Josh Beckett and the importance of learning how to pitch

July 15th, 2006 → 12:49 pm @

Before the season began, Peter Gammons predicted that, should be remain healthy, Josh Beckett would be the American League Cy Young Award winner. Well, so far, Beckett has remained healthy, and it appears as if 2006 could be the first time in his career that he tops 200 innings. But the Cy Young? Not so much. Beckett’s 11-5 record shows nothing so much as how deceptive a pitcher’s won-loss record can be; his 5.12 ERA is more indicative of how he’s pitched this season. Indeed, last night’s 7-run, 8-hit, 4 1/3 inning effort is beginning to feel disturbingly familiar.

So what’s the problem? It doesn’t seem to be his stuff: he began last night’s game by getting Jason Kendall to whiff on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball—and he’s reached 95 in almost every start this year. Here’s one theory, and it’s one that’s at least been discussed within Yawkey Way: Beckett has never learned how to pitch.

At first blush, that probably seems like a ridiculous statement. Beckett shutout the Yankees on short rest to clinch the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, and has been cited as one of baseball’s marquee pitchers for as long as he’s been in the game. But that could be the problem. For as long as Beckett’s pitched, he’s been someone blessed with preternatural ability and lauded for his skills. In 1999, he was the first high school righthander to be selected second overall in the draft in more than two decades. Baseball America named him the top high school prospect in the country, and he was USA Today‘s High School Pitcher of the Year. He spent only one full season in the minors (2000), and has been a full-time major league starter since he was 22. Compare his development to that of Jonathan Papelbon, a college closer whom the Red Sox converted to a starter in the minors, asking him to develop a fuller repertoire of pitches. In the NL—or, as us American League snobs like to call it, AAAA—Beckett could, more often than not, rely on his natural ability to overpower and overwhelm the opposition. In the AL, he’ll get his share of strike-outs, but he’ll also find that there are plenty of hitters who can use the power he generates to smash a ball into the stands. (It’s no accident that Beckett leads the league with 27 home runs allowed.) When he’s not blowing pitchers away, he’s often getting lit up.

So what does that mean going forward? When it’s working for him, Beckett has a jaw-droppingly nasty curve, and there’s no reason he can’t learn to mix in a little Greg Maddux with his Nolan Ryan. (This is what’s allowed Pedro Martinez to be one of the all-time greats. Witness Game 5 of the ALDS in 1999, when Martinez—essentially pitching on guile and guts—shut down the Indians without any of the power he used to whiff five of the first six batters in that year’s All-Star Game.) But that transition is going to take a bit of time…

An aside: I’m convinced the reaction to Beckett as compared to Matt Clement should serve as case study A in how a player’s demeanor, and perhaps even his physical appearance, can have as much to do with fan reaction as his on-field performance does. Last year, Clement finished at 13-6 with a 4.57 ERA. He helped anchor an exceedingly shaky rotation’s first-half. And he was hit in the head by a screaming line drive. But Clement–asthmatic, hunched over, in need of glasses–appears kind of shlubby, and, even though he never tries to make excuses, he’s often looks as if he’s sporting the Derek Lowe Face. Beckett, on the other hand, looks and talks like a warrior. Last year’s reaction to Schilling as compared to Keith Foulke is another example. The Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without either one, and Foulke’s performance in the ALCS was as gutsy and brave as anything I’ve seen. But Schilling is well spoken; Foulke is defensive and has a tendency to lash out. Schilling was consistently applauded just for making it out to the mound; Foulke took as much abuse as anyone on the team.

Post Categories: Baseball & Curt Schilling & Jonathan Papelbon & Josh Beckett & Keith Foulke & Matt Clement & The Derek Lowe Face

This post went up when it looked like they were going to win…

July 9th, 2006 → 4:16 pm @

…and instead, the final game of what should have been a sweep turned into a brutal, last-one-standing marathon. I really don’t like the White Sox.

I’d forgotten how truly awful White Sox broadcasters Ken Harrelson and Darrin Jackson are…but it only took a a couple of minutes of today’s game for them to remind me. It’s not just that they sound like they’re in a coma. And it’s not just their painful homerism, with constant, “c’mon, get a hit”s or “we need to turn it on here”s. It’s sequences like this one:

In the bottom of the fourth, Jason Varitek hit a flare up the middle that sent pitcher Jose Contreras awkwardly sprawling backwards off the mound. Contreras, who hobbled around a bit after the play, seemed so uncomfortable that his manager and trainer came out to make sure he was okay. Still, with two outs and no-one on, Contreras — who does, let’s remember, have a pretty considerable track record of melting down against the Red Sox — didn’t seem to be in a whole lot of trouble.

Then Mike Lowell hit an 0-1 pitch into the left-field stands.
Then Coco Crisp worked a five-pitch walk.
Then Alex Gonzalez roped a single into left.
Then Contreras uncorked a wild pitch, putting runners on second and third.
Then Kevin Youkilis worked a five-pitch walk.
Then Contreras hit Mark Loretta with a pitch after being up 0-2.

During this whole sequence, Contreras seemed out of sorts, changing arm slots, grimacing, shrugging his shoulders. But neither Harrelson nor Jackson made a single reference to the fact that Contreras might be experiencing some discomfort due to Tek’s liner. Not once!

Other gems:

* After saying that Youkilis is “much more dangerous” with runners in scoring position (with a .300 average versus a .325 average), Harrelson says, “That’s not bad at all for a guy who’s batting leadoff, while most of the time nobody’s out there.” Right…because whether or not you bat leadoff has absolutely anything to do with how you bat with RISP.

* “Manny Ramirez is a different hitter with the bases loaded than he is leading off an inning.” Not really true — and definitely not true in the way Harrelson thinks:

2006 leading off: 27/74 (.365) with 7 HRs (1 per 10.6 ABs)
2006 with bases loaded: 1/6 (.167) with 0 HRs
2003-2005 leading off: 121/402 (.301) with 35 HRs (1 per 11.49 ABs)
2003-2005 bases loaded: 15/52 (.288) with 5 HRs (1 per 10.4 ABs)

* “Ozzie Guillen is just trying to win the [All-Star] game, which is something a lot of managers can not say, which is a shame.”

This in reference to why Guillen didn’t choose Curt Schilling as an All-Star…because Schilling was pitching today and so might not be available for that long on Tuesday. Of course, that’s why Mark Buehrle (9-6, 4.02 ERA, 54 Ks) is an All-Star and Schilling (10-3, 3.55 ERA, 112 Ks) is not; it has nothing to do with the fact that Buehrle is on the White Sox. And does plenty to explain why Contreras, who also pitched today, isn’t excusing himself from Tuesday’s festivities.

After the dynamic duo said Guillen’s courage in using Bobby Jenks as a closer last year gave the Sox the confidence to use Jonathan “Papelbom” as a closer this year and all but implied the umpire was on the take–talking about “two different strike zones today” and how the ump gave Schilling “gifts” and squeezed Contreras so that he needed to throw it “right down the middle of the plate”–I finally turned the volume off.

Ahhh. That’s better.

Post Categories: Baseball & Broadcasting

It’s kind of sad that this is so unusual

July 6th, 2006 → 10:24 pm @

Two nice moments in the NESN broadcast of tonight’s Sox-Devil Rays game.

* In the first inning, after Manny cranked a ball into the left-field stands for a two-run shot, Jerry Remy got audibly excited. But instead of just screaming, “DEEP DRIVE, HOME RUN!” (or something inane like “that two-run shot is as good as a grand slam“), Remy’s excitement stemmed from Manny’s freakish balance on a Scott Shields change-up. Two batters earlier, Shields had struck out Mark Loretta with a change; not only did Manny take note, but Remy did too. Manny’s ability to correctly forecast the offspeed offering and sit on it is impressive; just as impressive–especially in comparison to the vast majority of broadcasters working today–is that Remy, instead of simply marveling at Manny’s power or skill or whatever, used the moment to point out how smart a player Manny is and what his at-bat illustrated.

* In the top of the ninth, with Alex Gonzalez on third, nobody out, and Kevin Youkilis at bat, Youk hit a fastball sharply between first and second. It was a hit and run–Gonzalez was off with the pitch–and Devil Rays second baseman Jorge Cantu had broken towards the bag; as a result, he had to scramble to his left, turning a potential double-play ball into a bases loaded situation. Before the play was over, Remy was explaining how Cantu should have been in position to make the play; it’s the shortstop that usually covers second when there’s a hit-and-run on with the pitcher throwing a fastball to a right-handed hitter. And unlike the rote “how many times does a guy make a great defensive play to end an inning and then lead off the next inning with a big hit?” (answer: almost exactly as much as you’d expect), Remy’s observation explained what turned out to be a game deciding play: after a Mark Loretta walk loaded the bases, David Ortiz hit a grand slam for his second home run of the game. The Boston Red Sox: fun to watch and educational.

P.S. After 83 games, David Ortiz has 29 home runs and 82 RBIs. His projected totals for the season? Fifty seven home runs and 160 RBIs. He is a god among men.

Post Categories: Baseball & Broadcasting & David Ortiz & Jerry Remy & NESN

Don’t ask me nothin’ ’bout nothin’ — I just might tell you the truth

July 4th, 2006 → 1:29 pm @

In the year and a half since Jose Canseco published Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, Madonna’s former paramour has served as a punching bag for those within baseball’s protective fraternity. During last March’s Congressional hearings, Curt Schilling, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire refused to be sworn in en masse because they didn’t want to be pictured with the greased-up, perma-tanned slugger. McGwire referred to Canseco as a “convicted criminal who would do or say anything to solve [his] own personal problems.” Schilling warned of “glorifying the so-called author” or “indirectly assisting him to sell more books.”

Canseco—who, at age 42, is attempting a comeback with the San Diego Surf Dogs (the same team for which the 47-year old Rickey Henderson put up a .456 OBP last year)—is back in the news, and it’s not because of his three strikeouts in his Surf Dogs debut last night. Before yesterday’s game, he had this to say: “They’re mafia, point blank, they’re mafia. I don’t think Major League Baseball is enthused about finding out the truth. There needs to be a major cleanup in Major League Baseball. I think they are treading on very thin ice, and [commissioner] Bud Selig has to be very careful what he’s doing because his job is on the line.” Has the new testing program solved the sports steroid problem? “The policy sounds great, but that’s not the problem,” Canseco said. “There are major problems not with the policies but the individuals who are instituting this policy. For example, and this is theoretical, if Roger Clemens gets tested and he gets tested positive and it comes back, what do these individuals do with this policy? I think it’s going to depend on a case-to-case, player-to-player basis.”

Canseco’s comments were treated with what must be by now a familiar brand of condescending disregard. At first, a baseball spokesman wouldn’t even deign to address Canseco’s allegations: “We wouldn’t comment on anything he said.” Later, an MLB official amended this statement, telling the Associated Press, “His allegations are complete nonsense.”

Of course they are. Just like his allegation that Rafael Palmeiro was a steroid user was complete nonsense. Canseco, after all, is the guy who embarrassed himself on national TV, the boob with the awful track record when it comes to telling the truth. Just look at the testimony!

Jose Canseco: “MLB did nothing to take it out of the sport. Baseball owners and the players union … turned a blind eye to the clear evidence of steroid use in baseball.”

ESPN The Magazine Special Report on Steroids, November 2005: “Who knew? We all knew: the trainers who looked the other way as they were treating a whole new class of injuries; the players who saw teammates inject themselves but kept the clubhouse code of silence; the journalists who ‘buried the lead’ and told jokes among themselves about the newly muscled; the GMs who wittingly acquired players on steroids; and, yes, owners and players, who openly applauded the home run boom and moved at glacial speed to address the problem that fueled the explosion.”

Mark McGwire: “I’m not going to go into the past or talk about my past. I’m here to make a positive influence on this.”

“My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family and myself.”

“I will use whatever influence and popularity that I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor. What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates.”

McGwire, described at the hearings by the Washington Post as a “shrunken, lonely, evasive figure,” has not, to date, been involved in public efforts to discourage young athletes from taking performance enhancing drugs.

Sammy Sosa: “Everything I have heard about steroids and human growth hormones is that they are very bad for you, even lethal. I would never put anything dangerous like that in my body. Nor would I encourage other people to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”

Sosa averaged 48 home runs a year in the five years preceding MLB’s new testing program. Last year, he hit 14. He is no longer on a major league roster.

Rafael Palmeiro: “I have never used steroids. Period. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than that.”

“I am against the use of steroids. I don’t think athletes should use steroids and I don’t
think our kids should use them.”

“To the degree an individual player can be helpful, perhaps as an advocate to young people about the dangers of steroids, I hope you will call on us. I, for one, am ready to heed that call.”

Palmeiro was suspended last August after testing positive for steroids. He is no longer on a major league roster.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig: “Major League Baseball has always recognized the influence that our stars can have on the youth of America. As such, we are concerned that recent revelations and allegations of steroid use have sent a terrible message to young people.”

“Baseball’s policy on performance enhancing substances is as good as any in professional sports.”

In February 2005, after reports that Jason Giambi had told the BALCO grand jury that he knowingly used steroids, Giambi apologized in a much-ridiculed press conference. In October, MLB awarded Giambi its Comeback Player of the Year Award. (The award is sponsored by Viagra, for which Palmeiro formerly served as a spokesman.)

Baseball’s drug policy is so porous magazine articles give maps on how to beat it. Testing administered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the organization responsible for testing U.S. Olympic athletes, is far more stringent than the testing done by Major League Baseball.

What’s that old Sun Ra saying? Ah, yes: “A prophet is not without honor except among his own people.” (Fine, fine: Jesus came up with it first. But could Jesis have pulled this off?)

Post Categories: Baseball & Bob Dylan & Bud Selig & Jason Giambi & Jose Canseco & Rafael Palmeiro & Steroids & Sun Ra

Sneak Peeks: ‘This is about winning the World Series.’

June 30th, 2006 → 12:34 am @

This is the fourth in an occasional series of Sneak Peeks from Feeding the Monster. The section below–which is running in honor of Curt Schilling’s tenth win of the season–takes place on November 26 and 28, 2003, the span during which the Red Sox were allowed to negotiate a contract with Schilling. Here, CEO Larry Lucchino, general manager Theo Epstein, and assistant to the general manager Jed Hoyer are at Schilling’s house outside of Phoenix, Arizona, trying to convince the big righthander to agree to a trade that would send him to Boston. (Schilling had initially said he would only agree to trades that would send him to either the Phillies or the Yankees.)

Schilling’s initial wariness was noticeably softening. “The preperation they did in getting ready was big for me,” he says. “It was impressive. It was clear, they’re a very forward-thinking group of guys, and I knew that was going to mesh with what I was trying to do. There was just a lot of common ground.” That night, the Sox made their initial proposal—three years with a club option for a fourth year or four guaranteed years at less money.

Schilling contemplated the offer, pointedly playing with his gaudy World Series ring. “Look,” he said. “You guys are bringing me here for one reason. It’s not to make the playoffs. It’s to get beyond where you were last year and win the World Series. Let’s make that very clear.” Since that was the case, Schilling said, why not build in a World Series clause into his contract: If the team won the championship while he was in Boston, he’d get a raise for every year remaining on the deal. “I don’t want a clause that says, ‘If we make the World Series,'” Schilling said. “This is about winning the World Series. That’s all I care about. That’s what I’d be there for.”

As Hoyer says, “We were like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.'”

As the Red Sox executives were heading back to Schilling’s house on Friday afternoon, they were hopeful they could seal the deal, but they knew that if Schilling didn’t agree to their new offer, they’d have almost no time to renegotiate. When they arrived at Schilling’s house, they presented him with their latest offer. Schilling took the piece of paper on which they had written out all of the specifics–the World Series clause, the award bonuses, the club option–and was silent for several minutes. Finally, he looked up…

What was Schilling’s response to Boston’s initial offer? What was it that sealed the deal? And what were the big righthander’s first impressions of playing in Fenway? Find out the answers to these questions, along with much more about Schilling’s tenure in Boston, in Feeding the Monster, out July 11 from Simon & Schuster.

Post Categories: Baseball & Curt Schilling & Feeding the Monster Sneak Peeks & Larry Lucchino & Red Sox & Theo Epstein

Sneak Peeks: October 16, 2003

June 28th, 2006 → 11:54 pm @

This is the third in an occasional series of Sneak Peeks from Feeding the Monster. The section below takes place on Thursday, October 16, 2003, in the seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

When Pedro Martinez returned to the mound in the eighth inning of Game 7, John Henry felt as if he were watching a horror movie. He knew Martinez was spent; hell, Henry thought, any sentient being watching the game knew the pitcher was cooked. He looked over at [Theo] Epstein, sitting a couple of sections away, and the two men caught each other’s eye. Epstein gave a little shrug, as if to say, “I don’t know what he’s doing out there, either.” Martinez got the first batter to pop up to shortstop, putting Boston five outs away from victory, and a trip to the World Series. Then, in an instant, the Yankees bats began lashing at Martinez’s pitches. Derek Jeter sized up a shoulder-high 0-2 fastball and smacked it into right field, where Trot Nixon misplayed a catchable ball into a double. With Bernie Williams at the plate, even the TV announcers were saying that, regardless of what happened here, Alan Embree would likely come in to face the left-handed Hideki Matsui, who was on deck. Williams hit a sharp single to center, scoring Jeter. 5-3.

Now, finally, Grady Little shuffled out of the dugout and over to the mound, where he conferred with Martinez. In his seat, Henry was beside himself. At least, he reassured himself, there’s still a two-run lead and Martinez was finally coming out of the game. The, inexplicably, Little walked back to the dugout alone, leaving Martinez on the mound to face the dangerous Matsui. Henry turned to Larry Lucchino. “Can we fire [Little] right now?” Henry asked.

What was John Henry’s reaction when the Red Sox lost the game? How did the collapse in Game 7 effect the team’s offseason? Find out the answers to these questions, along with details about Pedro Martinez’s contract negotiations and the fallout after his departure, in Feeding the Monster, out July 11 from Simon & Schuster.

Post Categories: 2003 Playoffs & Baseball & Feeding the Monster Sneak Peeks & Grady Little & John Henry & Larry Lucchino & Pedro Martinez & Red Sox & Theo Epstein

Outtakes: Nomar Garciaparra on being traded to the Cubs

June 25th, 2006 → 11:16 pm @

This is the fourth in a series of outtakes from interviews done for Feeding the Monster, to be published on July 11 by Simon & Schuster. It is the second of three outtakes from this interview with Nomar Garciaparra, which was conducted in Austin, Texas on October 28, 2005. Read the book for exclusive details on Garciaparra’s career with the Red Sox, his reaction to the July 1, 2004 game against the Yankees, and the contract negotiations that began in spring training 2003 and ended on July 31, 2004.

On baseball management: If you lose the guy and then if you say anything great about him then why did you let him go? You should watch who knocks on our door and watch the death threats we get. That’s happened to all these guys—every single one—and when you are in that position and you are supposed to be focused on baseball and you are trying to block this out because all the stuff that is said about you. Probably the biggest problem [for players] was they got no support from the organization. And you see Mo [Vaughn], it was the same thing, and at the end with Roger [Clemens]. If you look, as a player, when you know you were getting all that heat from the media that’s one sided, that any little thing can be taken and run with, it sounded like all of those years when I read about it, when I read [Ted Williams’s] book as well, when I read about other players, when I talked to other players, people were just looking for support from your team. You want them to speak on your behalf, to eliminate some of that stuff. And a lot of times when they finally ask the management about you, and a lot of times its at the end of your contract, so they’re going, ‘Well I’m on the verge of negotiating with the guy and I can’t blow you up’ because if they blow you up so much they have to pay for it.

On whether he wanted to leave Boston: My fiancée at the time, we bought a home that year. I bought two apartments at this new building downtown, two places combined as one, spent over three million dollars on this place. I was like—and this is the discussion between us two, not that I ever let this out—’Well, at least we know we got the 15 million, four-year deal [that Garciaparra rejected before the 2003 season]. We are so close [to coming to an agreement] that even if we don’t get [more money], we are going to sign for that. So we might as well commit to this home.’ Because my wife and I are, shoot, we’re gonna be here for a while so let’s build our home. We are going to make a home here. So we purchased it and we were gung ho, and no one knew, it was just something we did. We didn’t want anybody to know, even though I can’t do anything in that city, I can’t go outside. I am showing my cards when I’m still trying to negotiate with the Red Sox. I knew it was going to come out anyway because I know you can’t do anything in that city without it coming out, so I’m thinking, even if it does come out, boy I’m really just showing my cards. But I’m like, ‘Whatever—I’m happy with this. That is fine, ok. I don’t want to go. I want to be here.’

On his reaction to being traded: It sucked. And then that night I got a phone call from Larry Lucchino. That was the last person I wanted to talk to. He called me that night in the hotel, and said ‘Hey Nomar, how are you doing?’ And I’m going, ‘I feel great. Just fine, I don’t want to talk to you right now, I’ve got a hundred phone calls and it’s all over.’ All my friends are going, ‘What’s going on?’ And I’m calling my family. And it sucks because I can’t call my wife because we are in different time zones. And I have to pack and now I gotta figure where I’m going tomorrow, because I have to play in Chicago. And there are just a million emotions going on and I don’t want to talk to the people who just got rid of me, who just changed my life in an instant. That’s what it felt like.

Post Categories: Baseball & Feeding the Monster Outtakes & Larry Lucchino & Nomar Garciaparra