bat .400. Nor is it a lifelong minor leaguer Mike Glavine playing first base for the Mets late in the 2003 season as a favor to Tom Glavine. Justin Upton is an MVP-caliber player (like his brother) who’s actually put up MVP-quality numbers.

Overall B.J. Upton is more talented, but Justin Upton has done it on the field. Justin was traded by the Diamondbacks because of the flimsy excuse that he’s not intense enough, but the criticism wasn’t due to jogging around the field as if he didn’t care. Justin Upton is younger than people realize at 25. He was in the big leagues at 19 and if the Diamondbacks wanted him to step forward and be a leader, it might have been a case where he’s not comfortable doing that.

Not everyone can be the center of attention and fire up the troops—not everyone wants that responsibility. With the Braves, there are enough players willing to take that initiative with Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, and Tim Hudson that Justin Upton can do his job and not worry about running into walls to keep up insincere appearances for what the Diamondbacks wanted from him. The two Uptons in the outfield with Jason Heyward will be the Braves written-in-ink outfield at least through 2015. All three are in their 20s with MVP ability. Both Uptons need to perform. Braves fans turn on players rapidly if their expectations aren’t met and sustained, so the honeymoon will be short-lived if neither brother hits.

Prado is popular, versatile and defensively solid wherever he plays. He can run and has pop. But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and unless they find a taker for Uggla (good luck), the cost-conscious Braves would have no chance of keeping Prado and their other pending free agents McCann and Hudson. Prado was the logical trade candidate if they wanted to keep Simmons.

Johnson is a limited player. He’s mediocre defensively and strikes out a lot. He’s relatively cheap ($2.88 million in 2013) and has 10-15 home run power. They needed a stopgap third baseman and took Johnson as a concession to losing Prado. Given the third base market, they could do worse. Better still, Johnson isn’t the type to be intimidated by replacing the future Hall of Famer Jones.

The initial reaction to a trade like this is generally, “Wow, look at what the Braves could be.” But what they will be is contingent on B.J. Upton hustling full-time and not just when he feels like it. If Justin Upton being there assists in that, his value will be exponentially increased from what he provides on the field.

The Braves are a win-now team and the young players they traded weren’t going to help them win on the field in the immediate future, but by trading them for Justin Upton, they did help them for 2013 and beyond.

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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Hatcher’s Firing Was Inevitable

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In an unavoidable decision, the Angels fired hitting coach Mickey HatcherESPN Story.

I called it on April 30th in the following clip from this posting.

(Arte Moreno’s) not a quick trigger owner, but if (the Angels are) not hitting by mid-May, Hatcher’s gone. This could expose a rift between manager Mike Scioscia and the front office. Scioscia’s influence has been compromised with the hiring of Jerry Dipoto and if one of his handpicked coaches and friends is fired, a true chasm will be evident. Firings will be shots across the bow of Scioscia and, armed with a contract through 2018 (that he can opt-out of after 2015), if he’s unhappy with the changes he’ll let his feelings be known.

There will be talk that Scioscia’s sway over the organization is on the wane. Hatcher has been a coach on Scioscia’s staff since 2000. Twelve years is a long time. Maybe it’s too long.

Outsider speculation is just that. It’s hard to imaging Scioscia wanting to fire his hitting coach and friend, but there could also be an element of realization and pragmatism that something needed to be done. We don’t know whether Scioscia had a heavy hand in the decried decisions the Angels made in the past such as doling lucrative and wasted contracts on Gary Matthews Jr. and Justin Speier and making disastrous trades for Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells. Scioscia had significant say-so in the team construction and this current group—on offense at least—is not the type of team that Scioscia generally preferred to have. For better or worse, he’s a National League-style manager who learned his trade under Tom Lasorda. What that means is that he liked having starting pitchers who gave him innings, a deep and diverse bullpen with a hard-throwing closer, a few boppers in the middle of the lineup, speed and defense.

Perhaps the failed decisions listed above were what caused the change in course in the front office from the manager having major input and the mandate to say no, to his opinion being taken under advisement with upper management doing what it wants whether the manager is onboard or not.

That’s pretty much how it is throughout baseball no matter who the manager is.

Following the drastic and uncharacteristic acquisition on Albert Pujols, there’s a lack of definition to this current Angels group.

No manager would say no to Pujols and eventually the rest of baseball is going to pay for what Pujols is going through at the moment. He’s not finished. He’s going to hit. But was it a decision that Scioscia would’ve made? Or would have preferred to spend that money elsewhere on a better bullpen? Another starting pitcher? An infielder who can do it all? Given the template of the Angels and what they needed, Jose Reyes was a better fit for the team than Pujols was, but with the new cable network deal on the way and Moreno’s desire to be the focus of Southern California, he wanted the big fish and got him.

The firing of Hatcher is cosmetic. To suggest that anyone aside from Pujols receives credit or blame for what he does on the field is silly. We can’t judge with any certainty how much a hitting coach influences a player when he steps up to the plate. The media will try to anoint certain coaches a mythical, guru status when, in reality, it’s the hitters themselves who do the dirty work. Many times a hitter simply needs someone with whom he connects regardless of the information he’s receiving. If the coach says good morning to him in the right way or gets in the player’s face when necessary, it will be seen as the “turning point”.

Was it a turning point? Or did the hitter just happen to meet the perfect person to make him feel better mentally to go up to the plate in the state he—as the individual—needed to succeed? That state could be anger, it could be peace or it could be anything. We don’t know.

Did Charlie Lau make George Brett or was Brett going to shine through with or without Lau?

Did Lou Piniella’s adjustments with Don Mattingly convincing Mattingly to try and pull the inside pitches over the short right field wall at Yankee Stadium create Donnie Baseball or would he have done it once he grew comfortable in the big leagues?

Hitting coaches like Rudy Jaramillo have been lauded and hired amid great fanfare and not helped at all in the bottom line.

The hitting coach is a convenient scapegoat to wake up the team, to put forth the pretense of “doing something” and to send a message to the manager.

In the case of the Angels, it’s probably all three.

It might not help, but given the talent on the roster, they certainly can’t be much more of a disappointment than they’ve already been.

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Jose Reyes Does What Baseball Players Do Sometimes…Especially Late In The Season

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Players have pulled themselves out of games in the interests of individual pursuits forever.

They’ve adjusted their competitiveness to be part of history.

They’ve been placed in different parts of the lineup.

They’ve bunted.

They’ve swung at pitches that were clearly out of the strike zone to get extra swings to achieve goals.

They’ve gone for doubles and triples to complete cycles.

They’ve done it all.

Baseball is an individual sport within a team concept.

There are 162 games in a baseball season and rules as to how many innings and plate appearances are necessary for players to be eligible for ERA and batting titles.

Do you really believe that as the season winds down that players are concerned—first and foremost—with winning?

No. They want to pad their stats and they do it intentionally.

Today Jose Reyes of the Mets went up to the plate leading the National League in batting over the Brewers Ryan Braun. (I’m not looking up the percentage points because, truth be told, I couldn’t care less about the batting title); Reyes had told Mets manager Terry Collins beforehand that if he got a hit, he wanted to come out of the game.

Then he bunted for a hit.

Then Collins took him out of the game.

Collins and Reyes admitted as such after-the-fact, in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Before this information was revealed, two of the most absurd places for the dissemination of fact on this or any other planet in the universe—Twitter and Michael Kay—went on abusive rants against the Mets as if they were the one perpetrating this act on an unsuspecting public waiting for aboveboard and fair victors in the all-important batting race.

Naturally, no one retracted their statements when the truth came out.

It was still the fault of the Mets somehow even if it wasn’t.

Never mind that Bernie Williams won a batting title in 1998 after starting the day tied with Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox and when Williams went 2 for 2 with a sacrifice fly, he was pulled.

Never mind that players like Bill Madlock won batting titles after taking themselves out of games to achieve that end.

Pete Rose bunted for a hit to win the batting title over Roberto Clemente.

Denny McLain threw a room service meatball to Mickey Mantle for Mantle to hit his 535th career homer because McLain wanted to be part of history; in fact, he asked Mantle where he wanted the pitch and Mantle obliged by telling him.

The St. Louis Browns let Napoleon Lajoie bunt to his heart’s content in an attempt to take the batting title away from the reviled Ty Cobb.

Reyes played in 126 games this season; George Brett played in 117 in the year he hit .390 and nearly hit .400.

Does the fact that Reyes pulled himself from a game to try and win the title and was injured with hamstring problems twice in 2011 “ruin” a title that few really pay attention to anymore? Does the fact that Brett was oft-injured as well somehow equate into the batting title needing to be put in a negative frame of reference in terms of competition?

When Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth‘s home run record, it was decreed that there would be two separate records, one for the 154 game schedule and the other for the 162 game schedule. Incredulous, Maris asked something to the tune of, “Which 154? The first 154? The last? The middle?”

The batting title is a resume builder; it’s an award; and it’s relatively meaningless.

This reaction is based on Mets hatred and the attempt to cast a negative light on a baseball player like Jose Reyes who looked to increase his own status with an “award”.

If you don’t know this or can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be talking about it in such a judgmental, holier-than-thou way.

They’re baseball players.

This is what they do.

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Hammering

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Scott Kazmir‘s precarious position in the Angels starting rotation got me to—again—think about why teams insist on hammering square pegs into round holes.

There are certain belief systems that have to change to maximize the talent a club has on their roster. Did anyone ever stop to think that perhaps pitchers like Kazmir and Rich Harden would be better off as relievers?

After getting past the numerical argument that a decent starter is better than a good reliever, what happens if the pitcher isn’t a decent starter anymore; or if he’s good, but can’t stay healthy? Why does there have to be this ironclad set of rules that pitcher A is a starter and he’s going to stay a starter?

Kazmir and Harden can’t stay healthy as starters; Kazmir is no longer effective as a starter—why not see if he can possibly help out of the bullpen?

An onus is placed over a player who can’t do certain things and it’s at the expense of what he can do. One of the things that made Earl Weaver a genius wasn’t his adherence to stats; it wasn’t his discipline; it wasn’t his utter ruthlessness in getting rid of players who could no longer help him win; it was his conscious decision to put his players in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

He did it with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein—separately they could only be described as average players at best; combined, they were one of the most devastating platoons in memory.

So why can’t Harden be placed in the bullpen to see if he can fire his power fastball and slider for an inning or two, not worry about pacing himself and hope he can stay healthy?

If he continues his downward spiral, why not stick Kazmir in the bullpen as the 7th-8th inning man—or even let him close on occasion—and see if the adrenaline rush from being a reliever and never knowing when he’s going to be needed to pitch blows his fastball back into the mid-90s?

Tony La Russa has forever been blamed for the one-inning closer because of the way he deployed Dennis Eckersley; the truth is that Eckersley pitched more than one inning regularly when he first moved to the bullpen and La Russa’s decision to use his short reliever in that manner was based on Eckersley being better that way; it was not some grand scheme that this is how it should be done.

Does anyone think that Eckersley would’ve been of more use had he stayed in the starting rotation as his career was nearly undone at age 32 because he was no longer an effective starter? He didn’t want to go to the bullpen—he had no choice—now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

With the way relievers—aside from Mariano Rivera—are so inherently unreliable, the entire fabric of how to deploy one’s pitching staff has to be overhauled; it would take a gutty front office and manager to do it, but with the new blood permeating baseball and shoving back at conformity with a flourish, someone’s going to say they’re doing it another way…eventually.

Old-school people who repeatedly reference Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry as closers who were legitimate relief aces tend to forget that those great pitchers blew games too.

George Brett used to lie in wait for a Gossage high fastball because he was one of the few hitters in baseball who was quick enough to get on top of it. Other hitters with whom Gossage had trouble were fastball hitters like Champ Summers* and Richie Zisk.

*Summers was a piece of work. He was a Vietnam vet who loved—not liked—loved to fight.

In fact, when Gossage signed with the Yankees in 1978, he allowed homers in his first three appearances. It wasn’t all “lights out, ballgame over” when these pitchers came into games, selective memory and factional disputes as to eras aside.

From memory, Sutter was the reliever I feared more than any other because he’d come into a game in the sixth inning and close it out. But Sutter’s greatness was proven to be limiting as well when he left the Cardinals, signed a massive free agent contract with the then-woeful Atlanta Braves and his presence didn’t help them at all because they weren’t any good; the Cardinals won the pennant the first year without Sutter.

A team has to be complete; it has to have all the puzzle pieces arranged correctly. We don’t know what would happen with a Kazmir or Harden if they were made into relievers, but we certainly know what they currently are as starters, so why continue the charade? Why not make a career change and see if it works?

They’re not doing much good now, so what’s the difference if they fail as relievers as well?

And it just might work.

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My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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