AL East Meets NL West

This is not how it was supposed to be. The Los Angeles Dodgers are making history with a payroll just north of $239 million dollars — they may still end the season higher — and finding out that despite all the money they spent, the team is flawed. 

Manager Don Mattingly is very much on the hot seat. The organization that was full of excitement last season as a new ownership group replaced Frank McCourt, orchestrated a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and said building a championship team was priority number one, is in last place.

Who’s in first place? The Arizona Diamondbacks have top honors, the San Francisco Giants sit two games back, the somewhat surprising Colorado Rockies another half game past the Giants, the San Diego Padres six games back, and the Dodgers another game-and-a-half behind the Padres. In other words, the NL West has proven to be a decent approximation of the opposite of what offseason predictions called for.

Across the country and in the other league, the Boston Red Sox lead the AL East by a game, followed by the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays. After making their own blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and acquiring reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays were picked to win the AL East by fans, press, and baseball insiders.

Unlike the Diamondbacks, who traded away arguably their best player in Justin Upton, the Jays started slow and have continued to sputter. There is a certain amount of symmetry in the unlikely standings of these two divisions.

As a Red Sox fan, I sympathize for Dodgers fans out there. Heading into the 2011 season, the Red Sox were dubbed a “super team” after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford during the offseason and boasting a star-studded rotation led by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, along with Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and the mercurial Daisuke Matsuzaka. The team responded to amazing levels of hype by losing six games out of the gate and going just 11-15 in April.

After teasing the world from the beginning of May through the end of August, leading the AL East by half-a-game, the Sox won just seven games in September on their way to one the most embarrassing collapses in baseball history. Manager Terry Francona was fired, general manager Theo Epstein escaped to Chicago, and Bobby Valentine arrived to oversee entirely new forms of pain in the 2012 season.

The Dodgers created their hype storm far differently, but the result is the same: the team is lost and becoming a laughing stock. The 2011 Red Sox won 19 games in May. The Dodgers won a total of 22 games entering today. Los Angeles faced the problem of “too much pitching” before the rotation went from a strength to just another fire to put out.

What happened? Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, since his return, have lived up to their reputations. The rest of the rotation has been a patchwork, although Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a solid contributor in his debut season in America. Ultimately, the blame falls on the position players. Despite the hype and the payroll, the Dodgers entered the season with a number of question marks around the diamond.

While the struggles of Matt Kemp (.251/.305/.335 with 2 HR) have been well documented, his down season is likely the product of shoulder surgery over the winter. It may simply be a longer recovery process than anyone anticipated. Andre Ethier is in the midst of his worst season as well (.253/.346/.392 with 4 HR). Carl Crawford, finally healthy, has been up to his old tricks batting .294/.354/.446 with 5 home runs and 9 steals.

That all three outfielders are in the middle of long-term contracts of dollar values previously thought immoveable, until the Dodgers-Red Sox trade of last summer, is something to consider when looking at the underperforming offense.

Another star signed long-term is Adrian Gonzalez. Like Kemp, Gonzalez is a player recovering from shoulder surgery. While Gonzo is several years removed from his operation, the power he displayed during his years in San Diego, pre-surgery, has not returned. Expected to be a 40-homer threat in Fenway Park, the first baseman instead hit just 27 home runs for the Red Sox in 2011 and 18 while splitting his time between Boston and LA.

Gonzalez has hit 7 home runs through the the first 48 games of the 2013 season. Gonzalez started off slowly this year but has raised his numbers to .333/.389/.520 while breaking out in a big way. Is it a hot streak? A healthy shoulder? Difficult to tell, but a promising sign for a formerly elite first baseman trying to get back on track. However, if his recovery process is any sort of guide for Matt Kemp, the Dodgers may need to look for other sources of power in the lineup. 

Next up: Hanley Ramirez. Or, he would be if he could recover from one injury long enough to contribute in games before struck with the next one. This may sound familiar, but Ramirez is a Dodger several years removed from his best seasons, despite being just 29 years old. From 2006-2010, the shortstop hit .313/.385/.521 for the then Florida Marlins, averaging 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases per year as a potent power-speed threat. Since the 2010 season, Ramirez has been in a tailspin of ineffectiveness and now, injury.

Hitting at just a .254/.328/.422 clip over parts of three seasons, Ramirez has hit a total of 35 homers, about one every seven games instead of every six. After stealing at least 32 bases in four of his first five season in the majors, Ramirez has swiped 20 and 21 bases the last two years. After recovering from a thumb injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season, Ramirez did both homer and steal in his four games of 2013 before injuring his hamstring, but there is no telling which of his skills will be ready when he next takes the field.

Amazingly, that’s it in terms of big names in the starting lineup. With Hanley expected to play shortstop for the Dodgers this season, third base and second base were filled cheaply. 

The Dodgers best — and closest — help in the minors is Yasiel Puig, but he’s an outfielder with less than one season in American baseball and unlikely to displace Kemp, Crawford, or Ethier. Dee Gordon was manning shortstop, but once again found himself unable to hit for average or power. In concert with an inability to take a walk, Gordon’s skills are an embodiment of the phrase “you can’t steal first base.”  So, he’s back in the minors.

The lack of depth for a team with playoff aspirations — really, expectations — is shaping up to the be biggest obstacle in Chavez Ravine. Despite the record-setting payroll, the Dodgers roster is surprisingly thin. But that’s not always such a limitation.

Across the country and in the opposite league sit the New York Yankees. The Yankees now have the second highest payroll in the game thanks to their former Brooklyn rivals. In a twist, the Yankees began the season as underdogs. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were expected to be absent for at least a chunk of the first half in Spring Training.

As the season was about to open, Curtis Granderson succumbed to an injury as well, and Mark Teixeira joined in the hurt parade for good measure. Combined with the departure of Russell Martin in free agency to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees looked down on their luck. The Bronx Bombers signed Travis Hafner from the scrap heap, Lyle Overbay after being cut from the Red Sox while competing for the backup first base job, and traded for one of the worst players in baseball over the past few seasons: Vernon Wells.

As play begins on May 30th, the Yankees are one game back in the AL East. Hafner has been healthy, playing in 42 games, and is hitting .256/.373/.496 with 8 home runs. Last season, Pronk played in 66 total games and hit 13 home runs for the Cleveland Indians. His health has been a question mark for for six years now, but as long as he’s on the field, he performs.

Overbay hasn’t done as well, posting just a .294 OBP, but he’s also knocked in 8 home runs. Vernon Wells? His .263/.313/.457 with 10 homers and 4 stolen bases is a far cry from the .230/.279/.403 11 home run line he posted in 2012. He’s played in the outfield and even third base for a notable appearance.

The Yankees catching duo has also performed better than most expected. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have both kept their OPS above .650. Kevin Youkilis, brought in to replace the injured A-Rod, chipped in with a .266/.347/.422 line before hitting the DL himself.

The Dodgers entered the season expected to dominate. The Yankees were expected to struggle while their stars recovered from injury. On the West Coast, players who were expected to contribute haven’t done so. On the East Coast, a handful of long shots are making their names known in pinstripes. And, we are given yet another reminder that team success is about as impossible to predict in professional baseball as the location of a knuckleball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

The Los Angeles Dodgers and “Too Much Pitching”

Sometimes a cliche is just that – a simple saying that has become so overused that it no longer has any meaning outside of being a one-liner. No cliche in baseball gets more use than “you can never have too much pitching.” It seems like the phrase is used during every game, whether the man on the mound is performing well, reinforcing the wisdom of choice, or struggling, showing the lack of planning because there is no replacement. Scott Boras probably dedicates an entire chapter to the importance (and fragile nature) of pitching depth for each starter he represents.

A desire to have enough pitching is why the Yankees acquired Esteban Loaiza in 2004 and traded Jesus Montero to get Michael Pineda in 2012. It’s why the Red Sox signed Brad Penny and John Smoltz in 2009. It’s why the A’s took a chance at resurrecting the career of Bartolo Colon and why Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Pedro Martinez have been able to make mid-season comebacks in the twilight of their careers.

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day, however, that depth has been tested and depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the aforementioned Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his turn in rotation, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so many options to fill the innings. Ted Lilly, who had been rehabbing in the minors to begin the year, no opening in sight, now finds himself with a grasp on a starting job.

Dodgers management is committed to winning and willing to spend, which is why GM Ned Colletti signed left-handed pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu out of Korea during the offseason. At the time the move seemed to indicate the Dodgers were going to part with one or two members of their pantheon of starting pitchers, but the team stood still. Ryu was just 25 at the time, celebrating his 26th birthday on April 2nd, so youth and inexperience with American baseball was on their side had the team eased the southpaw into MLB rather than handing him a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Yet the youngster impressed and in the process, pushed veterans Capuano and Harang, both surprisingly useful in 2012, to the sidelines. But that still left too many players and too few seats at the table. How could the Dodgers successfully take advantage of eight or nine capable starting pitchers?

As the other common baseball saying goes “these things have a way of working themselves out.” Injuries, poor performance, trades – any one of these can shake up a situation that looks to be set in stone. Aaron Harang was traded because there appeared to be enough depth to compensate for his loss. Chad Billingsley entered 2013 as a member of the walking wounded, having opted to skip surgery last fall and rehab his balky elbow instead. Two down of more-or-less natural causes. But Greinke and Capuano both sustaining injuries in a brawl? Unpredictable. Fife injuring himself as a replacement? That kind of poor timing is hard to imagine. Had young pitchers Allen Webster and/or Rubby De La Rosa remained in the organization rather than shipping off to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett trade last summer, things wouldn’t have looked so bad. But again, at the time, they were additional excess pitching capacity.

Starting pitching is a commodity fungible enough to trade and valuable enough to hoard. There is a reason teams try to develop pitchers through the draft and international signings: it’s a resource that can suddenly run out, no matter what the reserve looks like before disaster strikes. It’s why the Cardinals under pitching coach Dave Duncan and the White Sox under his counterpart Don Cooper are renowned for their ability to take marginal pitchers and turn them into contributors. Being able to “fix” a guy who seems to have lost his stuff is something many teams will try every year, but only a few succeed. Kyle Lohse had logged over a thousand innings of 4.82 ERA ball in his career before joining the Cardinals in 2008. Since then his ERA is nearly a full point lower. And from the start of the 2011 season it stands at just 3.08. Lohse came to St. Louis as a reclamation project and left finishing 7th in NL Cy Young voting.

The Dodgers may not have a Kyle Lohse or a wizard masquerading as a pitching coach, but they are the latest team to learn that no matter how many pitchers they start with, it may still not be quite enough.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum: Cy Young Fifth Starters

When the Atlanta Braves were racking up first-place finishes in the National League East they relied on a trio of starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When the Moneyball A’s were in their prime, they followed a similar strategy building a team around a core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The San Francisco Giants the past few years? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. And of at the back of the rotation, Barry Zito. After the 2011 season Lincecum was one year removed from back-to-back Cy Young awards and Zito had pitched 821.2 innings of 4.55 ERA baseball since joining the Giants five years earlier. It was clear who was the ace and who belonged at the back of the rotation. But is it still?

The Vet

Barry Zito signed a seven-year $126 million deal with the Giants after a 2006 season that was arguably the worst of his career. The lefty, known for his sweeping curveball, put up his third highest ERA, highest WHIP, second highest home run rate, second highest walk rate, and the second lowest strikeout rate of his career. What he did do was stay on the mound, starting an  AL-leading 34 games and tossing 221 innings. Barry Zito, one of the A’s big three, had become an innings eater.

It wasn’t always that way. A first-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 1999 (ninth overall) Zito began his Major League career with in 2000 finishing tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Kazuhiro Sasaki, Terrence Long, Mark Quinn, Bengie Molina, and Kelly Wunsch while tying Steve Cox, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Redman, each of whom received just one vote. As a fun aside, Lance Berkman also received a single vote for the NL Rookie of the Year that same season, though voters at least picked Rafael Furcal to win. His career has been a bit more noteworthy than Sasaki’s. Zito went on to throw 214.1 innings in his sophomore season, the first of six straight years he would accomplish that feat. A modern horse, Zito started 35 games, again, a feat he would match three more times, including his 2003 campaign.

2003 was the year made for Barry Zito’s memorabilia collection. A shiny 2.75 ERA over just shy of 230 innings, the best WHIP and walk rates of his career, second highest K/9 (although still just 7.1) and a Cy Young award made it a year for his Wikipedia page. Zito would win Game 2 of the 2003 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox but lose the series-deciding Game 5. After 2003, Zito would begin a trend of rising ERAs, hits allowed, and walks, while also striking out fewer batters and giving up more long balls.

While a move to the National League, where pitchers hit (or, more often, simply stand at the plate with a bat in hand) has been known to rejuvenate aging American League starters who make the transition, the bleeding didn’t stop when he crossed the Bay. In his first five years in the Senior Circuit, Zito saw his ERA settle in the mid-fours, his walks average 4.1 per nine innings, and his strikeout rate fall to just 6.4 per nine. Barry Zito had become a hundred-million-dollar bust. No longer an ace, no longer a solid top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In five years he had failed to see a boost in the NL and was treading water while slowly sinking.

The Freak

With the tenth pick of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft the San Francisco Giants selected a slight right-handed pitcher with a funky delivery named Tim Lincecum. Lincecum had been drafted twice before, first in 2003 by the Cubs in the 48th round and then in 2005 with the Indians in the 42nd round, but stuck with the University of Washington and watched his stock and his ability to command a large signing bonus rise.

Lincecum started eight games after signing across A- and A+ levels in 2006 tossing 31.2 innings of 1.71 ERA with a mere 58 strikeouts or 16.5 Ks per nine innings. The next spring he would be rated #11 overall by Baseball America and would start five games for AAA Fresno, striking out 46 in 31 innings, before getting the call to the Majors. Lincecum would start 24 games for the Giants that year striking out 150 batters in his 146.1 innings. While his walk rate (4.0 BB/9) was a little high, the high strikeout rate offset the damage. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next two years Lincecum would put up seasons many players would like to have just once in their career: 452.1 innings, 526 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) against 152 walks (3.0 BB/9). He would toss six complete games, three of them shutouts, and have a combined ERA of just 2.55. He would win back-to-back Cy Young awards. The sky was the limit. The Freak was unstoppable.

In 2010 and 2011 Lincecum would take a small step back, edging a little closer to the level of the ordinary “ace” rather than the extraordinary. His ERA crossed the barrier of three to 3.08, he averaged 9.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 with 451 strikeouts and 162 walks in 429.1 innings across sixty-six starts. Lincecum also chipped in during the 2010 World Series run with 37 excellent innings including a complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves and an eight inning, one-run outing against the Texas Rangers.

However, some warning signs were there: over his first four full seasons Lincecum’s strikeout rate fell each year and his walk rate rose in each of the last two years after falling from 2008 to 2009.

2012: Turnabout Is Fair Play

Even given the decline in performance in 2011, Tim Lincecum was still a valuable pitcher heading into the 2012 season. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were there at the top of the rotation as well and Zito was still around for the back end. Ryan Vogelsong had been contributing admirably since his return to American baseball. And then the season began.

Lincecum had a very un-Lincecum debut allowing five runs in 5.1 innings while Zito tossed a complete-game shutout in hitter-friendly Coors Field. By the end of May Zito’s ERA stood at 3.41 while Lincecum’s was 5.82. The Freak had four starts where he allowed at least five runs in just two months after having just five such starts in each of the previous two years. After back-to-back 3.1 inning starts to begin July, things began to turn around after the All-Star Break. The former Cy Young winner allowed more than four runs just twice and put up a 3.83 ERA over his final fifteen regular season starts. The strikeouts weren’t quite there, just 86 over his final 89.1 innings,  and twelve home runs in just under 90 innings isn’t great, but there was hope that he was figuring out his issues and fixing his problems. For most of the postseason Lincecum came out of the bullpen and allowed just one run in eleven innings of relief. His lone start was a 4.2 inning, four-run outing against the Cardinals in the NLCS and Lincecum returned to the bullpen for the World Series putting up an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 4.2 innings as the Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers.

Zito’s final fifteen starts would see him return largely to the Barry Zito that had been in San Francisco for several years: 85.2 innings of 4.31 ERA. But Zito limited the damage. By allowing more than four runs just once, and getting some help from his offence and bullpen, Zito would win eight of his second-half starts and the Giants would win twelve as they marched towards their second World Series in three years. Under the bright lights of the NLDS stage Zito wilted, lasting just 2.2 innings but he rebounded for the next two rounds tossing 13.1 innings of one-run ball across two starts. In un-Zito-like fashion he struck out 9 while walking just two. After not even making the roster for the Giants previous World Series run, Zito was redeemed in San Francisco.

2013 and Beyond

Whatever magic Zito uses to start the season seems to have continued into 2013 as the crafty left-hander began the new year with two scoreless seven-inning outings before the Milwaukee Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in just 2.2. Of course, he followed that up with another seven scoreless against the San Diego Padres.

Zito is in his last year of his deal with the Giants but the club retains an $18 million option for his services in 2014. Should they decline, Zito is due a $7 million buyout, so the Giants are really looking at a one-year, $11 million deal for a fourth or fifth starter who essential is what he is: dependably average.

2012 raised more questions about Lincecum than it answered. It showed a pitcher who was no longer at the top of his game as a starter but who could still dominate in relief. It showed a guy who had a bad first half and a decent second half. 2013 begins along the same lines: four starts into the season Lincecum has two good outings and two bad. He has two games with at least seven strikeouts and one with seven walks. Lincecum signed a 2 year $40.5 million contract after the 2011 season when the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. The Giants are probably breathing a sigh of relief on that one.

Which pitcher will perform better in 2013: the low-risk low(er) reward Zito or the high-risk, high reward Lincecum? Who will have a spot on the 2014 team? The answer to both questions may be Barry Zito, who, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his Cy Young season has become a pitcher who can never live up to his contract but can be counted upon to reach a baseline of performance.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Alfredo Aceves Needs A New Home

As the Red Sox disastrous 2011 season came to an end, Alfredo Aceves was one of the notable successes, besides of course the MVP-caliber performance turned in by Jacoby Ellsbury. Aceves made four starts and fifty-one appearances out of the bullpen with a combined 2.61 ERA in both roles. While his starts were nothing special (14 runs in 21 innings although 8 of those came in one start) his body of work for the season was beyond what the Red Sox could have hoped for. At the time, much was being made about the club “stealing” Aceves away from the Yankees who had released the swingman due to injury concerns before the season started.

By the end of 2012 the goodwill was gone. A 5.36 ERA 8 blown saves and fighting with the manager – even embattled Bobby Valentine – will do that. Aceves rushed to join a brawl in the WBC and then began 2013 with an ERA approaching 9. Aveces was optioned to AAA Pawtucket, but he may not be long for the Red Sox organization. If the Red Sox finally cut ties with the troubled right-hander, through trade or release, where might he find work?

Los Angeles

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day however, that depth has been depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his start, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so much depth. Management is committed to winning, willing to spend (though Aceves is relatively inexpensive at about $2 million this season) and has a good working relationship with the Red Sox. Don’t expect another Allen Webster in return, but a transfer to warmer climates might help all parties.

Houston Has a Pitching Problem

No team entered the season with lower expectations than the Houston Astros. Through Sunday, Astros pitchers – starters and relievers – have combined for a 5.51 ERA. Aceves could help out of the ‘pen, spot start if needed, and generally be out of the spotlight.

Canada

The Blue Jays have not gotten off to the type of start that many expected. A rebuilt starting rotation has Mark Buehrle (6.35 ERA), Josh Johnson (6.86), and R.A. Dickey (4.50 ERA) joining Brandon Morrow (5.27 ERA) and not retiring as many batters as expected. J.A. Happ (3.86 ERA), brought in to compete for the fifth starter spot has been the only bright spot.

It’s only the end of April, but almost every team can use extra pitching depth. With his history of starting and relieving, Alfredo Aceves has the skills to contribute to many organizations. Including the Red Sox, if he can put himself back together.

Taking the Field in Daylight, Not Dreams

The crack of the bat. The smell of freshly cut grass. The warmth of the sun set against a blue sky. These are just some of the elements that make baseball one of the greatest sporting events to attend. Baseball is a sport designed to be played outdoors. While domed stadiums make a certain amount of sense in the hot Arizona desert or for cold Milwaukee springs, the Texas Rangers play in the heat while the Minnesota Twins play, occasionally, in the snow. As children, we grow up playing baseball until the sun goes down. Whether we are playing or watching, baseball is a game tailor-made for lazy Saturday afternoons. While Saturday falls once a week, Major League Baseball gets the chance to showcase baseball on three days during the “summer.”

Three days of each baseball season are holidays for many Americans: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. These are holidays without the traditional family commitments. Rather they are days of relaxation designed around barbecues, fireworks, going to the beach, or just lounging around the backyard with a radio.

The first rule of these days: every team should play. Now that the leagues have been evened and interleague play is a season-long event, there should be sixteen games on each of the three holidays. MLB is close: all thirty teams will be in action on Memorial Day but two will sit out on each of the next two holidays. The second rule: play games during the day.

Over the past five seasons, including the balance of 2013, Labor Day has been the most consistent holiday for day baseball (defined for the purposes of this article as games starting before the end of the 4pm hour on the East Coast), with Memorial Day and the Fourth of July demonstrating a lack of emphasis on this aspect of scheduling. This is strange when considering Bud Selig’s work during his tenure as Commissioner. Whether you agree or disagree with his moves, Selig has spent just over two decades attempting to improve the fan experience. Interleague play, the World Baseball Classic, Home Run Derby captains, and making the All-Star Game “count” are all measures aimed squarely at the fans.

Although the WBC is aimed at cultivating baseball on a global scale, the finals are still played in the United States, and the atmosphere, set just before March Madness, is that of a playoff tournament. The WBC is trying to be the kind of baseball seen in the postseason: games are happening all the time and teams are being eliminated in epic matchups (or so they hope).

Part of the magic during the WBC, NCAA tournament, and the MLB postseason lies in the quantity of games being played. Only during Opening Day, and to a lesser extent, the rest of that week, does baseball feature a large number of day games allowing workers, students, and fans of all ages the opportunity to follow along with games staggered throughout the day starting at noon and ending past midnight on the East Coast.

People like to be immersed in their sports. As baseball fans this is hard to keep in mind at times because the season is so long. However, most games on any particular day start between 7pm and 10pm Eastern time. The chaos is confined. This is not an indictment of prime time baseball. Both for economics and availability this schedule makes sense during the week – but on the weekend, and even moreso, holidays, the chaos and excitement should be overflowing.

This is a plan executed every Sunday by the NFL. A few games start every couple hours leading up to a primetime game on Sunday night and then the showcase that is Monday Night Football. This strategy brings in football fans and fantasy players, encourages cable packages to ensure access to every game, and if that isn’t enough, NFL RedZone is a non-stop highlight reel. And that is every Sunday from September to January.

MLB could start with three days. Three days where fans are ready to relax and have fun, following an endless stream of baseball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Get Ready for the Baseball Season With These Apps

Baseball is back! The first game, a Texas showdown where the Rangers welcomed the Astros to the American League was on Sunday. All thirty teams will have 162 games between now and October and no fans enjoy staying connected more than baseball fans. And the best way to keep on top of your favorite team, fantasy team, stats, and players are the apps.

At Bat 2013

At Bat can be the beginning and the end of a baseball app list because it fills your life with baseball. At Bat is a scoreboard, team tracker, radio, and television. Depending on the subscription pack you sign up for, ranging from free to $129, At Bat will provide scores, radio broadcasts, television streams or all of the above. What makes At Bat special is that it lives beyond your phone: just log in on your PC and stream audio or video. You can set it up on your Apple TV, Xbox 360, or PS3. Getting a new BlackBerry phone at work? It’s even on BlackBerry and the Kindle Fire. If you have an Android phone, you can put a scoreboard widget right on your homescreen. Keep baseball in your pocket.

MLB.com At Bat

At the Ballpark

A companion to At Bat, At the Ballpark handles your experience going to a game. A free app, At the Ballpark lets you check in to the game, track the games you’ve attended over the last few years (though only as far back as 2005), and puts a map of the park in your hand. This may not sound that exciting, but Major League Baseball doesn’t think small. The eventual killer features of this app are food and beverage ordering and ticket upgrades. Both are currently in a select number of test markets: Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia), Minute Maid Park (Houston), Chase Field (Phoenix), CitiField (New York) and Marlins Park (Miami) for food and beverage ordering and Turner Field (Atlanta), Target Field (Minneapolis) and O.co Coliseum (Oakland) for seat upgrades.

If the only thing that sounds interesting to you here is the ability to change your seat when you find yourself behind a pole or spot a prime seat that no one is using, keep Pogoseat in mind. Right now Pogoseat is only in a couple locations on the west coast, but competition might force MLB to roll out their solution sooner.

MLB At the Ballpark is available for Android and iOS devices.

Fantasy Sports

Yahoo! and ESPN are both back with new editions of their fantasy baseball apps, depending on which service you use for your fantasy league. While neither app is a breakaway success, both get the job done. You can set your roster, search for new players, and keep your team up to date. Neither is as full-featured as the full desktop application, which for Yahoo is not designed for touch and is not as nice an experience on a tablet as it could be, but both get the job done.

Both apps are available for iOS (Yahoo)(ESPN) and Android (Yahoo) (ESPN)

Score Keeping

Maybe you are the guy or gal who goes to a game and buys the program every time just to get the scorecard. There’s something about filling in each box along with the pros and making a more personal record of the events of the game. But face it, you’re living in the past. Don’t worry though, because technology is here to bail you out: iScore is the classic scorecard formatted to fit your favorite gadget. You can keep score, track pitches, chart hit locations, and more. And the best part is you can use it for any baseball or softball game – major league, minor league, little league, you name it.

iScore is available for iOS and Android.

Twitter for Sports

One of the biggest changes in how data is consumed these days is the idea of the stream versus the inbox. Email is an inbox, it shows what you have read and what you still need to read. Twitter is a stream. Twitter doesn’t care if you read everything from everyone you follow, just that information flows past and you are free to dip in and out of the steam as you choose. Whenever you want to consume some content, just fire up an app and dive in. The final apps in today’s look are bringing this model to sports.

Fanboat is designed to be like Pandora for sports. (Full disclosure, I helped create Fanboat) When the app is launched simply follow your favorite teams and Fanboat will begin to learn what teams and players you like. At the end of every game, Fanboat pulls in the box score and breaks down events in a game – home runs, three pointers, passing yards, you name it – and displays the more significant (ie. a home run instead of a single, a hat trick, multiple touchdown receptions) feats and lets the user explore the game from these jumping off points. Instead of waking up in the morning and reading the sports page or watching an hour of SportsCenter, anyone can get a personal digest of the sports most important to them.

Fanboat is available for iOS.

Fancred is a community for sports fans. When you follow someone on twitter you see comments they make, stories they share, links and pictures they post. The same is true on Fancred. Like twitter, you create an account, have followers and can follow people, but you filter your feed based on the teams you root for. If you like the Red Sox you can sort to show what Sox fans have been posting or what stories have been posted that are about the Red Sox. Unlike arguing with strangers on twitter or blogs about which team is good and which, well, “sucks” on Fancred you can converse with the fan community you’re a part of and if you don’t agree with someone you don’t need to follow their posts. As you post more and your posts are voted up, your Fancred score increases, showing that you are a passionate fan. What’s more, Fancred is a local company, based right here in Boston!

Fancred is available for iOS.

Cross-posted at Sports of Boston

What Does the Red Sox Roster Look Like Without David Ortiz?

After the events of last August and the winter the Red Sox roster has taken on a whole new look. With a bumper crop of prospects nearing the majors and Jacoby Ellsbury entering free agency at the end of the season the lineup could undergo a number of changes in 2014 as well. For now however, the biggest issue facing John Farrell when he fills out his lineup card is the absence of David Ortiz, still recovering from the achilles injury that cost him much of the second half last season.

Leading off: Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Field

John Farrell needs Ellsbury exactly where Terry Francona needed him, at the top of the lineup. It was in Francona’s final season that Ellsbury broke out for a monster .321/.376/.552 line with 32 home runs and 39 steals. The key with Ellsbury is, of course, will he stay healthy. The speedy center fielder’s MVP caliber season as sandwiched by two injury-plagued campaigns that saw Ellsbury play a total of 92 games between them.

In the two hole: Dustin Pedroia, Second Base

Pedroia turned in his worst season with the Red Sox last year while hitting “just” .290/.347/.449 and showing the Red Sox how tremendously valuable and consistent he has been in the past. However, Pedroia battled injuries early in the season and from July 1 on hit .319/.372/.511. Healthy and hitting in Spring Training, Pedroia is ready to help bring the Red Sox back to respectability.

Batting third: Mike Napoli, First Base/DH

Napoli looked like a great bounce-back candidate when the Red Sox were first rumored to have signed him to a three-year, $39 million deal but injury scares eventually reduced that contract to just one year with a base of $5 million and a maximum of $13 million. The former Angel and Ranger followed up his .320/.414/.631 2011 campaign with a .227/.343/.469 season last year. Hopefully with his immediate health issues taken care of, Napoli can settle in at first (or DH while Big Papi is sidelined) and put up the type of performance everyone expected in 2012.

Cleanup: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Catcher

After the first three spots in the lineup the Red Sox have a lot of options, but Salty has seen some time in the cleanup spot during Spring Training and may get the nod during the regular season as well. The catcher has put up an on-base percentage of .288 in each of the last two years but has also clubbed 41 home runs over the same time frame. He’d be the power guy holding down the fourth spot in the lineup.

Batting Fifth: Will Middlebrooks, Third Base

It’s hard to remember that Middlebrooks hasn’t even spent a full season with the Red Sox yet. The power-hitting third baseman missed the end of the season with a wrist injury but in 75 games put up a .288/.325/.509 line while hitting 15 home runs. He could make a fine cleanup hitter too and maybe while waiting for Ortiz, he’ll get that chance.

Batting Sixth: Shane Victorino, Right Field

Victorino has been with Team USA the last week or so and like many players in this lineup is looking to return to something closer to his 2011 (.279/.355/.491) than his 2012 (.255/.321/.383). While his .491 slugging in ‘11 topped his previous high by .044 and is unlikely to return, the Sox new right fielder has a career .341 OBP. Depending on how much power and patience the Hawaiian is showing, Farrell can either put him towards the top of the lineup or somewhere in the middle. With at least 34 steals in four of the last six seasons, including 39 last year, his speed can be utilized well even slotted further down as a type of “second leadoff man” for the bottom of the lineup.

Batting Seventh: Stephen Drew, Shortstop or Jonny Gomes/Daniel Nava, Left Field

Unfortunately Stephen Drew is still recovering from a concussion suffered last week and has yet to be cleared by Major League Baseball to return to action. However, given the players who should occupy spots one through six, the soonest Drew could bat would be seventh. In his last full season, 2010, Drew hit .278/.352/.458 with 15 home runs and chipped in 10 steals. Coming back from injuries, the speed probably isn’t there but given that he still hit 7 home runs in 79 games last season, Drew could be a nice source of power in the bottom third of the lineup.

Batting Eighth: Jonny Gomes/Daniel Nava, Left Field or Lyle Overbay, First Base

The left field platoon of Gomes and Nava will probably fall in the seventh or eighth spot of the lineup. Both players have their flaws and strengths and simply having major league bats in eight lineup spots shouldn’t be understated. Depending on Ortiz, Nava’s experimentation with first base, and Lyle Overbay, it’s possible that Gomes and Nava are both in the lineup at times, and could be flipped based on Farrell’s tactical thoughts.

Batting Ninth: Jose Iglesias, Shortstop or Lyle Overbay, First Base

If Drew isn’t ready to go at short, Iglesias will likely begin the season in the majors and would be the most obvious candidate to hit ninth. With the roster not fully formed yet, this is actually the trickiest spot to fill during the Ortiz absence, which says a lot. The team has come a long way since the end of 2012 and even the remains of Lyle Overbay, coming off a .259/.331/.397 2012 is still not terrible to hid at the bottom of the roster.

The biggest lesson here: the Red Sox are the most underrated they have been in a decade. While a few players need to show that 2012 isn’t their new level of performance, some simply by avoiding injury in 2013, there is a lot of potential talent here. Even without David Ortiz this is not the lineup that limped through August and September. With a bit of luck, this lineup should more than hold its own, putting the pressure on the rotation.

Cross posted to Sports of Boston

The Hall of Unexpectedly Few

Yesterday marked the first time since 1996 that the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) failed to elect at least one player to the Hall of Fame. For a year that was anticipated to be challenging due to the sheer number of qualified candidates –  with or without PED users – an empty slate is nothing short of disappointing.

 

Craig Biggio came the closest to election with 388 votes but fell 39 short of the threshold.

One positive take away: Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, longtime Houston Astros teammates, will once again have a chance to be elected together. Other people have made arguments on both sides about what the voters should do so I won’t say any more than this. At the end of the day the Hall of Fame is just a museum and there should be room in that museum for players who tell the story of the game.

Bullpen Phones Go Wireless. What?

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition. It moves slowly, it changes slowly, the game is played…slowly. So it comes as a big shock to me to imagine managers picking up a cell phone to call the bullpen.

But there you go. And this magical new communication will be powered by T-Mobile.

I guess the old fashioned bullpen phone will be the story I tell my kids. Like my dad told me about the bullpen cart.

While I normally am usually somewhere between unfazed and mildly annoyed by new ads and sponsorships appearing in front of every part of the game, I like that this is a functional partnership. Even if a cell phone may not really be necessary bullpen technology.

Under the agreement, T-Mobile will provide MLB with a new On-Field Communication System, powered by T-Mobile’s powerful nationwide network technology. The first use of this technology will be in a wireless voice system connecting managers in select Major League dugouts to coaches in bullpens. This dugout-to-bullpen system will start to roll out in 2013 and the new On-Field Communication System solution will offer greater mobility as well as options for future innovation within the game.

— http://www.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130108&content_id=40895452&vkey=pr_mlb&c_id=mlb&tcid=TMO_TW_010813&partnerId=aw-5954574031703122309-996

It’s a strange switch on the face of it, and I would prefer MLB address technology like “instant replay” or “iPads for managers in the dugout” before upgrading (downgrading?) the bullpen phone, but MLB (through MLBLAM) has been on the forefront of tech for a while so I’m watching with…medium interest.

Chone and Tell

Google Now is an excellent tool, but sometimes a tricky word or name just won’t be interpreted correctly. For example, the search engine couldn’t understand a voice of “When is Trot Nixon’s birthday?” Nixon, of course, has an unusual family name, Trotman, truncated into a nickname, Trot, so it’s somewhat understandable that Google hasn’t mastered his name quite yet. His full name, Christopher Trotman Nixon, failed too as Google insisted on changing his name to Truckman.

But what about someone with a common name that wasn’t spelled anything like it sounds? Well, saying Chone Figgins results in “Sean Fagan” and “Shawn Higgins” but not the baseball player. Speak more clearly? Didn’t help. Pronouncing his name like it’s spelled (Shown) well that’s a horse of a different color!

Until he retires, and for a few years afterwards, Figgins can pronounce Chone as Shawn, but sooner or later, baseball historians will only know him as Shown. (to be fair his full name is Desmond DeChone “Chone” Figgins)