Astros Over-Achieved in 2018

While it is only a few days since the defending World Champion Houston Astros were eliminated from the 2018 MLB post season by the Boston Red Sox it is time to realize that the club actually had more success during the year than they should have.

On paper before the season coupled with the results may require some real thought. But the fact is, the Astro team that came out of spring training was not the same one that played most of the year and still set a club record with 103 wins.  Because they did it having to play much of the season without a number of key players.

The fact that the system was stacked with enough competent back ups and that the vaunted starting pitching rotation remained intact for at least three quarters of the year allowed that record to be set.  But as long seasons go into the final weeks pitchers tire.  The arms of Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton finally needed some rest.  And key regular players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, Brian McCann and Jose Altuve had to miss much time and some still felt the effects of injury to the final pitch in the post season.

Toss in that others like Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick both dropped from .300 hitters with power to .240-.250 hitters with less power and the fact the club was able to win so many regular season games is amazing.

A full strength Astro team that was able to provide offense as in 2017  combined with a much improved pitching staff in 2018 WOULD have won even more than 103 games and would be heading to the World Series again.

It was not to be.  And when they lost in the ALCS they lost to a Boston team that won 108 games and played better than the Astros did in the five games.

Many bemoan this play or that play as being the difference in the Astros losing some of the games in the ALCS.  They may be correct, but the fact remains the OTHER team, Boston, made the plays. They got enough big two out RBI hits to make the Astros pitching look less than average.  The Astros were either unlucky or unable to make enough of theirs.  That is what happens in baseball. And it is usually the better team that is making those plays.  When a club loses four straight something is not going right and its not just umpires calls or short fences.

A fully healthy Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve might have been enough to push the Astros and not the Red Sox over the finish line even with the below par pitching results.   We will never know.  But wasn’t that the great line of former pitcher Joaquin Andujar when asked about the game and he replied, “There is one word to describe baseball, youneverknow!”

We all know that hope will return in the spring when the Astros report to camp.  It will be justified.  And youneverknow.

 

 

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Was Baseball a Better Game Before Analytics?

While it may seem almost sacrilegious to suggest what I have in the headline, one must wonder.  And this is not just an effort to start a discussion.  I really wonder.

Why?  Well first of all major league baseball is on a pace to draw fewer than 70-million fans to the ballparks for the first time since 2003.  Weather problems early in the year, a significant disparity in success with a higher than expected number of teams, the availability of nearly all games on television and higher ticket prices for fans are all factors certainly.  But could the game itself be a problem?

The question is whether following decisions from where to play defenders to how long pitchers should stay in games to how hitters approach their at bats are more and more being defined by what analytics have “proven.”

I put “proven” in quotes because they really haven’t proven anything but have mathematically determined from past occurrences what has happened the most.  The analytic concept has crept into the game in even more ways.  No longer is striking out shameful as it once was.  The object is to hit home runs because they are automatic runs.  Simple singles require two or three to score a run.  The home run is the three point shot of baseball.  Its worth more.

Never mind that like the three point shot in basketball hitting a home run has a much lower percentage of happening than getting a single the result is a whole lot of nothing between the still somewhat rare home run. Toss in watching umpires trudge over to get the word from New York whether a replay shows a call was correct or not and we have more ammunition against seeing the game in the flesh.  Even the artificial excitement of a player or manager disagreeing with a call is gone.  Everyone knows the replay will show what happened.

Batters all over MLB are striking out at an unprecedented rate.  When the season is over there may be more strikeouts recorded than hits.  That has never happened before in professional baseball’s 147 year history.  And to make it worse those strikeouts are taking too many pitches to achieve.  Except for the actual pitches thrown there is too much “nothing going on” in too many MLB games in 2018.

Then when a ball is hit it often heads right into a strongly over shifted defense and even then what once was a sure base hit is a routine ground ball.  But you can’t blame the hitters for not bunting or learning to “go the other way” because they are supposed to be hitting home runs.  Analytically, it may be sensible to position defenders there or go for home runs, but it is not a good game to view and sell to potential new fans.

The object of all games is to win.  Using analytical information is the legal form of throwing spit balls, relaying signs from the scoreboard, swinging a corked bat or using performance enhancing drugs.  The problem is that it often makes for a dull game.

The analytics years ago started to prove that pitchers tended to be less effective after they reached the 100 pitch mark.  There was a time when hitters swung the bat and pitchers threw strikes and when starting pitchers could throw a complete game in just over 100 pitches and maybe 125 at the most.  Then they would start again just four days later.  Now we have five starters and the extra rest has not seemed to have any effect.  Pitcher’s still rarely go more than 100 pitches.  But it usually takes them no more than six or seven innings to reach that number.

Some say that occurs because pitchers from the past knew-how to pace themselves and were more conscious of keeping hitters off balance, but swinging the bat. Now everyone seems to be trying to out-think the opposition as much or more than simply out playing them. Hitters take more pitches and as a result of video and analytic print outs seem to have a great knowledge of what to expect in every at bat. In addition to taking a lot of balls that miss the strike zone they also take a lot of strikes that are seemingly hittable within it.

Now a caution here is that it must be acknowledged there are more pitchers in baseball now who can throw fast balls at 95+ miles and hour and certainly more that can exceed 100 than in any time in the history of the game.  A drop off in offense–even without extreme shifting is expected.

Having said that some of the great fireballers of the past like Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan were always bothered more by slap hitting low power players and the hitters that had a so-called “two strike approach” at the plate where they emphasized eye-hand co-ordination to protect the plate, shorten the swing and just try for contact. The big swingers were like today.  Hit or miss.  Mostly miss.

Is there not room for compromise between analytics and instinct?  A hitter as noted as Mike Trout is aware of what the numbers how and how he has done by a particular pitcher but approaches each at bat as a new experience.  In a Sports Illustrated interview in 2018 he indicated his approach is to know in what areas of the strike zone he covers the best and only go after pitches headed there.  He is always set for a fast ball, but aware of what else the pitcher throws.  He keeps it that simple.  With two strikes he attempts to make hard contact and nothing more.

As good as Trout is nothing works all the time.  He strikes out a lot.  But he also hits many home runs without sacrificing a batting average usually well over .300. Analytic information is a source, but not the guiding principle for Trout.

If your favorite team is a winner none of this piece may concern you much.  You are happy.  But if your team is mired down in the standings and going to a game just doesn’t seem as much fun, you are not alone.  MLB attendance figures show that. In total the problem is not that games take too long but rather that they are not just played anymore, but have to do what the analytics tells them to do.  It will remain strikeouts, home runs, fewer multi hit rallies and fewer defensive plays required.

Should a team win a pennant and World Series without using many radical shifts and a pitching staff that has great control but not blessed with high strikeout totals and shows how to win with few home runs but a number of hitters with good batting averages who strike out little, perhaps the current trend will back off a bit.

Fans should not expect it to happen soon.  Analytic baseball is what is being played right now.  How soon it captures the fancy of the average Joe will go a long way toward putting more folks in the seats.  Baseball is a game.  While winning is the ultimate goal it is still a game that is supposed to be fun to watch win or lose.  Let us not lose sight of that.

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Re-Alignment or Destruction of MLB?

Much has been written in recent years about some in baseball desiring to not only change, the way the game is played with safety rules, speed up rules, reliance on analytic statistics, a future with robotic ball-strike calls, replay and the making the DH universal in MLB.

Now, if that isn’t enough the commissioner has suggested adding two teams to bring MLB to a total of 32 and dividing them into two leagues (presumably still using the names American and National) but having little similarity to the combinations we have been used to for decades. Both AL and NL would be divided into at least two divisions and maybe as many as four.

What two cities could be expansion candidates?  Montreal, Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Salt Lake City have all been bandied around as possibilities.  Maybe even a third team in the New York metro area?

We are still perhaps a few years away from the owners of two new teams to come forward or even to be sure some of those cities won’t first be taken by current clubs re-locating to them.  However, what ever they do geographical concerns should be a prime consideration.

I am speaking mainly for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros who are playing up to 30 of their games two time zones away from home.  Both teams are located in the Central Time Zone.  No other teams in baseball are forced to play so many times two time zones from their own.  Everyone plays some road games two or more than two time zones away, but in this unbalanced schedule era no one more than than the Rangers and Astros in their own division.

There are only two solutions.  Make the two additional franchises added to get to the magic 32 in the Pacific or Mountain time zones OR add one in each and realign both leagues and all divisions.

Here are some options.  For want of discussion lets consider the “new” National League having sixteen teams with two divisions of eight teams each.  Maybe one is called the West and the other the Central.  The American League would have a Midwest and Eastern division of eight teams each.  And this is where the protests would come.  No longer would New York or Chicago, Los Angeles or the Bay area all have one team from each league.  Everyone geographically would be in the same league and possibly division. In the new NL the New York and Florida teams could at least be in different divisions.  The NL East would have one New York team, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Toronto, Atlanta, Washington and one of the Florida teams. The NL Midwest would feature the other New York team,  Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Montreal, Cincinnati, Chi Cubs and a Florida team.

The new AL Central would feature the White Sox, Cardinals, Brewers, Royals, Rangers, Astros and Twins and Rockies.

The new AL West would have the Dodgers, Angels, A’s, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Diamondbacks, and a new team (Las Vegas, Portland, Vancouver, etc)

No one would play in a division more than one time zone away from home.  Yankees and Mets would be in same league, but different divisions.  White Sox and Cubs would remain in separate leagues but in the West the LA-area and SF-area teams would have to play in the same league and division.

The post season could be determined by the four division winners plus wild cards with how many to be determined.

There are holes in this plan, but from this corner there is no perfect option if any radical re-alignment is considered.  And it seems it IS being considered. Let the arguments begin!

 

 

 

 

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Astros Keep Adding Legendary Moments

Just when you thought the Houston Astros 2017 season capped by winning the World Series was as good as things could get the team started playing the 2018 season.  That means more Astro Legends!

The significance of that last sentence is because I am writing a book with that title that will feature stories from the Houston baseball past that will include great memorable moments, star players of yore, unique games, the majesty that was (is) the Astrodome and a whole lot more.

Even before we finish this season and do battle in the post season there have been legendary feats that are being added to the book.

How about Gerrit Cole’s 16 strikeout one hit complete game in Phoenix earlier this season? Or how about the games in which Alex Bregman has won games in the last inning…some with singles, some with doubles, some with home runs or even pop ups and five foot grounders?  Those are certainly legendary.  And oh yes, how about his and other Astros feats in the 2018 All Star Game?

George Springer’s six hit game goes into the books as an Astro Legend…maybe even the game where Josh Reddick drove in three runs and saved two more by snatching a ball to keep it from being a homer?

I can tell you this is going to be a great book for fans even if I did write it!  I wanted to keep the number of events at the same number for most wins all time in an Astro regular season.  Right now we are at 102, but even that mark may be surpassed by the 2018 Astros.  Still will be some editing to do!

The publisher wants to have the book ready by early November if the Astros would be fortunate to win another World Series.  If not, next spring would likely be the publication date.  I figure to be busy in October putting in the final touches and re-arranging some of the items.  The idea is I rank legends in order.  That is an impossible task to have all agree with.  I’ll give it a shot and then let the debates begin.  Right now I have the team winning the World Series in 2017 at number one with several happenings in that series among the top ten. That list includes two memorable games from the Series plus some individual feats within the games.  But who knows, perhaps some heroic action from this year might also crack the top ten.  A repeat could certainly create some options. There is always room for more.

 

 

 

 

 

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Same Formula: 3 Sports

Watching the Houston Rockets- Golden State Warriors NBA Western Conference Final on Monday night and the comparisons hit me.  Some teams in the NBA (Golden State and Houston most specifically) have been using a style of play that recalls the days of the “Run and Shoot” offense in the NFL and the current “Home Run or Nothing” style currently in vogue in MLB.

All three sports feel going for the big shot, big play or big hit supersedes playing their games that way it evolved over decades.  The numbers tell ’em to do it.

When playing that all or nothing style works, offenses can be very impressive.  When it doesn’t, teams can look like they don’t know how to play the game at all.  The numbers as crunched by statistics mavens show the reward outweighs the risk.

Yet, most fans wish their favorite teams had a fall back plan when things aren’t going so well.  For decades the phrase “Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword” has been changed in sports to “Live by the Pass, Die by the Pass” or “Live by the Jump Shot, Die by the Jump Shot.”  Baseball probably needs its own variation now, “Live by the Home Run, Die by the Strikeout.”

The point is that while throwing passes which all have a greater chance to be longer gainers than running plays does analytically look good and make sense, what happens on those days when the quarterback is missing targets, receivers have butter fingers or the weather is inclement?  Does the same team have a running game they can use as a fall back?  In the Run and Shoot days–which have passed in the NFL– the answer was always, “no.”  To run the offense well teams no longer carried tight ends, replacing them with extra receiver.  Running backs were mostly blockers, but were used when defenses started falling back too much to protect deeper regions.  They could occasionally have big runs or even big games, but were not hard to defense if a run and shoot team started to try to run too much.  There weren’t enough blockers on the field.  Run and Shoot teams could never run out the clock.  They couldn’t keep a drive going only on the ground.

The run and shoot evolved into a spread offense that has some of the same principles, but included a tight end and an offense that did not try to throw the ball on every down.  That was a wise decision.

Can the NBA follow suit?  At times the NBA game is very ugly to watch.  The emphasis on the three point shot instead of simply having the three point shot as an option is again the result of analytics.  Three points is better than two is obvious, but the sacrifice is a lower field goal percentage, more missed shots and potentially more possessions for the opposing team after those missed.  Analytics say the advantage is still with the three point shooting team.  The catch is basic.  Like the run and shoot football team whose quarterback needs to be on target so do three point shooting teams need to hit the right percentage of attempts.  Two for six provides the same points a 3 for 6 in two point shots.  Anything less than hitting 33% of three pointers can be counter productive especially when considering that each miss results in a rebound and defensive rebounders tend to out number offensive rebounders by a large margin.

But the major problem with shooting three pointers is not having much else with the offense.  When shots are not falling or closely contested teams need other options at least for awhile until things open up again.  Many don’t.  They may have players capable to going one-on-one but that often results in everyone else standing around waiting for an emergency pass from the one on one practitioner when things break down.  Or, it results a forced shot as the clock is about to expire.  That is not efficient and is certainly not pleasing for the fans.  Having a play call for a motion offense with movement of both ball and player would be pleasing.  However, sometimes the wrong players are on the court for that to be a viable option. Most three point heavy teams don’t practice that option.  Rotating spots behind the three point line is considered a play.  A two man pick and roll can be a fine play, but it is not one that can be run excessively since it can be defended.

Right now teams in the NBA that use the analytically approved three point shot at the primary weapon are faced with having some games…or stretches of games when the shots don’t fall and they play very poorly.  Then again, when the shot is going in the world is nothing but roses.  The Golden State Warriors have won multiple championships with the three point shot the single most key part of their offense.  During the regular season of 2015-2016 they set a record with 73 wins and Houston led the NBA with 65 regular season wins this season.  So, moaning about the games when reliance on the three point shot did not work is not really fair, but is still fodder to feel teams that successful should have other weapons in their arsenals.

That brings us to the current state of major league baseball.  A recent news story pointed out that hitting singles is dying.  Extra base hits or strike outs are taking over the batters box.  Certainly bunting for a base hit has been dead for years which is a shame since with the extreme shifts used defensively against many left handed hitters a simple–not even good- bunt to the third base side is a nearly certain base hit.  Swinging the bat can’t come close to having the odds of a hit as good as that simple tap.

Ah, but you can NEVER hit a home run by bunting.  Swinging the bat you always have a chance even though with even the best hitters it is not that great.

And while hitting the ball works better than missing it entirely, the same philosophy applies.  When you swing you MIGHT hit a home run.  When you walk you have no chance.  So, you take a big whack.  After striking out, you wind up walking back to the dugout about three to four times more than you circle the bases after  hitting a home run, but like the three point shot or the pass on every down you had a chance for the big one.  Being “out” instead of hitting home run is in at least the 10-1 range or more.  And that is for a hitter with 500 ABs and 50 HR which is quite rare.  Actual odds are double that for most.

The analytic folks say going for the “big one” makes sense in the total picture, but it has made the games different and on bad days not very entertaining.

In baseball strike outs are way up.  Home runs are up, too.  The defensive alignments and hitting philosophy are not totally responsible for the strike outs.  The average pitcher in major league baseball has a higher velocity fastball than any time in history.  Even so, fewer teams play “small ball” to manufacture runs which to some would be he way to counter all this heat.  Shorter swings, going for contact, moving runners would all seem the way to go.  Instead we get lots of strikeouts, fewer fielding plays and the occasional home run.

All sports run in cycles.  The NFL seems to have found a balance.  Will the NBA and MLB follow?  I hope so.  I hate incomplete passes, missed three point shots and strikeouts!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kokomo’s Professional Baseball Champion

After the 1961 baseball season professional baseball departed Kokomo, Indiana, after seven seasons.  The team was always on the lowest rung of pro ball–the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1955 and the Class D Midwest League the other six seasons.

During those years the club was known as the Kokomo Giants in 1955, although not a full affiliate of the New York Giants, but with an agreement to take some of their players.

Lucky for Kokomo that season because the greatest player ever to pass through the gates of Highland Park Stadium, Orlando “Zippo” Cepeda was on that team.  After the 17 year old played his season and compiled a .393 batting average with 21 home runs and 93 runs batted in his future was secure.  He would star for the San Francisco Giants on the way to compiling a Hall of Fame major league career.  When he got to the majors he would lose the nickname, “Zippo” and move from third base to first base.  But he never forgot his season in Kokomo, the nickname or the people who took a young Puerto Rican who way away from home for the first time with minimal English language skills under their wings.

Cepeda’s manager was a veteran pro named Walt Dixon who urged Orlando not to give up.  He had real talent.  Another influence was a woman named Ludy Brown.  She was the woman in whose home Cepeda had taken residence.  Years later in an interview with Orlando I conducted after an Old Timers game in Arlington Cepeda told me how important “Mama Ludy” was in helping his get through his first season.  When Cepeda’s father died during the season and he could not go back to Puerto Rico for the funeral she consoled the heart-broken youngster

Mama Ludy was important to a number of Kokomo pros.  The second most successful Kokomo player was Tommy Davis.  He joined the team two years after Cepeda had been in Kokomo with the franchise now known as the Kokomo Dodgers and a full affiliate of the big team still in Brooklyn.

Davis even after achieving major league success including winning two National League batting titles never forgot her.  When she died in 1962 Davis was sure to sent a card and flowers for all she did for him when he was only 18.

While Kokomo’s years in professional baseball were relatively short the team developed some fan favorites who played more than one year for the club.  Paul Abraham and Napoleon Savinon made up the middle infield for more than one year.  Don Miles was a personable young slugger in the franchise’s 1956 season.  He was one of eleven Kokomo players to spend at least some time on a big league roster.  Cepeda and Davis were the most successful, but names like Tim Harkness and Mike Brumley also played a number of games.

Kokomo’s 1957 team was the most successful.  Although they lost in the post season playoffs they were the first and only Kokomo champion–winning the regular season title.  Managed by former Brooklyn Dodger phenom, Pete Reiser, they were 77-50 with Davis, Bruce Cranshaw and Buddy Wilson making up the outfield.  Harkness was at first base with Abraham and Savinon covering the middle.  Lee Ferrera played  third  with Brumley doing much of the catching. When he didn’t catch Bob Ford did.  The pitching staff was headed by lefty Emmy Unzicker who won 20 games including 15 complete games and a 3.03 ERA…Eddie Picker who was 16-3 with a 1.84 earned run average , veteran Jack Cohen was 12-15 with a high 5.10 ERA, but ate innings.  And Bourbon “Teacup” Wheeler added a 9-5 record with a 3.84ERA.

Even so, the offense was the star of the club.  Davis hit .357 with 17HR, 104 RBIs and a whopping 68 stolen bases!  Harkness hit .349 with 14HR and 74RBIs while Ferrera added 14 homers with 79 RBIs while batting .270.  He also stole 17 bases.  Cranshaw hit 13 HR and drove in 75 runs while batting .266.  Five players had double figure stolen bases and four players had double figures in home runs.

During part of the season local hero Clyde Cox–one of the famed Cox family–was with the club.

After 1957 the team never really challenged to be a power in the league and only four more players from the last four years of the franchise would reach the majors…none for very much action.

Now, however, with all the high school action, the college summer league team and the new Indiana University-Kokomo baseball program getting to play in Kokomo’s pride and joy downtown ballpark the sport in the city is in great hands.  We must not forget the past, but can always look forward to a great future.

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Astro Icons Overjoyed with World Series Win!

Source: Astro Icons Overjoyed with World Series Win!

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