Monday, August 30, 2010

MLB Trivia: Wild Things

MLB strikeout king Nolan Ryan also holds the record for most career wild pitches with 277. The record for most wild pitches in an inning is four and has been achieved by five players, three of whom are still active today. The most recent time a player tossed four wild pitches in an inning was Seattle's R.A. Dickey on August 17, 2008. Can you name the other two active pitchers who threw four wild pitches in an inning? (Hint: One is a former Cub, and the other is currently a Phillie.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurt So Good

Congrats to Frank Thomas, whose number 35 was retired by the White Sox today. I watched the ceremony on TV and was surprised by how much emotion I felt. Although, I came to realize that Frank Thomas has been one of the most important sports figures during my time as a baseball fan.

I remember when I was a kid in Ohio looking at baseball cards in '91 or '92 and coming across a Frank Thomas rookie card and thinking, "Man, I wish he were on the Reds." And when I moved to Chicago in August '92, Thomas quickly became a player I liked to watch. His '93 and '94 seasons were awesome. Unfortunately for the Sox, the '94 season was cut short by a strike and we'll never know how that would have ended up for them.

As the years went on, Thomas had a rocky relationship with the Chicago media. For a town that loved Jordan, and later Sammy Sosa, some wondered why Frank Thomas could never figure out how to play the media for more favorable reviews. And frankly, the answer was that the Big Hurt didn't want to be bothered by the media.

My opinions about Frank Thomas have changed many times over the years. I began as an admirer, then soured when he didn't get along with the media, then I lost interest when other players started surpassing him in the late 90s, then I laughed at him when the Sox exercised a diminished skills clause in his contract. By the time the Sox won the World Series without the Big Hurt in the playoffs, I was indifferent to the fact that he didn't get to be on the field when that happened.

When the White Sox and Frank Thomas parted ways after the 2005 season, it was on bitter terms. Thomas was mad at Kenny Williams for thinking he was basically done--and those two had a huge argument. When Thomas left, my thought was good riddance.

But like I say, my opinions of Thomas have kept changing through the years. This past season he came back to Chicago and started doing some local TV work. It was kind of funny to think of Frank Thomas being in the media, and he's made light of the fact as well. He was quick to admit that he had been naive in his youth regarding how he treated the media. And I soon found myself enjoying his in-studio analysis, as well as his on-field interviews with players. Earlier this season I saw Thomas provide the color commentary with Hawk Harrelson in the booth for the first time, and while he was somewhat inexperienced with the broadcasting aspect, I saw huge potential. I also found myself enjoying his ability to bring a current perspective to the game. It might seem like a small thing, but Thomas really expanded his MLB horizons during his short stints with the Blue Jays and A's. He knows a lot about today's players and coaches, and he had great stories to share.

There were a few years here in Chicago where Sammy Sosa was a sports god and Frank Thomas was a bum. And I'm just as guilty as the next guy for being more interested in Sosa than Thomas from 1998 to 2003. But as people reflect on the steroid era, a lot of thinking has changed.

During today's ceremony, in many ways Thomas' career came full circle. And so did a big part of my sports-watching life. Whether it was looking at his baseball card as a kid in Ohio, seeing him play at my first baseball game in a Chicago park, reading negative newspaper columns about him, watching him hit his 400th homer on TV, or listening to fans call the radio station to spout their opinions about him, those are all just memories now. Little entertaining distractions to get me through the day to day, but over time they add up to something more.

The story of Frank Thomas is still being written. But as a baseball player, I'll remember him as the best hitter to ever wear the White Sox uniform.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Strasburg Situation

Edit 8/27/2010: This was originally posted four days before it was announced that Stephen Strasburg has a torn ligament in his throwing elbow and will likely need Tommy John surgery. First off, I'm surprised that this type of injury happened so soon. Second, I'm disappointed that I won't get to see Strasburg pitch again for a while. In my view, he was the most exciting young player in the game.

I also want to clarify something. In re-reading this post, it might come across as though I were frustrated with the Nationals. My main beef was/is really with the "conventional wisdom" expressed by many fans and talking heads that prized pitchers need to be babied to the point that if they have a sore elbow in August they should be shut down for the season.

At the end of the day, baseball has lost one if its rising stars for a while. My hope is that the medical team working with Strasburg can get him back on track for the big leagues... and for the long haul.

Back in June I posted about Stephen Strasburg right before he got called up to the bigs. I went on record saying that I thought he was a good bet to develop into a consistent All-Star pitcher at the MLB level. And here's what I wrote at the end:
I've also had a chance to observe him as an in-studio guest on ESPN's Baseball Tonight. Strasburg's stats and demeanor are very impressive. 
I think the signicance of seeing Strasburg talk on TV was that it gave me a window into his mind. He came across as highly intelligent. And let's face it, that's a big advantage for any athlete, especially a pitcher. But there was something else that the ESPN crew asked Strasburg about: His supposedly awkward pitching mechanics. More specifically, the dreaded "inverted W."

Here's a college photo of Strasburg that perfectly illustrates the inverted W. The supposed problem here is that his throwing arm's elbow rises above his shoulder, causing extreme arm stress. I don't know about you, but from where I come from an inverted W is an M. 

When asked by ESPN about the inverted W this past spring, Strasburg got a bit defensive. And while I couldn't blame him for not liking the question, he gave a perfectly reasonable answer, saying that he's always pitched that way and never had a problem.

I've been rooting for Strasburg. He's an amazing talent who's fun to watch, so why not hope for him to reach the stars? Part of the fun of sports is to see if someone can come along and dominate like no one else before. And Strasburg seemed to have that type of potential. 

Ever since Strasburg was signed, the media has praised the Washington Nationals for how they've handled him. Experts said it was good for Strasburg to go down to Double-A first, dominate there, then work up to Triple-A. The Nationals did everything by the textbook with how they babied Strasburg along. When they finally brought him up to the bigs in June, they did a good job of keeping him on pitch counts--only occasionally going slightly over when he had something special going. Again, the Nationals were widely praised for handling the future of their franchise with care.

And yes, I was among the people who thought the Nationals were doing the right things. Sending Strasburg down to Double-A first was a good way to help build his confidence, or at the very least not cause him to lose it right away. And from there they could gradually ramp up his level of competition and let him take a running start in the majors. That made sense to me.

As far as pitch counts go, I'm not necessarily a believer in them. My best guess is that each pitcher's body is different and responds differently to pitch counts. Maybe one guy benefits from working on a 100-pitch limit, whereas another guy could go out and throw 140 pitches every start without a problem. It probably depends on mechanics, conditioning, and genetics. (Note: If you have scientific evidence showing that most pitchers' bodies start to break down faster if they average more than 100 pitches per start, please send it my way. I'll be glad to update my thoughts.)

That being said, I don't see any harm in keeping a guy like Strasburg on a tight pitch count his first year in the bigs. The Nationals were following conventional wisdom, so who can blame them for that?

Unfortunately, last month Strasburg landed on the DL with shoulder inflammation. And now he's back on the DL with what looks like a strained tendon in his forearm. If you listen to the pundits, they all seem to be saying that the prudent thing is to be safe and shut down Strasburg for the year.

Okay, this is starting to get crazy. Let's go back to Strasburg's previous start. He's pitching well against the Phillies, then after one particular pitch he grimaces and shakes his arm in pain. The coaches and training staff run to the mound to see what's the matter. He tells them he's fine and can keep pitching. They say no, we're taking you out because we can't take any chances. But he insists on staying in the game. And then they insist on taking him out. Ultimately, the manager has the final say, so Strasburg comes out of the game.

And so what happens now to Strasburg, the guy who says he can pitch? The Nationals drag him in for an MRI. By the way, Strasburg had to get an MRI when he signed. And he got another MRI when he went on the DL last month. Now that he has a little pain in his arm, he's getting another MRI. And this MRI came back inconclusive today, so they'll be injecting him with special dye and taking at least his fourth MRI for the team, his third in a month. The Nationals might eventually figure out what's wrong with Strasburg's arm, but I'm afraid that in the process they'll give him cancer.

I do think a pitcher can be babied too much, especially if it's done at the expense of preventing him from getting into a routine. When your franchise pitcher grimaces in pain and shakes his arm after a pitch, yeah it's scary. But when you go to the mound and that pitcher insists that he can keep pitching -- and that he once pitched through the same type of pain in college -- I say you take him at his word and let him keep pitching.

I remember back in the mid-90's, Dave Wannstedt drafted Todd Sauerbrun, a punter, in the 2nd round for the Bears. The media panned the pick, but Wannstedt insisted that Sauerbrun was a special punter and worthy of a 2nd round pick. I was willing to take a wait-and-see approach. However, it didn't take me long to see how foolish the Bears had been. As soon as Sauerbrun showed up to training camp, they started working with him to change his mechanics. You draft a punter in the second round, a guy who you say is special, and then you try to change him?

And that's really where we're at with Strasburg. What's the harm in letting him pitch if he says he can? Hypothetically, let's say the MRI shows some type of preliminary damage, and the doctor says, "Oh, good thing we caught this early. Just rest it up and come back next season. Try changing your mechanics to put less stress on your arm." What then? Can Strasburg change his mechanics and still be Strasburg?

I've heard it said that if someone comes up to you and says, "Gee, you look sick. Are you OK?" You'll look at them weird. But if a second person comes up five minutes later and asks the same thing, you'll start to feel weird. And if a third person asks you if you're sick, sure enough, you'll be sick. It's mental.

One of the worst things the Nationals can do is mess with Strasburg's mind and routine. Part of pitching in the big leagues is pitching through pain. If the Nationals have put Strasburg on an appropriate conditioning program and a steady pitch count, from there all they can do is let him go and see if he's got the goods -- or not.

MLB Trivia: King of No Pop

Tommy Thevenow, who played from 1924 to 1938, went 3,347 consecutive official at-bats without a home run--still an MLB record. The longest such streak currently going without a home run recently surpassed 770 at-bats. Can you name this current King of No Pop?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Remembering the 1990 Reds: The Nasty Boys

Continuing this mini-series remembering the 1990 Reds, I need to pay tribute to the Nasty Boys. That year the Cincinnati bullpen was amazing, and they were led by the trio of Rob Dibble, Randy Myers, and Norm Charlton. Early in that season Randy Myers commented, "Man, this is a nasty group." And the Nasty Boys were born.

Even though I followed the Reds everyday and recognized all of their players, I could tell that outside of Ohio when people thought of the Cincinnati Reds, they thought of the Nasty Boys. Those three flamethrowers embodied the identity of the 1990 Reds.

Back in those days, it was kind of a new thing to have three power arms in the bullpen who could throw 95+ miles per hour. In some ways, the Nasty Boys model ushered in a new era of bullpens.

In the 1990 World Series, the Nasty Boys cemented their place in history by going 8.2 innings with no earned runs, a win, and a save as the Reds swept the A's.

Today also happens to be the day that Lou Piniella has retired from managing. Since he was the manager of those 1990 Reds, I figured I'd give a few memories of him as well. First off, I was just 10 during that season. I wasn't paying much attention to the manager in those days. Although, looking back on it, I think it's safe to say he was a better manager than Pete Rose (who had guided the Reds to four straight 2nd place finishes before Piniella took over). Piniella knew how to rest his players going through a 162 game season; and I think Rose was more interested in the here and now if you know what I mean...

My enduring memory of Lou Piniella as the Reds manager--and the Nasty Boys for that matter--didn't come during 1990. It came two years later in 1992. At the time, in my mind Rob Dibble was one of the toughest guys on the planet. But when I learned that an angry Piniella wrestled with Dibble in the locker room, I had a whole new respect for Piniella's fire. I never forgot it.

Congrats to Lou Piniella on a great career. And thanks in large part to the Nasty Boys, he was a World Series-winning manager.

Monday, August 16, 2010

MLB Trivia: Catching Errors

The NL record for most consecutive games played at catcher without an error was set by Mike Matheny, who caught 252 errorless games from 2002 to 2004. But the MLB record for most consecutive games at catcher without an error is 253. This player's streak, which ended just this past May, started while he was on an NL team and ended while on an AL team. Who is he?

Monday, August 9, 2010

MLB Trivia: 25 Jacks X 8

There are only two active MLB players who have hit at least 25 homers in each of their first 8 seasons. One of those players is Albert Pujols. Can you name the other?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cuban, Almost Texas Ranger

I just read Mark Cuban's blog post about his unsuccessful attempt to buy the Texas Rangers. I thought it was a good read and once again shows his business savvy. Here's an excerpt from his perspective regarding how there could have been a TV money synergy with him owning both the Mavs and Rangers:

In addition, as everyone told me time and again, the Rangers TV deal ran out in 4 years.  Combine that with the Mavs TV deal running out just a few years later and it could either form a foundation for a new sports network, or preferably cause Fox to pay an ungodly amount of money to keep the teams on FSN.  Fox had more to lose from a competitive sports network being formed, particularly in Texas,  than a new network had to gain from being created. So the leverage of owning both teams was enormous.
That was a financial win for both teams.  The ability to earn more money from TV revenues for both teams meant more money could be put on the field/court.  It was a unique situation.

Honestly, I'd like to see Cuban buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has shown an interest in buying them, and I actually think he could turn them around.

Monday, August 2, 2010

MLB Trivia: A Decade of W's

Last decade, from 2000 to 2009, Andy Pettitte won the most games as a pitcher with 148 wins. Randy Johnson was #2 with 143 W's. The next four pitchers on that list are all still active. One of them is Tim Hudson. Can you name the other three pitchers in the top 6 for wins in the last decade? (Hint: These three players currently pitch in the same league.)