Sunday, April 22, 2007

Everything Lost But The Memory

It was a good pitch, down, and Victor Martinez put it on the ground. This was what Brian Stokes wanted. With two on and one out in the ninth, Rays leading by two, it was almost the double play that capped a heartening win. It was almost two of three from the Indians and a masterful victory for James Shields, a save for Stokes.

But it was none of those things: it was a single, it got through the middle, it led to Stokes' complete unraveling, and it took away all the good that had seemed, by the ninth, to be guaranteed.

What an afternoon it had been: with the exception of one mistake that Jhonny Peralta turned into a two-run homer, Shields was not only dominating, but smart. He used his changeup as a knockout punch against a powerful lineup, striking out batters named Hafner and Martinez with slow tosses. The change was his theme, the curve a variation, the fastball an occasional surprise. In the end, he'd gone eight and tied a team record with twelve strikeouts while working almost exclusively in the mid-to high eighties and lower.

When he left, though, he hadn't been quite enough: the game was tied at two.

Cue the offense, and some luck, in the bottom of the eighth. After Aki Iwamura walked, Dioner Navarro bunted toward first. Jake Westbrook, also superb enough to be pitching that late, waited for it to go foul. Instead, it died on the line. Two on. No outs. Westbrook gone.

B. J. Upton stepped in and roped a single up the middle, scoring Iwamura. He stood on first, having broken the tie and virtually assured a happy story for the day. A few minutes later, Navarro scored on a wild pitch, and the narrative seemed clinched. There was a big-ish crowd cheering, a growing sense of possibility, a visit from the Yankees coming tomorrow. There was a sense that with this series win, the Rays could hang with the tough teams now.

When Stokes hit Grady Sizemore to begin the ninth, it felt like no big deal, considering the insurance run. When Jason Michaels flied out, all seemed back in order. Hafner walked, which made sense; you weren't going to let him beat you.

Then Stokes made his pitch to Martinez, got his ground ball. A few feet to the left or right, and the day would have sparkled with hope and victory. But the ball got through, and the next batter, Ryan Garko, hit a three-run homer.

That was it. The rest of the loss was a formality. The crowd of nearly twenty-thousand booed, and everything--except for the faint memory of some thrilling baseball--was ruined.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Zobrist or Harris?

Brendan Harris had a nice night during yesterday's weird loss, going three for four. He's batting .467 in eleven at-bats. With Ben Zobrist hitting .170 in fifty-seven times up, one wonders if Harris should get a shot at the shortstop job. Apparently, I wasn't the only person asking this question, as the discussion appeared on D-Rays Bay today.

Obviously, the sample size is too small for us to infer anything from Harris' results thus far. Zobrist's sample size, however, is growing, and he hasn't been impressive. Interestingly, PECOTA projects the current shortstop at .279/.348/.395 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). These numbers would be more than adequate, especially considering that Zobrist is likely a stopgap until the Longoria/Brignac era commences.

Problem is, he hasn't shown anything close to the ability to achieve those projections, hitting more like a utility infielder than a starter. PECOTA forecasts Harris at more reserve-appropriate .259/.314/.390. So, according to minor league history and projected ability, Joe has the right guy in there, for now.

It seems to make sense, then, to give Zobrist a little more time, though certainly not in the two-hole. His on-base percentage is a stunningly low .170 right now. It won't remain quite that bad, but the number is poison near the top of such a potent lineup. Seems to me he should be hitting eighth or ninth until he finds himself.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Notes on the Twins Series

You have to like Rocco Baldelli's take on the lackluster effort Saturday night. His words were evidence of a team focus on accountability. Who knows what that debacle was about; perhaps after two draining games, one a crushing loss and the other a thrilling victory, the young team simply lost focus. For three other games, though, the Rays played the Twins with intensity, never looking as overmatched as they have in the Metrodome recently. Today's scrappy ninth inning against Joe Nathan showed impressive spirit.

The bullpen was to the Rays this past week as Don Imus was to the rest of the country: a irritating, complex topic that would not go away. Mark Lancaster provided a nice summary in today's Tribune. I agree with his take on Lidge versus Hermanson: if you're going to gamble on a fading closer, you may as well go with the one who can be bought, rather than traded for. Of course, Lidge is a far superior pitcher to Hermanson right now, but not worth the sacrifice when Al Reyes is getting outs. Hermanson would be Moneyball- style low-risk acquisition, like Reyes. Why not?

I enjoyed Patrick Kennedy's take on the same topic at D-Rays Bay.

Kennedy also mentions, by way of Marc Topkin, the Devil Rays' improved television ratings so far this season. We haven't yet discussed Sternberg and Matt Silverman's marketing efforts, focused as we've been on the roster. The ratings increase is evidence that some of the new ideas are taking hold. Between expanding to the Orlando market and making the Trop a more pleasant place to watch games, the team's PR face lift is another interesting topic. When Silverman and Friedman went door-to-door two winters ago, you knew they were not only committed, but different. Plans to make the Rays more economically feasible in Florida will only help them field a competitive team.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Creating a Culture Is Hard Work

Crawford and Zobrist's baserunning disaster on Thursday was freaky enough that you can't really read anything into it. Maddon had a quote in Marc Topkin's story this morning, though, from which we can learn about the state of the team.

From Topkin: "The best lesson I've seen from this whole thing is how Carl stood up to it and was accountable for what he did," Maddon said. "I hope as a group we all take a lesson on that from him, especially the young players. He could have made up a whole bunch of excuses, but he did not. I really appreciate that, and I know the rest of the guys did, too. I think that, as much as anything, is a growth moment for us as a group compared to maybe what happened here in the past."

Maddon is remarkably consistant in his language around building a group psychology that is particular to the Rays. The last sentence of his quote digs deeper into that. For those who think Maddon is too soft on his players, make no mistake: he clearly holds them to high and clear expectations. The way he chooses to communicate his standards, however, is unique. This quote shows him being unflinchingly critical of the clubhouse he inherited, but willing to search for the positive in an otherwise heartbreaking loss. The compliment to Crawford is not superficial, but insightful. Compare it, by the way, to yesterday's impulsive, shortsighted behavior of the previous manager.

Creating a culture of accountability and self-awareness is essential in fostering long-term change in Tampa. Last summer, Maddon told me, "I’ve always thought that you have to get the group in the clubhouse, the individuals and personalities, to come together and be accountable before what you’re trying to do is going to show up on the field.

"I think everybody looks at it and thinks its going to be a different player, a new player addition, or you teach a guy a new pitch or different batting stance, and right away you think you’re going to get better. That is not true. When things get better is when we interact better. And then all the philosophies and concepts that you want to put out there have a much better chance."

So, when he speaks of " a growth moment for us as a group," he is refering to the progress of the team's move toward a winning culture. A winning culture does not involve fake positivity or illogical cheeriness--some critics, seeing only what is on the surface, accuse Maddon of these things-- but genuine cohesiveness and awareness. As anyone who has ever tried to lead a group knows, creating these conditions is hard work, and the rewards can be great.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Do You Build a Bullpen Anyway?

Al Reyes did a nice job closing last night; before the game, with all the emotion swirling around relief pitching, I had already been thinking about addressing the broader question of how to construct a bullpen. This seems to be among the most difficult holes to plug in a roster. Teams always identify the need for more relief help, set out to solve the problem, and fail. Why is it so hard?

Since our project here is to analyze how a team is built, and our team, the Devil Rays, is having major bullpen issues, this seems to be the dilemma of the moment.

Many organizations have attempted to fill their pen by throwing money into it. The Yankees have fallen victim to this temptation in recent years before shifting their focus. In 2001, they signed middle reliever Steve Karsay to a huge and disastrous contract, during which the pitcher was rarely healthy and never effective. Two years later, they brought in Tom Gordon to pitch the eighth inning. Flash did well for the Yanks, but wasn't able to help the team get the ring for which he was searching.

This past offseason, the Orioles have taken a similar approach, heaping millions on veterans Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, and Danys Baez. Early returns are decent, but probably won't ultimately lift the team out of fourth place. One wonders it was the wisest way for the team to spend Peter Angelos' money.

The problem with using free agency to build a bullpen is the unpredictability of relievers. It is rare for a setup man or closer to experience sustained success over many seasons. Often, relievers burn brightly but quickly, and are sliding--or racing--downhill by the time they hit free agency.

Another approach, which our first example, the Yankees, have switched to, is to develop relievers as starters and then convert them. This, remember, is how they found Mariano Rivera. The Sheffield and Johnson trades stuffed that organization with many arms. Some of these guys will pitch effectively in the middle innings of Yankee games later this year and next. Right now, the Yankees have Sean Henn and Scott Proctor, both of whom were originally starters, pitching decently in relief.

On to the Rays. There are quality arms in Durham right now who may eventually find a home in the Tampa bullpen. And, as I've suggested before, the surplus of outfielders can be exchanged for some arms.

The one bad idea I've heard lately: acquiring Brad Lidge. When you have arms, good draft position, and a tiny payroll, it is a mistake to sacrifice anything for a declining reliever. Lidge's flame seems to be flickering, and the team would have to give up too much to get him.

We started this column with Al Reyes, and we'll circle back around to that. He represents a promising, Billy Beane-style approach to fixing the bullpen. Moneyball is really just about finding players who are overlooked or undervalued by the market. Reyes is a classic example. He was pretty effective for the Cardinals a few years ago before joining the Tommy John club. Considering the high recovery rate of that surgery, Reyes may well be a find. This is evidence that Friedman is paying attention, and will fix this problem as intelligently as his budget allows. But then, maybe budget isn't the solution for this particular dilemma, anyway.

Buster Olney was also talking bullpens today. You need an ESPN account to view this, but it is well worth reading if you have one.

With Fossum starting tonight, check out my previous post on him, if you haven't seen it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Frustration Takes Hold

Fan frustration is becoming more palpable following the Rays' fourth consecutive loss last night. Some harsh things were posted on blogs about Maddon and the bullpen yesterday and today.

This is a tough situation. Patience has always been a major tenant of Maddon's philosophy. Last July, he told me, "The moment I am inconsistent with my message, I'll run into problems." It is important for him to retain a sense of the big picture, but it is also important to win games. Matt Sammons, on D-Rays Bay, raises a question about allowing Jae Seo to remain in the game last night.

It is not my role to make excuses for management; my project is to analyze what the organization is doing to foster long-term improvement. I do not think that the bullpen issues are surprising, and Maddon is doing what he can to develop the pitchers he has been given. This takes time.

Here's where you worry, though: Carl Crawford was quoted by Marc Topkin this morning as saying,"It's just a rerun; you know what I'm saying?". Not an encouraging sign about team culture. I ask again: is it time to dip into Durham and see what some of those guys have to offer?

Maddon seems to be working against two diverging clocks right now: he's facing the onrush of sinking morale and faith in his leadership, but he is also trying to be patient and allow the team to develop. A culture is not created quickly; I hope that players and fans allow the time for his ideas and methods to take hold.

Here's Mark Lancaster on some of the Rays' internal strategizing about the bullpen problem.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Breaking Down the Bullpen Problem

Mark Lancaster said it in the Tribune this morning: the bullpen narrative is already becoming old. You could see it on Jim Hickey’s face last night in the sixth, when Shawn Camp was in the middle of his nightmare. The new pitching coach rolled his eyes, cursed, bolted out to the mound and said something sharp. He must have been thinking: what do we have to do to hold a lead?

It would be easy to gripe about the problems, though; let’s take the opportunity to think about how a team can solve this particular issue. First, looking at Camp and Ruddy Lugo, who have been ineffective this year: can these guys develop any further to eventually become reliable? Their PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus seem to think they can be decent, at least (Camp, Lugo). Maddon sounded supportive but noncommittal last night (his quote in every story has two elements: one, “I’m going to keep talking to these guys,” seemed hopeful, while the other, “That’s who we’ve got, that’s what we’re going to work with,” may have betrayed some frustration.)

How do you work with this bullpen problem during a season? It seems as if Maddon and Hickey plan to continue with the current relief corps, but there is the possibility of eventually replacing them. The Durham Bulls have received three consecutive impressive starts, from Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, and, last night, from Mitch Talbot. Seth McClung and Chad Orvella are also on the Triple-A staff. When does it become time to try out some new arms in St. Petersburg?

The story to watch here is whether Friedman and Maddon make major adjustments to the pen during the season. If they sense a need—in terms of fan interest and player buy-in—for a significantly improved record this year, they may need to tinker.

Interesting take on the bullpen situation today at Rays Index.

And now, something more positive:

Jackson did struggle with his command last night, and ended up a ball/strike ratio that was less than stellar. He also, however, pitched significantly better than his line in the box score. In addition to pumping a mid-nineties fastball and generally effective slider, Jackson seemed composed and confident. Remember, the game was tied when he left with two outs in the sixth. Had Shawn Camp been able to get an out, Jackson’s impressive outing would have been the story.

“Nice job,” Maddon said when took the ball from his starter. Jackson may not have heard him, as he began walking toward the dugout.

Maddon stopped the pitcher, looked him in the eye, and said again, “Nice job.” He wanted the praise to be heard and noted. Jackson thanked him and jogged to the bench, where he sat and smiled. He beamed for a few minutes, satisfied with the knowledge that his development was moving in the right direction. The smile, of course, had faded entirely by the time the score was 8-2.

One more thing: Jorge Cantu started at first base for Durham last night. A future power hitting corner infielder for the Rays?