September 2009

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching (Updated)

What would the Giants look like in the post-season without Tim Lincecum? What about the Yankees if the A.J. Burnett they get is last month’s, not Monday night’s?

There is something bizarre about the rapidity with which the Giants had prized prospect (and the singularly named) Madison Bumgarner ready to go as soon as the news came down that Tim Lincecum would not pitch against the Padres Tuesday night. As late as Tuesday morning, newspapers in Eastern League cities had Bumgarner pitching the opening game of that circuit’s playoffs, Wednesday night, for the Connecticut Defenders. I know we have jets nowadays, and you could actually get from the Nutmeg State to SFO Airport in less than six weeks of stagecoach relays, but doesn’t it strike you that the Giants had to have had more of a hint that the incumbent Cy Young Winner’s back was acting up, than they’re letting on?
In turn, does that suggest that Lincecum is more hurt than they’re letting on? Certainly the reach to Bumgarner – the minors’ best pitching prospect even though he is barely two years removed from high school – implies that. To be fair, there was nobody on the active Giants’ roster this morning who had started a game in the majors this year (concurrent with Bumgarner’s promotion, Joe Martinez was summoned from Fresno, but Martinez pitched four innings on Saturday). Still, Madison Bumgarner, 3,000 miles away, does not sound like the likeliest emergency starter, even if you’re two games out in the wild card.
This update: as Bumgarner made his debut against the Padres, on the San Diego telecast, Mark Grant (who himself debuted as a 20-year old Giants starter before Bumgarner was born), offers an intriguing theory that uses the same evidence to reach the exact opposite conclusion. It’s not that Lincecum’s hurt, it’s that he’s just a little tired, and the rest could do him good for his next two starts, both against the Dodgers. I have to say Big Grant’s theory holds at least as much water as my own.
Meantime the Yankees are breathing a little more deeply after A.J. Burnett’s solid work on Monday, though they are fully aware that their second most expensive free agent starter was on the ropes in the night game against the Rays until Andy Sonnanstine took him off it by giving up eight runs. Forget Jeter, Sabathia, Rivera, Teixeira and all the rest – Burnett might be the most pivotal figure in New York’s post-season hopes. If he is the lights-out pitcher of the spring and early summer the Yankees are the favorites in any post-season series. 
But if he’s not, the Yankee rotation is Sabathia and The Question Marks. Andy Pettitte has been successful but nearly as generous to the hitters as Burnett. The Yankees have meanwhile completely screwed up Joba Chamberlain. This leaves… Sergio Mitre? Somebody in the Bronx is likely regretting having not given Alfredo Aceves a more serious look as a starter.
The Yankees’ starting weakness and another flaw are the kind that might not show up over the course of a long season against a lot of those pitching-poor, fundamentally-unsound AL also-rans, but could be fatal in the playoffs. The second problem is outfield defense. Brett Gardner can run down anything, but could not stave off Melky Cabrera’s bat. Johnny Damon is still a strong outfielder, and still would be better off returning the ball to the infield by FedEx. Cabrera is a mixed bag in the field. Nick Swisher could have the team’s best outfield arm, and that should terrify any Yankee fan who contemplated a playoff series turning on a successful relay play to the plate, or even a great catch in rightfield.
One other pitching note: the mutterings are that the Rockies are not as confident as they appear, that Huston Street will be back closing by this weekend or even the first of next week. Nothing firm on this, but worth noting (and thanks to the lights-out brilliance of Franklin Morales, not necessarily a big thing one way or another – except if it lingers to the post-season and experience or its lack is magnified).

A Quick Asterisk

This is not a knock against Derek Jeter, who has been a credit to his franchise and the game since 1995, and who has never been anything but courteous and professional in his dealings with me (and everybody else I knew). This is not, in fact, about Jeter.

But I wish there would be a little more emphasis of the caveat in all of the discussion of Jeter’s having reached within four hits of breaking Lou Gehrig’s Yankees franchise record of 2,721, that Gehrig stopped accumulating them when he was 35 years old, because he contracted a fatal disease that would claim his life.
I made this point years ago, as Cal Ripken approached Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. It needs to be said again that Gehrig didn’t stop because of loss of talent, or retirement, or failure. And most remarkably of all, it should be emphasized that at least the last 174 of Gehrig’s hits (just as was the case for at least the last 165 of his games played), certainly came after Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis had already begun to kill him. 
Again, nothing to take away from Jeter’s accomplishments. Just a reminder of the remarkable quality of Gehrig’s, and that as time guarantees that his name will become harder and harder to find in the record books, he should never be forgotten.

Now If He Can Just Add Mets And Yankees

Jon Garland is, as I write this, making his Dodger debut against the guys who were his teammates until Monday night, the Arizona Diamondbacks. He joins a pretty limited group: those who have been the property of both Los Angeles teams (I know, I know, Anaheim), and both Chicago teams (though he never played for the Cubs).

Garland just “crossed the hall” in the parlance of the great Mr. Scully, who recounted his favorite story of a player appearing in uniform for both teams in the same series. In 1952, at the start of a doubleheader, Brooklyn spare outfielder Cal Abrams shouted out something derisive from the Dodger dugout at the manager of the visiting Reds, Luke Sewell. Dodger manager Chuck Dressen, a pretty fiery guy, told Abrams (according to Vin) “that’s great, keep it up. So, for nine innings, Abrams rode Sewell unmercifully. Then after the first game ended, Dressen went up to Abrams and said ‘I have to inform you, you have been traded to the Cincinnati Reds.’ So poor Cal had to go across the hall and introduce himself to the man on whom he had been chewing for nine innings.”
The Abrams story, as with virtually everything else Vin has ever said, checks out neatly, courtesy the best historical baseball site there is, Retrosheet. Abrams in the record books as having been dealt by the Dodgers to Cincinnati on June 9, 1952 – the day after the two teams completed a doubleheader in Cincinnati. So if it didn’t happen after the first game, it could have easily happened after the second. If Abrams and Sewell had a tense relationship thereafter, it didn’t last too long: Sewell was fired at the end of July.
Back to the Garland symmetry: there is Upton Spidey Sense too tonight. B.J. sprained his ankle in the fifth inning of the Rays’ game with Boston. Hours later, brother Justin was a late scratch at Dodger Stadium because of “contact lens issues.”

The Great Gazoo and Happy Hour

550-wright-gazoo.jpg

OK, so there it is. That’s what the new super-sized batting helmet debuted tonight in Denver by David Wright evokes: Fred Flintstone’s little green prehistoric Shark-Jumping visitor from outer space.

That, or the old cliche about the life-of-the-party guy, who winds up wearing a lampshade.
Wright, who looks pretty young as it is (he’s not yet 27), probably looks five years younger with the oversized, 100-MPH resistant plastic chapeau. Hard to say if this is going to make it more appealing to players or less so, but early on there does seem to be one practical issue. Wright tried to steal second in the third inning tonight and went-in headfirst; the new helmet seemed to exhibit a different center-of-gravity and flew off Wright’s head and scuttled in front of him. It is conceivable that a player sliding in that way might actually collide with his own helmet – and I can’t remember ever seeing that happen with the standard helmet.
Then again, why is a guy just back from a beaning and a concussion sliding headfirst?

Jeff Francoeur has vowed never to wear the new helmet, for aesthetic reasons, and of course he will not be made to, as the revised version will only be mandatory in the minors. It is interesting to note that in the gradual advance of helmet use, only one attempt was ever beaten back. The Pirates tried to entirely replace caps with helmets – at bat, in the field, on the bench – in the ’50s. By 1957 they were back to a mix of plastic and fabric.
All this again begs the question: batters must wear them, now coaches must wear them – why not umpires, and given that line drives to their heads travel a shorter distance at a higher speed even than batters, why not pitchers?
WHITE SOX FIRE SALE FOLLOW-UP:

I am reliably informed that the message Chicago GM Kenny Williams sent to the other 29 general managers Sunday night and Monday morning not only invited them to bid on any of five to ten veterans (two of whom Williams actually moved), but urged them to contact him quickly because, and this is a loose quotation, “I intend to be the first guy at Happy Hour this evening.”
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