Thursday, June 21, 2012

Westbrook Dilemma Solved - But What Took So Long?

When Cardinals' veteran hurler Jake Westbrook began the season pitching like Cy Young, I thought he had discovered some mysterious new technique; maybe a new mental approach to pitching, which translated to a remarkably low ERA and WHIP, which of course, translated into wins.

Not exactly.  His early season success seems to be based on something quite simple - an extra day's rest. Yesterday, when he pitched brilliantly against a formidable Detroit Tigers team, he was working on five day's rest; not the customary four day's rest.  So far this season, Jake has made thirteen starts - seven have been with five day's rest; six with four day's rest.  Six starts.  Four day's rest.  In those six starts, Jake has managed to win one game, posting an ERA of 6.00.

By contrast, when given five day's rest - like he had in yesterday's win over those Tigers - he has won five games, posting an ERA of 2.50.  The net effect for Westbrook and the Cardinals has been six wins and six losses.  Okay.  Maybe I'm being a little picky, but I'm trying to understand why it has taken so long to come to the conclusion that this guy should work all of his games on five day's rest.

At least I hope that's the conclusion Mike Matheny has reached.  I don't know.  Maybe he'll test the "four day's rest" theory in July or August, just to make sure Jake is still ineffective with one less day to rest up. What's another game to toss into the loss column?  Big deal.  The NL Central offers no challenge as it stands.  Let's give the Reds and even the Pirates a fighting chance to win the division title.  It's only fair.  They hardly ever win.

Actually, I don't really want to give any team in the division a fighting chance.  I want the Cardinals to win every game they play.  I want them to dominate the rest of the division; the rest of MLB.  I want them to win another World Series championship.  I got spoiled after last year's miracle run.  It's a lot more fun to win.  Since winning isn't so easy, no matter how much talent a team possesses, I don't think it's a good idea to throw away a half dozen games - in essence, giving the other team another 3.5 runs per game - just for the hell of it.

So yes; I'm glad the Cardinals won a game.  In the process, it seems like the Jake Westbrook dilemma has been solved by allowing him to pitch on five day's rest; not four.  I just can't quite understand why it took so long to figure this out.

Thank you for allowing me to vent; I feel better.  I don't even know if the Cardinals won or lost today.  It was 1-1 in the fifth-inning.  If they lost; so be it.  Maybe they'll keep winning most of the games a well-rested Jake Westbrook starts, going forward.  That would be a nice way to get back into first place, where they belong.

Believe it or not, I feel better about the Cardinals' postseason prospects now.  Yeah.  12 in '12, baby.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Expect Justin Verlander to Throw a No-Hitter vs Cards

It's been ages since we've had a no-hitter/perfect game in MLB.  What's it been?  A week?  Actually, it's been almost a whole week since Matt Cain's perfect game against the Houston Astros - the 22nd in MLB history; although it seems like there have been 22 just in the past couple of years.  Let's not forget that number should really be 23, but a blown call at first base cost then-Tigers' pitcher Armando Gallaraga from joining the elite club in 2010.  Apparently, the disappointment of not getting credit for recording that last out has weighed heavily on Gallaraga; he hasn't pitched effectively since that close call; in fact, he's not even with the Tigers, nor is he even in the major leagues anymore.  Easy come, easy go, Armando.

I usually don't make these type of predictions, but it seems to me Justin Verlander is due for another no-hitter.  He hasn't had one in over a year, for crying out loud!  Of course, the Cardinals were just vicimized on June 1 by Johan Santana - the first time they've suffered that fate since Fernando Valenzuela no-hit them on June 29, 1990, at Dodger Stadium.  But let's face it; the Redbirds are really in a funk these days, so it would be no surprise if they were held completely in check by Verlander tonight.  Maybe even a perfect game, although that's a bit of a stretch.  The Cards are a disciplined team at the dish; even though they strike out a lot, they also draw more than their fair share of bases on balls.

With all due respect to Santana, Verlander's stuff is far more imposing.  How many pitchers can throw 100 mph fastballs, 90 mph change of paces, and mix in more than a few sharp breaking curve balls reminiscent of Bert Blyleven in his prime?  The answer:  Nobody.

The Redbirds have their ace going tonight - Lance Lynn, looking for win number 11.  If he weren't facing Verlander, he might have a good shot at it.  Not tonight, Lance.  Maybe you'll get a no-decision; but shutting the Tigers out for a full nine innings is nearly impossible; at least it hasn't happened in 134 straight games, but who's counting?

To be honest with you; I'm trying to jinx Verlander by making this outlandish prediction; anything to shake things up for the struggling Redbirds.  Unfortunately, I don't think my strategy is going to work.

Verlander is due for a no-hitter; MLB is due for a no-hitter; and the Cardinals don't seem to be hitting very well these days.  This could be Detroit's perfect storm, tonight.  Maybe even a perfect game?  I'm sure Verlander would love to get into that club which Kate Upton oversees.  Who could blame him?  Tonight could be the night, Justin.  For sure, you'll get no-hitter number three.  No doubt about it.

***UPDATE:  Verlander's no-hitter was broken up in the first inning by Cards' DH Matt Holliday, who prior to Tuesday night, was hitting under .150 as a DH in his career.  Go figure.  Verlander got an easy win, however, allowing just five hits and one earned run in 8 innings of work, as the Cards went down to defeat, by a score of 6-3 (2 of the runs the Redbirds scored were unearned).  Lance Lynn had a tough outing, allowing a career high five runs, as his record fell to 10-3.  Big deal.  St Louis trails the Cincinnati Reds by 4.5 games, and second-place Pittsburgh by two games.  For the record, St Louis trailed the Atlanta Braves by that same 4.5 game margin on September 11, 2011, in pursuit of the wild card berth; which they eventually nailed down, en route to the 11th World Series title in franchise history.  It's hard to get worked up about such trivial deficits this early in the season.  I'm just glad the Cardinals avoided that no-hitter on Tuesday night.

Monday, June 11, 2012

No-Hit Oddities: Featuring Cards, Dodgers & A's

Did you know...Prior to Johan Santana's no-hitter against the Cardinals on June 1, the last time a defending World Series champion was victimized by a no-hitter:  June 11, 1990 - Texas Rangers' Nolan Ryan no-hit the Oakland A's at the Coliseum; final score:  5-0.  Ryan walked two and struck out 14, improving his record to 5-3.  The A's went on to play in the World Series that year, but were somehow  swept by the Cincinnati Reds in four games.

Strangely enough, the 1973 World Champion A's were no-hit in on July 19, 1974 by Cleveland's Dick Bosman in front of 24,302 screaming Cleveland fans, by a final score of 4-0.  In a game that only took 1:56 to complete, Bosman struck out 4 and walked none, while improving his record to 2-0.  Bosman's own 4th-inning throwing error allowed the only runner of the game to reach base for Oakland, depriving himself of a perfect game.  The A's shrugged off the loss, and went on to play in the World Series that year, beating the LA Dodgers in six games.

The year prior, the defending World Series champion A's (who else?) were no-hit at home on July 30, 1973 by the Texas Rangers' Jim Bibby; final score:  6-0.  Bibby walked six and struck out thirteen, as he improved his record to 5-6.  And yes, Oakland went on to play in the World Series that year, beating the New York Mets in seven games.

Prior to that, the last time a defending World Series champion was no-hit:  September 17, 1968 - At Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Giants' Gaylord Perry beat Bob Gibson and the St Louis Cardinals, by a score of 1-0.  The Giants scored their lone run in the first inning, and Perry made it stand up as he improved his record to 15-14; walking two and fanning nine.  Gibby was nearly as good, allowing just four hits in eight innings of work; walking two and fanning ten, as his record fell to 21-8.  The Cards went on to lose the World Series that year, as Gibson lost Game Seven to Mickey Lolich and the Detroit Tigers, 4-1.

Prior to that, the last time a defending World Series champion failed to get a hit:  October 8, 1956 -  Game Five of the 1956 World Series - Don Larsen retired all 27 Brooklyn Dodgers at Yankee Stadium, as  New York won the game by a 2-0 score.  Larsen struck out seven, including pinch hitter Dale Mitchell on a called third strike to end the perfect game.  The Yankees also won the Series, but it took seven games to dethrone the Dodgers.

Speaking of the Dodgers...The last two times they won the World Series, they also happened to be no-hit during the regular season each time.  Believe it or not!  On September 26, 1981, the Houston Astros' Nolan Ryan held LA hitless at the Astrodome; final score:  5-0.  Ryan walked three and struck out eleven, improving his record to 10-5, while lowering his ERA to 1.74.  LA advanced to the World Series in that strike-shortened season, and finally beat their primary nemesis - the New York Yankees - in six games.

Then on September 16, 1988, Cincinnati's Tom Browning was perfect - 27 up and 27 down - in beating LA at Riverfront Stadium; final score:  1-0.  Browning threw exactly 100 pitches in the game, while  recording seven strikeouts, as his record improved to 16-5.  The "hitless wonder"-Dodgers advanced to the World Series; shocking the "Bash Brother"-Oakland A's in five games.

Proving that being victimized by a no-hitter is really no guarantee to winning the World Series for LA; Dennis Martinez of the Montreal Expos pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers - at Dodger Stadium - on July 28, 1991, striking out five in the process.  El Presidente threw 96 pitches in the game, improving his record to 11-6.  The Dodgers failed to make it to the postseason that time, finishing second in the National League West.

Whereas the Dodgers are hoping their most recent no-hit loss last Friday evening in Seattle will somehow lead them back to their first World Series title in twenty-four years, the Cardinals are hoping to keep the other streak alive, which currently stands at five (including the '56 World Series).  That's how many consecutive times a defending World Series champion has managed to at least make it back to the Fall Classic after succumbing to a no-hitter.  Counting the postseason, the defending champs are 2-3 in those unusual situations.

Of course, the Redbirds would like to improve that record to 3-3, as they hope to defy the postseason odds just one more time this year.  Actually, I seriously doubt anybody in the world is even aware of this unique oddity; although now you know.

Do you love Cardinals trivia as much as I do?  I'm the author of St Louis Cardinals IQ - The Ultimate Test of True Fandom - Volumes I & II (see below):

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is Beast Mode to Blame for MLB's Rash of Injuries?

One hundred years ago, baseball was a rough and tumble game, played by tough guys named Honus, Ty, Tris, Stuffy, and Buck.  They were underpaid by unappreciative owners who had complete control over their easily replaceable commodities.  If they got hurt and were unable to play for any extended period of time, they didn't get paid; not too surprisingly, these guys hardly ever missed a game.

When the season ended, these early baseball pioneers usually went back to the farm or the factory, to make ends meet until the the next Spring, when they hoped to continue their playing careers for at least one more year.  They stayed in shape during the off-season, baling hay, working in the mines, or picking cotton.  The weight room wasn't part of the regimen.  Beast Mode would have to wait for another century.

As the years went on, the game became a bit more refined and the players made a bit more money, but when the season came to a close, they were soon back home trying to make a buck doing whatever they could.  The big-name players might find a nice off-season gig working at a car dealership, or selling insurance.  Anything to keep the paychecks coming.

As the game progressed, the revenues increased and eventually players started getting a bigger cut of the action.  Free agent contracts became increasingly more lucrative for the players; more costly for the owners; more outlandish in the eyes of millions of fans who still have to work for a living.

The pressure for the players to stand out from their peers probably had a lot to do with the advent of the Steroids Era.  Home run records fell, much to the delight of fans everywhere.  Chicks may dig the long ball, but Congressional hearings dug up the dirt on widespread steroid use involving many big-name players.  Scandal forced MLB to adopt a random drug testing program, which has no doubt discouraged the use of performance enhancing drugs; a positive test now results in a fifty-game suspension for the offending party; assuming no chain-of-custody irregularities somehow come into play.

While obscure loopholes may exist to get an offending party off the hook, the vast majority of MLB players aren't taking any chances with the juice; instead, they're pumping themselves up the old-fashioned, Beast Mode way.  But have too many players taken Beast Mode a bit too far?  Has all this weight lifting caused far too many cases of tight muscles which become easily strained when players are constantly swinging for the fences?  Or when they accelerate a bit too quickly out of the box trying to leg out an infield hit; or going from first to third, or trying to score from second on a sharp single to right field?  I certainly think so.

This past Spring Training, when 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper was trying to make the Opening Day roster of the Washington Nationals, he was hampered by a bit of "tightness" in his calf.  I wonder if that condition may have possibly been the result of those famous heavy-duty leg squats he can be seen performing on You-Tube?  There's no doubt about it; the kid's an animal; a five tool player with incredible upside potential, if he can keep the calves from tightening up too much.

Speaking of You-Tube sensations; Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes put on quite a weight-lifting show as well, among other things, which no doubt got him a nice major league contract with the Oakland A's.  When he's been in the lineup, he's been a big catalyst; however, a muscle strain in his left hand landed him on the DL from May 7 to June 1, and a srained left hamstring on June 7 has him sidelined again; at least for a while.  After the injury, a somber Oakland analyst lamented, "He's built so tight; such a strong-body kid."

Speaking of strong-bodied catalysts; there's no doubt Dodgers' slugger Matt Kemp was more than just a bit Beast Mode-motivated heading into the 2012 MLB season.  But did all those 6 am workouts do more harm than good; especially for the legs?  A recurring left hamstring strain has him on the DL for the second time, and will more than likely cost the NL's best hitter - when he's able to play - what seemed to be a certain MVP Award this year.  As it stands, in just 36 games he had already whacked 12 home runs - a 54 home run pace over a full 162-game season.  Obviously, the Dodgers could use that type of production in the lineup on a regular basis; maybe he could have mustered a hit or two Friday night in Seattle.  As it stands, LA became the latest no-hit victim of 2012 - the fourth, overall.

The last time I checked, strained obliques and strained hamstrings are currently the leading cause of disabling injuries for MLB, followed closely by strained groins and strained backs.  Wherever there are tight muscles, there are plenty of issues; strained calves, shoulders, quadriceps, pectorals, and lats have wreaked plenty of havoc, as well.  How much of this is the result of overdoing the Beast Mode routine?  I don't know, but I have a feeling it's more than anybody would care to admit; at least publicly.

I know there are "strength and conditioning" specialists on most teams; maybe they need to place a little less emphasis on the "strength" portion of the job description, and more on "conditioning".  It couldn't hurt.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Odds Not in Favor of No-Hit Cardinals

When the St Louis Cardinals were no-hit by Johan Santana of the New York Mets last Friday night (June 1), they became the first defending World Series champion to suffer that fate since Nolan Ryan (Texas Rangers) turned the trick against Tony LaRussa's Oakland A's, on June 11, 1990.  The Redbirds also became the twentieth MLB team to be no-hit in the current millennium, and the third already in 2012.

Out of the previous seventeen no-hit victims, six went on to play in the postseason (five division champions and one wild card).  Generally speaking, these playoff-bound teams were playing consistently well shortly before - and after - they were no-hit; unlike the Cardinals, who have been struggling for quite some time now.

Below is a summary of each team's remarkably consistent won-loss record - five games before the no-hitter - and five games after, along with their final won-loss record:

                                   W-L RECORD         W-L RECORD        OVERALL    
 Date        Team       5 GAMES PRIOR    5 GAMES AFTER    W-L RECORD  Final Standings

04/27/03      SF                      3-2                           3-2                     100-61             1st-NL West
06/11/03      NYY                   3-2                            4-1                     101-61             1st-AL East
05/18/04      ATL                    3-2                            3-2                      96-66             1st-NL East
04/17/10      ATL                    3-2                            2-3                      91-71            2nd - NL East*
05/09/10      TB                     2-3                            3-2                        96-66            1st-AL East
06/25/10      TB                     4-1                            3-2                       
10/06/10      CIN (NLDS)        3-2                            3-2**                     91-71          1st-NL Cent

Combined Totals:                21-14 (.600)             21-14 (.600)         575-396 (.592)
*NL Wild Card team (2010)
**2 losses occurred in postseason

Despite their overall success, none of these teams would go on to win the World Series, although the Yankees at least made it to the Fall Classic in 2003 - losing to the Florida Marlins in six games.  The remaining eleven teams that have been no-hit since 2000 (prior to 2012) had a composite won-loss record of 1221-1368 (.472); in other words, there was a good reason they were no-hit at least once* - they weren't very good!  Adding to that tradition of losing will more than likely include two teams that were no-hit earlier this year - the Seattle Mariners** (25-32) and the Minnesota Twins (21-33).

*Tampa Bay leads MLB's no-hit wonder list since 2000 (4 times), followed by San Diego (3 times).  Two-time losers include Baltimore, Atlanta, and the Chicago White Sox (Somehow, the Cubs have dodged the 21st century no-hit jinx).

**Actually, Seattle fell victim to Chicago White Sox hurler, Phil Humber's perfect game.

Whether it's merely coincidental that the playoff-bound no-hit victims were playing .600 ball, five games before and after the big event; which is consistent with their overall composite winning percentage (.592); but the Cardinals have been playing quite poorly as of late.  Injuries have played a large role in their recent slide; however, if they expect to qualify for postseason play, they've got to figure out a way to keep their key players in the lineup on a regular basis, going forward.

Otherwise, they're going to join the rest of the 21st century no-hit bunch - out of the postseason; hoping for better luck next year.