Results tagged ‘ James Shields ’

Can the Royals or Indians Actually Catch the Tigers by Their Toes?

iAfter spending the better part of the past decade lost in the baseball wilderness, the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians have finally found a way out. The two ball clubs sit 2nd and 3rd respectively in the AL Central and they’ve both been playing well of late, posting identical 7-3 records in their past 10 games.

Kansas City has been getting it done on the mound thanks in large part to a rebuilt starting staff that currently ranks 5th in baseball in ERA. New additions like Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields have quickly made Royals fans forget the days when Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar were the best the franchise had to offer. A 17-11 start has only furthered the thought that the Royals might end their playoff drought, closing the door on a nightmare that began all the way back in 1986.

Cleveland is also enjoying a baseball renaissance of sorts, but they are getting the job done in a whole different way. The Indians have used their bats to rebound from last year’s 94-loss disaster, leading the American League with 40 homers already. Their own offseason acquisitions, which included the likes of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, are hitting balls out of the park at such great frequency that fans in the outfield must be alert at all times. New manager Terry Francona has Cleveland playing loose, winning 7 of their last 8.

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The Renovated Royals Rotation is Working Wonders

7276120Only one franchise in baseball has managed to stumble their way through the past decade without having a single pitching staff rank in the top half of the league: the Kansas City Royals. The franchise was only able to rise above 20th once over the course of the last decade, finishing 16th in 2007 thanks to Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and a surprisingly good bullpen that featured a 23-year-old Zach Greinke for most of the year. But that one year is just a blip on the radar and it’s not a very impressive blip at that.

That’s why GM Dayton Moore decided to go all in on pitching this offseason, overhauling the Royals’ rotation to the point that it’s unrecognizable now. Gone are the days of starting Luke Hochevar on Opening Day. Instead, Kansas City now has a viable front man at the top of their rotation in James Shields and a pretty solid quartet backing him up. Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza may not be the most recognizable names in the game, but they have been ruthlessly effective so far, carrying KC to the 5th best starter’s ERA in the Majors as well as the AL Central lead.

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Predictions for the 2013 Season

stephen-Strasburg.opnt-68989-midAs we prepare to embark on yet another wild and enthralling MLB season it’s time for everyone’s favorite exercise in futility: Predictions! After 2012’s thrilling season ended with the Giants raising the World Series trophy the offseason that followed was full of surprises. Annually overlooked ball clubs like Cleveland, Toronto, and Kansas City all made big win-now moves while traditional powers like the Yankees and Phillies opted for minor moves and the ensuing result could turn baseball as we know it on its head. So without further adu, I present to you my thoughts and ideas about what’s in store in 2013. No matter what happens, 2013 should be a thrilling year so sit back, grab a beer, and get settled in for some great baseball.

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Rays-Royals Swing a Blockbuster

iWhenever a team trades their best prospect and their best pitching prospect, the assumption is that they were just floored with an offer that they couldn’t refuse. After all, if Toronto’s #5, #6, and #10 prospects (according to Baseball America) could nab Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and John Buck, what could the consensus Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, be worth? And what could Myers get you if you packaged him with other top prospects from one of the deepest, most talented minor league systems in baseball? It would have to be a killing, right? Like a David Price, or a Clayton Kershaw, or a Troy Tulowitzki plus more right? Well, if you were paying attention on Sunday evening, the Royals were able to turn Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard into James Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later from the Rays. Quite frankly, that’s not exactly the most inspiring haul you could possibly get. In fact, I said as much a couple of weeks ago when rumors of a Wil Myers trade first surfaced. Here’s the basic gist of what I wrote:

“So unless the Rays want to trade David Price or Matt Moore straight up or the Mariners suddenly get the urge to deal King Felix away, the Royals need to stand pat. Those are the only types of players Dayton Moore should be looking for. No Jon Lesters, no James Shields types. While they are both good pitchers, they just won’t offer enough in return to justify trading away a potential future All-Star who’s going to be on a rookie deal.”

Well not much has changed in two weeks. I still believe Myers will turn into a perennial All-Star with multiple 30 homer seasons, and the only reason to trade that type of player away is if you can get a true #1 starter. And as much as I love James Shields, he isn’t a #1 starter. He might be the best #2 in baseball, but that’s not worth the haul Kansas City is giving up. Regardless of my own personal thoughts, one thing really stands out about this trade from Kansas City’s perspective: the franchise is all-in for 2013. There is no going back now. Kansas City’s front office must truly believe that the acquisition of Shields and Davis puts them in the running for the AL Central title, otherwise there is absolutely no reason to make this deal. Meanwhile, the Rays are the team looking past 2013, even though they won 90 games in last season, and you know what? They will probably be better off for it and that’s what makes this such a fascinating trade to break down.

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Hot Stove Rundown: Do the Rays Need to Trade a Pitcher?

One of the most commonly held notions going into the 2012-13 hot stove is that the Tampa Bay Rays, those gluttons of pitching, need to trade away at least one of their starters to pick up a nice middle-of-the-order type bat. A cursory look at Tampa’s stats from a year ago give credence to this idea.

Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in baseball. They piled up the most strikeouts in baseball. The Rays even had the lowest batting average against any staff in baseball. Basically general manager Andrew Friedman and company have stockpiled arms like the Americans and Soviets had during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Rays offense struggled to produce even meager run totals, resembling something similar to the Eastern block of Europe during the 1950s, to stick with the Cold War theme. They struggled to hit consistently for power, they were abysmal at hitting for average, and in the run scoring department they ranked a meager 18th in baseball, trailing every one of their AL East rivals.

The solution appears to be simple on the surface. Trade a little bit of the enviable starting pitching depth for a little bit of premium offense. The Rays won’t miss one of their frontline starters too much with all their depth and with some more pop at the plate, a playoff appearance and maybe even a parade could be coming to St. Pete in a matter of no time. But it’s not that simple. The Rays could stand pat and decide to peruse the free agent market for offense, hoping to turn trash into treasure yet another time. And if they deal a pitcher, who goes, who stays, and what do they want in return?

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Rays of Hope

“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs

If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.

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Tampa Bay’s Pitching Staff: The Best in Baseball

It wasn’t so long ago in July, when the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting 10.5 games out of first place. They were a mire 47-45, slumping, and rumor had it that core players like James Shields and BJ Upton were on the trading block. GM Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest GM in all of baseball, decided to hold onto his assets and see if the team had another 2nd half turnaround in it. Well, thanks to a red-hot Upton (.266/.316/.564, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 14 steals in 57 games) and the best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays look like one of the most dangerous teams in the American League heading toward the end of the season.

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Contenders, Pretenders Emerge as September Baseball Arrives – AL Edition

The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.

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Joe Maddon, Spray Charts, and Defensive Shifts: Part I

Part 1 of a season long series to discover the effects of the shift, particularly in Tampa Bay where its most ardent supporter manages.

Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.

First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.

It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.

The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.

So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson, as evidenced by his spray chart, is a dead pull ground ball hitter.

He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.

Albert Pujols

Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year. 

Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.

Mark Teixeira

The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.

Batting left-handed

Batting right-handed

The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.

Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.

Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.

Don’t Get Caught Napping: Pickoff Moves

With baseball’s all-time leader in pickoffs, Andy Pettitte with 99, returning to pitch for the Yankees this season it’s a good time to take a look back at the history and origin of the pickoff move. My source for the history of the pickoff move and from where all quotes were extracted is the excellent book A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball by the award winning Peter Morris.

The pickoff move has been in recorded existence since the 1800s when in 1860 “the Brooklyn Eagle recorded: ‘(Mattie) O’Brien played finely, both pitching and watching the bases; in the latter respect he kept his opponents well on the bases when they reached them. He caught (Frank) Pidgeon napping at first base in capital style.’” Since baseball in the 1860s was still played by pitching the ball underhanded, a pickoff would not resemble anything like baseball today. “Much of the interplay that now exists between pitchers and base runners did not exist. Most base runners began to take modest leads, and pickoff tosses accordingly became scarce in the 1870s” according to Morris. A pickoff became a rare sighting and until the 1880s the move was considered an unused novelty.

By the 1880s, overhand pitching had taken hold of baseball and would help reintroduce the move into the sport. The pickoff began to take shape and look similar to what we now know of today. Windups began to evolve to hold base runners with “the most extreme approach employed by Philadelphia’s Con Murphy. Although Murphy was a right-hander, with a runner on first he stood facing the base runner until he suddenly pivoted and threw to the plate.” Another famous early pickoff artist was Matt Kilroy, a left-hander who employed an illegal move in today’s game. He “made the same step forward as though he was going to pitch, but would shoot the ball underhanded to first base, instead of ‘putting it over the plate.’” In today’s game once a pitcher moves toward the plate he must follow through with the pitch, otherwise it is considered a balk.

Other forms of pickoffs inevitably developed, such as pickoffs to second, ambidextrous pickoffs (which “was surprisingly frequent in the days before it was common for pitchers to wear gloves” via Morris), and the fake to third, throw to first pickoff variant. The first real step taken toward slowing a running game and implementing the modern pickoff was in 1889 when Tim Keefe pitched out of the stretch. This would change baseball completely, and today every single pitcher from Little League to the Big Leagues is taught to pitch out of the stretch. The pickoff would undergo very little change or invention until the 1960s.

By the 1960s base runners were begin to dominate baseball as they never had before. Managers were learning the benefits of stealing a base tended to outweigh the risks. In 1962 Maury Willis stole 104 bases, which hadn’t been done since 1894. Teams were stealing on average ten more bases a year than in the previous decade. Something needed to be done to slow down base stealers.

The slide step, which had been sparingly used in the 1800’s made a comeback. This involves a right-handed pitcher quickly removing his back foot from the rubber and wheeling around and throwing to first. According to Morris, Pud Galvin in 1891 is credited with inventing a crude version of the move. According to most text it is difficult to tell who refined the move, as it seems most of the league started employing the tactic around the same time.

One of the best right-handed pickoff moves in use today belongs to James Shields. He caught 12 base runners last season, a huge total, and only allowed 6 steals on 11 attempts. Nobody ran on him and his move, shown here, involves him sitting in a low stance in order to see the runner as best he can. Shields then removes his back foot from the rubber while wheeling around and firing low and to the outside corner of the base. Its the gold standard for the sidestep.

In the last two decades, as further response to the increase in base running, lefties began refining an old technique as well. Mat Kilroy’s old technique of faking to the plate and throwing to first was brought back to life by guys like Jim Kaat and particularly Andy Pettitte. Mark Buehrle is another modern master of Kilroy’s ploy.  The modern version of the pickoff entails that a pitcher bring his leg directly up and then move it toward first base. If the pitcher moves his leg back or forward in any way he must go to the plate or be called for a balk. Pettitte and Buehrle in particular are excellent at the feign because they can keep their eye on the plate while throwing toward first. This pickoff move also controls the opponent’s running game, allowing more time for double plays to be turned and stealers to be caught. Base runners need to keep small leads and stay alert against pitchers like these, unless they want to be cut down in their prime.

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