Tagged: AA

Hit Parade

Single season records can be reached without the need for a career filled with success. Players only need to have a single magical season to reach these marks. Think Roger Maris in 1961 or even a career year like Mark Fidrych in 1976. The toughest record to beat now may be the single season hits record. Ichiro Suzuki collected 262 hits in 2004, finally topping George Sisler’s single season record of 257 hits that had stood since 1920. There have been 530 individual efforts where a player collected at least 200 hits in a season. Many players have had multiple 200 hit seasons, with Ichiro and Pete Rose holding the record with ten 200 hit seasons.

200 hits in a single season is not a rare accomplishment. We’ve seen, over the last several seasons, a handful of players collecting 200 hits. However, the Houston Astros have the talent to potentially do something no team has ever done by having four teammates collect 200 hits in the same season. Only three times in Major League history has a team had three teammates collect 200 hits in the same season, but never a fourth. The 1963 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, and the 1991 Texas Rangers had three teammates collect 200 hits. Teammates who are able to consistently hit and get on base does not necessarily translate to success. The 1963 Cardinals finished 2nd in the National League, 6 games behind the Dodgers for the Pennant. The 1982 Brewers lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals. The 1991 Rangers finished 3rd in the American League West, 10 games behind the Twins. Success in baseball is a team effort. Simply having a third or more of your lineup hitting all season does not mean you can be lackluster elsewhere.

Altuve
Jose Altuve is Houston’s best hitter. 200 hits a season is close to automatic. (Elaine Thompson, STF)

The 2017 Houston Astros could be the first team to have four teammates collect 200 hits in the same season thanks to the ABC’S. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. Jose Altuve is a hitting machine, for whom not collecting 200 hits in a season would make it a down year. Altuve has collected at least 200 hits in three out of five full seasons in the Majors. Bregman has hit at every level in college and in the minors and should continue to develop into an outstanding consistent bat in the Houston lineup. Bregman played in only 146 minor league games after being drafted by Houston out of LSU. Starting at A Ball, Bregman batted .259, High A .319, AA .297, and AAA .333. Bregman can hit and he is starting to settle in with the Astros. Correa is a do it all super star in the making. Entering his third full season in the Majors, Correa continues to improve his strikeout to walk rate. Correa is still learning to hit at the Major League level and his strikeout rate should continue to decline. George Springer is an everyday player who can reach 200 hits simply by cutting down on his strikeouts and focusing on hitting singles and doubles instead of swinging for the fences. In 2016, his first full healthy season in the Majors, Springer hit 29 doubles and 29 home runs with 88 walks and 178 strikeouts. If he can combine plate discipline to draw more walks and cutting down on his big swings to strike out less, perhaps down to 125 times a season, that may translate to 50 more balls in play each season. Springer collected 168 hits against those 178 strikeouts. 50 more balls in play could mean collecting 200 hits.

Bregman
Alex Bregman is still getting comfortable in the Majors, but he has shown from college through the minors and in Houstn that he can hit. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The ability to hit and get on base will become slightly easier as opposing teams may prefer to face Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and/or Springer than give up crushing scores to the big bats behind them in the lineup. Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann can all launch a baseball over the fence with cautionary frequency. Every night at least two of the three power bats will be protecting Houston’s hit parade. Every night is a new nightmare for opposing pitchers. They’re faced with either a swift destruction from power or the drowning quicksand from a constant stream of singles here and doubles there.

Astros Manager A.J. Hinch has had George Springer leading off, setting the stage for Jose Altuve batting third and Carlos Correa batting fourth. Once the speed and contact have put the pressure on opposing pitchers Hinch has had Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and/or Evan Gattis batting fourth or fifth in nearly every game. Alex Bregman has most often worked to reset the stage by batting eighth, but he also has the second most at bats in the Astros lineup batting second or sixth. Bregman appears to be the utility batter for Houston as he can help the Astros turn the batting order over or he can fill in to help set the stage for Altuve, Correa, or the power of Beltran, McCann, or Gattis.

Correa
Is there anything Carlos Correa can’t do on the diamond? (Brace Hemmelgam/Getty Images)

There are three major factors that may hamper the quest for four single-season, 200-hit teammates for the 2017 Astros. First is the relative youth of Bregman, Correa, and Springer. Slumps and growing pains are often a matter of when, not if, especially for younger hitters. Every batter struggles at one point in their career in some way, past success does not guarantee future success. Second, injuries. The Major League season is a 162 game grind that breaks down even the strongest and toughest players in the world. The Astros are not immune to injuries and missing even a week or more could put 200 hits out of reach for a player. Third, Houston currently has an 8 game lead in the American League West over the Angels and the Rangers. Any sized lead can disappear over the next four months, but with each passing day the Astros make it a little more difficult to be caught. If the Astros run away with the West, A.J. Hinch could decide to rest his players down the stretch, meaning losing at bats and potential hits to rest them for the playoffs.

George Springer
George Springer can hit plenty of home runs, but his greatest value for the Astros might be getting on base ahead of Houston’s sluggers. (AP Photo/ David J. Phillip)

There are plenty of ifs peppered in the scenario of the Astros having four teammates collect 200 hits in 2017. The Astros’ core is young, the years of tanking have finally provided Houston the draft positioning to get the team they sought all along. A young, dynamic team that is built to win both now and in the future. The quartet of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Springer may never collect 200 hits in a season, but 2017 seems to be the first real opportunity for them to make a run at this particular landmark record. The hit parade in Houston is fun to watch and so far has resulted in plenty of wins for the Astros. The hits record would be nice, but the Astros are only concerned with winning their first World Series.

DJ

Keeping Score

Note-taking is a tough task. It requires you to have an organized mental system to judge what is important and what isn’t necessary to recount for general understanding. Looking at box scores can give you a general understanding of what went on in a baseball game. Then there’s the scorecard. It’s a triumph of shorthand. This simple system, through development over decades, has a broad language and style that is the textbook definition of a picture saying a thousand words.

Deciding I wanted to learn how to fill out a scorecard came about for several reasons. Mostly that I wanted to learn more about the game. One of my favorite comedians talks about her love for sports and mentions that she enjoys filling out scorecards when she watches games live.

I also thought it might help me get a better idea of the flow of a game. I can still look at the box score and team stats of a football game then piece together a good idea of how the game went. I can’t say I can do that with a baseball box score. What I realized is that it’s because there are so many more details that matter to me when trying to interpret how things went, such as what part of the line up scored, what sort of pitch counts were occurring, etc.

On the other hand, I know baseball fans who bring books to the game because they enjoy being at the ballpark and listening to game being played. In the same way, I’ve often been playing Dodgers home games on my computer and just listening to Vin Scully call the game while I putz around on the internet.

All of this introduction to basically say that I was having a bad day and decided to drive a few hours away to catch a Double A game between the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the Erie Seawolves where I decided I would also learn to fill out a scorecard on the fly.

I decided in the morning that I would head down for the game. So I started looking online for instructions on how to fill out a scorecard. I was shocked at how many different methods people have posted. Here are a few that I found by typing in “how to fill out a baseball scorecard” via Google.

http://www.baseballscorecard.com/downloads/tutorial.pdf

http://www.wikihow.com/Mark-a-Baseball-Scorecard

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2008/05/29/how-to-score-a-baseball-game-with-pencil-and-paper/

http://baseball.about.com/od/baseball12/ss/howtoscore.htm

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/baseball_basics/keeping_score.jsp

I was planning on getting a program for the game and thought there was a pretty good chance there would be a scorecard in it. If there wasn’t, I’m sure I would have been able to get one from somewhere in the stadium. If not, I was already bringing a notebook to take down my thoughts about the game, so I would use that if I had to.

I got the stadium about 90 minutes before the game started. I had already missed out on the free t-shirt giveaway and the courtyard area was packed with Girl Scouts who were getting to have a sleepover at the park after the game. Sadly, they weren’t selling cookies.

But I got 32 oz beer and some food – a pound of curly fries, a burger, and some chicken tenders then found my seat. If you’re reading this then it’s not likely that you need to be reminded that minor league baseball is quite awesome. However, it can always be restated because the beer, food, hat, and ticket cost me less Tubmans than I’ve got fingers on one hand.

I mean got this great hat.

Bernie Hat
Richmond Flying Squirrels (The Winning Run/ BL)

And this was my viewpoint for the game (one of the opening pitches).

First Pitch.jpg
First pitch from Richmond (The Winning Run/ BL)

There was a scorecard in the game program but the gloss on the paper made it nearly impossible to write on it with the pen I brought. So by the 2nd inning, I was madly scribbling together a scorecard in my notebook. I had missed the announcement of the lineups so I spent part of my time trying to cobble together everyone’s position. I didn’t mark basepath travel or pitch counts. It’s pretty sparse but if you gave me some time, I could give you a decent account of the game that would go beyond the box score.

Scorecard.jpg
My first attempt to score a game. (The Winning Run/ BL)

I know I missed a lot. But I was engaged the whole time into the game. It also went by rather quickly. When you’re keeping track of the action, you’ll see that there’s a lot more going on in baseball than you think.

Derek offered to help me learn how to score a game. The beauty of the internet is that we cued up a game from earlier that day and watched it together while chatting online. I had run out of printer ink though so I sketched out another scorecard, using the following as a template.

http://www.baseball.org.il/images/Scorecard.pdf

And here is what I got.

Scorecard 2.jpg
A little practice can go a long way. (The Winning Run/ BL)

I think I did a much better job this time around.

As I looked over the various instructions and thought back to some of the methods people have discussed with me in the past week, I’m amazed at the richness of baseball vocabulary. Even as I was learning from Derek, I think we disagreed on which K was a strikeout looking and a strikeout swinging. If the shortstop fields the ball, tags a force-out at 2B and then makes the throw to 1B for the double play, how do you score it? My first thought was to put down 6-3 DP but I got another suggestion of 6-6-3 because the first number is the person who fields it and then subsequent numbers are for each player that is involved with an out. But what about a cutoff man? 8-6-2 play to catch someone at home plate?

The language of the baseball scorecard is something amazing to converse over. If you look carefully you see what’s important to the scorer when they follow the game. One of the above linked examples includes writing a line to illustrate the direction of a ball put into play. Some scorecards include balls and strikes as that can tell you how a pitcher and line up are squaring off against each other. Other people instead look to the bottom of the card to see the inning totals and innings pitched to get a similar idea.

As I am finding my baseball storytelling voice, the scorecard is a fun way to define that voice and get snapshots of its development. I haven’t looked it up so I’m speculating that Vin Scully probably keeps a scorecard of the games among what must be a serious list of concise notes as he calls and comments on games all by himself.

We keep track of the things that are important to us. Our notes take on a language that allows us to share stories and relate our interpretations of events. So how we track things becomes an integral part of that retention.

BL

The Four Corners of Frank Wren’s Braves

The Playoffs began yesterday for ten teams, but for the other 20 teams today is the first day of the off-season.  It is time for some teams to make changes, while others stay the course.  The Astros, Rangers, Twins, and Diamondbacks have said good-bye to their managers.  The Diamondbacks and Braves have fired their General Managers.  Firing season has begun.  One firing in particular stands out; the firing of Braves General Manager Frank Wren.

Wren’s dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone considering his track record.  Wren took over as GM with John Schuerholz promoted to Team President in October 2007.  Following in the steps of a legendary figure is never easy, but this was Wren’s task.  During Wren’s tenure as GM for the Braves the team compiled a 604-523 record, a .535 winning percentage.  The Braves won the National League East in 2013 and were Wild Card teams twice, in 2010 and 2012.  The team never advanced beyond the Divisional Series in the play offs.  The lack of post season success however was not Wren’s undoing.  Rather his track record with signing or trading for free agents.  The four major moves during Wren’s reign were, all individually to say the least, disappointing.  Collectively they were disastrous, and eventually cost him his job.

Frank Wren never made it to the promised land. (http://losthatsportsblog.com/)

Frank Wren never made it to the promised land. (http://losthatsportsblog.com/)

On the mound, Wren signed Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to a three year, $23 million contract before the 2009 season.  During Kawakami’s two seasons in Atlanta he posted the following line:

W-L INNINGS H R ER HR BB SO WHIP ERA
8-22 243.2 251 130 117 25 89 164 1.395 4.32

Kawakami spent his final season of his contract in the minors pitching in Rookie ball, for the Gulf Coast League Braves, and in AA, for the Mississippi Braves.  Kawakami never lived up the expectations Wren set after signing him from the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.  After his contract ended, Kawakami returned to Japan and to the Chunichi Dragons.

Kenshin Kawakawi never found success in Atlanta. (nj.com)

Kenshin Kawakawi never found success in Atlanta. (nj.com)

Wren also signed Derek Lowe to a four year, $60 million contract prior to the 2009 season.  Lowe lasted three seasons in Atlanta and posted this uninspiring line:

W-L INNINGS H R ER HR BB SO WHIP ERA
40-39 575.1 648 307 292 48 194 384 1.463 4.57

After the third year of the contract, Lowe was traded to the Cleveland Indians with cash for minor leaguer Chris Jones, who is currently pitching at AAA Norfolk Tides in the Baltimore Orioles system.  While a serviceable starter in Atlanta, Lowe was unable to sustain the success he had had with the Red Sox and the Dodgers.  Lowe had become an overpriced luxury the Braves could not afford.  The Braves were willing to pay for Lowe to leave and took Jones to get something as a return on their investment in Lowe.

Derek Lowe was not worth the money. (nj.com)

Derek Lowe was not worth the money. (nj.com)

Starting in the 2010 offseason Wren attempted to bolster the Braves offense through trade and signings.  Wren pulled off a trade with the Florida Marlins which sent Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to Florida in exchange for Second Baseman Dan Uggla.  Uggla and the Braves then agreed to a five year, $62 million contract.  The trade and contract were a disaster.  Uggla spent three and a half seasons with the Braves, seeing his production and playing time dwindled to almost nothing before he was released.  He was able to post a line of:

G R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
499 247 356 64 79 225 7 243 535 .209 .317 .391 .708

One of the few bright spots during his tenure with the Braves was his 33 game hitting streak in 2011.  Despite the hitting streak Uggla hit .233, which would be his highest batting average as a Brave.  His play at second was not much better; he posted a Defensive WAR of -2.1 with the Braves.  In 2014, the Braves released Uggla and were willing to pay the remainder of the contract, which was at least $ 15 million.  Uggla was reducing the Braves to a 24 man roster, and had to be moved if the Braves were to compete on any level, which ended one of the worst experiences in Braves history.

OH NO UGGLA!!! (http://rotoprofessor.com/)

OH NO UGGLA!!! (http://rotoprofessor.com/)

In November 2012, B.J. Upton landed in Atlanta as a free agent after eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Upton signed a five year, $75.25 million contract.  The Braves made a major splash with the signing, but they had almost immediate buyer’s remorse.  Upton is closing out the second year of his contract and has amassed this line:

G R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
267 97 180 33 21 61 32 101 324 .198 .279 .314 .593

Upton has been better on defense than Uggla, but it has not been enough to counteract his offensive struggles.  Upton has a Definsive WAR of -0.4 with the Braves.  As improbable as it might seem, Braves fans are already beginning to wish Dan Uggla would come back in place of Upton.  The rumor mill has already begun about how Atlanta can get out of the contract without having to pay out all the remaining money of the contract.  It does not look promising for Upton to finish the contract as a member of the Braves.

BJ Upton just can't get it together in Atlanta. (bit.ly)

BJ Upton just can’t get it together in Atlanta. (bit.ly)

Frank Wren gave seven years and $83 million to Kawakami and Lowe.  In return, during five seasons the Braves received:

W-L INNINGS H R ER HR BB SO WHIP ERA
48-21 819 899 437 409 73 283 548 1.443 4.49

Neither pitcher lasted the full length of their contract with the Atlanta Braves.  Wren also gave ten years and $134.25 million to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.  In return, the Braves received:

G R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
766 344 536 97 100 286 39 344 859 .205 .303 .364 .667

In five and a half combined seasons, Uggla and Upton have not produced a single season worthy of an average Major League player.  Kawakami and Lowe were serviceable on the mound but not respectable based upon their salary and expectations.  Kawakami finished his Braves career in the minors, Lowe was traded away with cash for a minor leaguer who at the time was in High A ball, and Dan Uggla was released because the Braves could not find another team to take him nor were they willing to take away playing time from their minor leaguers. Three of the four major acquisitions made by Frank Wren did not finish their contracts as a member of the Atlanta Braves.  The fourth, B.J Upton, seems destined to be the worst signing of the bunch, and at the present it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation where the Braves get rid of him either through trade, demotion, or release.

Ultimately Frank Wren sealed his own fate through his inability to successfully acquire players who could remotely live up to their large contracts.  While not entirely his fault, Wren was highly involved in altering how the Braves play on the field.  He sought out the pricey talent from other teams.  The Braves have been highly successful in developing talent through the draft or through trades for minor leaguers or young players.  The Braves continue to have excellent pitching; it is the offense which is lacking.  While Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were all Hall of Fame caliper players, the offense was balanced.  Atlanta had the power from Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Brian McCann.  The team also had the players who could get on base ahead of these power hitters, like Otis Nixon, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, and Marquis Grissom.  The Braves forgot how to play same ball.

Braves fans were left scratching their heads after many of Frank Wren's moves.(www.mbird.com)

Braves fans were left scratching their heads after many of Frank Wren’s moves.(www.mbird.com)

Times change, but in baseball generally the winning formula stays the same.  Good pitching, which the Braves generally had during Wren’s tenure despite the signing of Kawakami and Lowe, and a balanced offense, which seemed to be forgotten.  Atlanta has plenty of offense to be competitive; however with a lineup full of high strikeout batters who are swinging for the fences, the difference between success and failure becomes razor thin.  Success in baseball is about scoring runs and preventing runs.  Atlanta forgot what brought them success and appeared to value highlight reel worthy home runs more than fielding a balanced team which could compete on a yearly basis.

The Braves lost their way and fell in love with both the long ball and with making a splash with high profile free agent signings or big trades.  The long term ramifications for these ill-advised signings by Frank Wren are still being felt.  B.J. Upton needs to return to hitting .240 before fans can at least say the Uggla trade was worse than the Upton signing.  The situation in Atlanta with Derek Lowe was not good.  A mediocre to serviceable pitcher at best, being paid based upon past performance and hopes.  The situation with Kawakami was sad.  He seemingly never got the run support from the Braves offense, before he began to struggle, and eventually disappeared into the minors for his final season of baseball in America.  The situation with Dan Uggla was ugly.  A guy who worked hard but most likely should have never made it beyond AA except for the Marlins thrusting him to the Majors and then the Braves believing his power was worth the lack of hitting ability.  Uggla eventually got into a standoff with Manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Front Office as he saw his playing time dwindle to nothing.  The Uggla situation became so bad the Braves, who do not have a big market payroll, were willing to pay Uggla at least $15 million to leave.

The beginning of Frank Wren's last mistake. (http://www.gazettenet.com/)

The beginning of Frank Wren’s last mistake. (http://www.gazettenet.com/)

The situation with B.J. Upton looks like it could be worse than it ever was with Uggla.  Less than two years into his contract the Braves sought to trade him to the Chicago Cubs for Edwin Jackson at this year’s trading deadline.  Jackson has a worse career ERA and WHIP than Kawakami and Lowe during their time with Atlanta, and is still owed $24 million through the 2016 season.  The trade however was rejected by the Cubs.  Try as they might Atlanta will have a tough time moving Upton through a combination of poor play and over $45 million due to him during the final three seasons of this contract.  Do not be surprised if the Braves have to eat more money, this time from B.J. Upton to get out from under the last of Frank Wren’s disastrous major moves.

Frank Wren understands baseball.  You do not become the General Manager of two teams by accident.  Nor do you last seven years in a place which is used to winning and expect to win.  What went wrong for Wren is not the day to day operations of the Braves, rather it was his attempt to go out and sign priced talented players.  The signing of Kawakami, Lowe, Uggla (after trading for him), and Upton have not helped the Braves to continue winning.  It is fair to argue these signings actually hurt the team both based on their on-field performance and the money they tied up, which could not be used to go out and sign other players.  These four moves eventually caught up with Frank Wren and cost him his job.  The Braves should return to the formula which led them to over a decade of success, while integrating advances in scouting and sabermetrics to get the best out of their players and to fully understand the capabilities of the players they are looking to add to their roster.

The Braves in some ways lost their way when they fell in love with the home run and over looked the high number of strikeouts they deemed acceptable by their lineup.  The men who led the way to the Braves success, John Scherholtz and Bobby Cox, have been tasked with leading the Braves back to their winning ways and steady baseball.  Along with John Hart, Scherholtz and Cox are not trying to rediscover “The Braves Way”; rather they should aim to return to playing sound baseball.  The Frank Wren tenure is over.  B.J. Upton has some major work to do if he wants to avoid being one of the worst, if not the worst, free agents signings by the Braves ever.  Time with tell with B.J. Upton.  It is time for the Braves to return to what they know and for a long time did so well, winning through great pitching and a balanced offense, while on a budget.

D

And So It Begins

Spring Training is officially under way. We are inching closer and closer to actual games. While Spring Training does not necessarily tell you whether or not your favorite team is going to be a surprise contender or a massive disappointment, it does mean it is time to find your glove.  Before too much longer we will all be sitting in the stands tanning under the hot summer sun, engulfed in the sights and sounds that is professional baseball.  Spring Training games do not have your favorite players in the line up for very long. I personally prefer if I do not recognize anyone because it means the line up is set and they are getting a good look at who is going to be the 25th player and who goes to AAA and who goes to AA.  Baseball is almost here. Hang on just a little longer. The Cactus League and the Grapefruit League will bring back the boys of summer as they prepare for another year of amazing catches, beautiful swings, brilliant pitching, in your face arguments, hilarious bloopers, and enough memories to last a life time.  Spring Training is back and life is about to get so much better.

The Boys of Summer

The Boys of Summer

You can find your favorite team from the Cactus League here and from the Grapefruit League here.  Lets get this season going.  It has been an extremely long winter, and I for one and tired of the snow and ice and am ready for the sun, the fresh-cut grass, the crack of the bat, and the pop of the glove. Baseball is back and life is good.

D