In Baseball “When” is The Most Important Thing

Source: In Baseball “When” is The Most Important Thing

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In Baseball “When” is The Most Important Thing

No sport inundates fans with more statistics that baseball.  Even before the stats revolution of the last decade or so we had way more statistics than any other sport.  Batting average, home run totals, runs scored, runs batted in stolen bases…wins, losses, saves, earned run averages, strikeout totals, innings pitched…you get the idea.  And those are all the “old stats!”

Down the line we starting paying attention to on base percentage, slugging percentage, hitting (and pitching) with runners in scoring position.  Then came the numbers for how hitters and pitchers did on the various counts during an at bat.

Defensively we noted assists, put outs, errors, fielding percentage.

All of these stats were simple facts.  They didn’t involve anything unique other than putting percentages on some areas based on simple formulas.

Now things are way different.  Statistics based on sometime convoluted formulas have been devised that to some eyes only serve to confuse and make the game far more complicated to follow that it need be.

Adjusted earned run average for example is a stat that is to take into account far more than just a number based on earned runs.  A whole lot goes into it than just the simple facts.  Or how about WAR?  That stands for wins above (or against) replacement. This is actually more than one interpretation of WAR.  Simply it means that players value is compared to others who play the same position.  How many more wins he would be responsible for versus the average replacement.

This is where to my veteran eyes things start getting ridiculous.  There may be a formula for it based on past numbers, but there is absolutely no way it can really mean much unless you just want a way to rank players based on it.  Why? The games are played by human beings.  The variables in any random game don’t always fit formulas.  You can’t control the outcome of any game played by humans with a computer print out.  All you can do is try to increase your chances of success, based on PAST outcomes. That is where the analytics for defensive alignments come in and THOSE are very important in the modern game.

This doesn’t involve using WAR  or any other stat directly, but if you have any old copies of The Bill James Handbook look in the back for the projections.  These predict what a player will do the next season based on his past.  Bill used all sorts of formulas to come up with the numbers.  Anyone who wagered on most of them would have been in the poor house by the next fall.  Injuries cannot be predicted, of course, but those players who played a full season there were some huge misses. Others not so much, but all really just educated guesses even if statistical formulas were part of the process.  Carlos Beltran according to James was going to hit .280 with 25HR and 96RBIs.  What he did in 2007 was hit .275 (close enough) but with 41 HR and 116RBIs.  While I am in the “B’s” how about Craig Biggio?  James and company weren’t far off.  They said .256 19-63 for the 40 year old.  He actually hit .246 21-63.

Where they projections were weakest were usually with older players who had reasonably good seasons the year before.  The physical decline doesn’t always show up in the numbers in which the projections are largely based, but are seen by scouts, coaches and players.

In Biggio’s case he had a poor (for him) year the season before.  His average had started to decline as he had to “cheat” more at the plate….meaning he had to start his swing earlier to be able to catch up to fast balls.  And he was now 40 years old.  Beltran had hit only 16 home runs the previous season, but was healthy and the projection called for an improvement to 25.  Instead he hit 41.

My point is less to totally discount projections but to emphasize what players actually do on the field is most important and being too involved in numbers is missing the point of why the game is played.

The other thing that statistics don’t routinely show is WHEN a hitter, pitcher or fielder does something is far more important to winning games that the simple fact they did it itself.

For instance a team may be a poor fielding club.  They make more errors than anyone else.  They may have defenders with poor range.  But if they only make most of those errors at times when they don’t result in hurting the team they don’t matter as much.  If the clubs’s pitching staff can pitch around errors there is no harm.  If defenders with poor range rarely have to have any because most balls are hit in the right spot…that lack of range won’t show.

The same can apply to teams that strike out excessively.  If they are doing it in circumstances where hitting the ball into an out would have no advantage they don’t matter.

If a pitcher gives up line drive after line drive but all of them are caught no one knows from stats that he was really hammered. (No doubt someone keeps records of such, but few will make a final decision on a player from a piece of paper.  They have to see.) He got outs that is what we know.

Stats, no matter how detailed or how creative simply cannot show the whole story.  They can be fun for some folks to play around with and try to prove this guy is better than that guy using the numbers.  But let’s actually see both on the field and playing the game.  That is always the best test.  The best guy is actually going to have the hits that wins games and not put up all his numbers in a 14-2 laugher.  The best reliever is the man who is nearly perfect nine of ten times even if that one time he gives up six runs to blow his earned run average sky-high. The best hitters are the ones that can be counted on to be .300 or better in clutch or run driving in positions…even if his overall average is barely .250.

The player who goes 1-5 is only a .200 hitter.  But if that one hit drove in runs he is more important than the 3-5 hitter who drives in or scores nothing.

The beauty of baseball is that over time good hitters will wind up with good averages.  The same for home run hitters and good pitchers. Poor fielding teams will usually be exposed over a long season. But WHEN those players do what they do to get there is what makes winning or losing teams… all statistics (old or new) be damned.

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Astros…and Rangers Had Surprisingly Successful Seasons

When a major league baseball team finishes last one year it is not expected to finish first the next.  Even a team that finishes next to last is ordinarily not expected to be a playoff team the next season.

Both happened for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2015.  Think about that.  Two teams dragging up the rear in the 2014 American League West both wound up being in the 2015 MLB post season.  Two of just five teams still standing from the 15 team American League after the 162nd game.

As we know the Astros were the Wild Card and defeated the Yankees to go on and challenge the Kansas City Royals, defending American League champions and the club with the best record in the American League over the full season.

The Rangers who started the season slowly came on strong down the stretch, as the Astros had problems playing .500 ball from mid season, and were able to overtake the Astros for the American League West title in the final days of the season.  Texas had fallen behind the Astros in 2014 due in large part a result of injuries to key players, but were a bit healthier in 2015 and they had an older more experienced team.

The Astros had lost 92 games in 2014 after dropping 111 the season before.  But the club was integrating more of their top prospects to a club that had added some journeymen veterans for stability.  Starting pitching was far better than the average team and improvement in the bullpen was a primary objective.  General Manager Jeff Luhnow pulled that off.  Other than closer Luke Gregerson who held his spot all year some tweaking needed to be done inside the season as those effective early in set up roles fell off and had to be replaced.

The offense built was very strange and often frustrating.  It consisted a a great deal of power but not many really good hitters.  That made it an all or nothing style.  If the club was hitting home runs they scored in large totals.  If not, they would be every easy to retire.  Other than Jose Altuve there was not a hitter in the lineup even close to being on the .300 level. (Carlos Correa who joined the team in June was solid as was utility star Marwin Gonzalez, but were usually in the .275-.280 range.) Most were barely able to hit in the .240s and many far less than that.  This limited opportunities to score especially when a high percentage of their outs came from not even putting the ball in play.  Striking out was the singularly most common method of being retired.  Fortunately the starting pitching led by 20 game winner Dallas Keuchel and 19-game winner Colin McHugh kept the run totals low for the opponents in most games and the Astros didn’t need to score a great deal.  The club average runs per game was misleadingly high since a 10-3 win might be followed by three or four games in which the most the team would score was two or three.  But thanks to their starting pitching they would likely win a few of them.

To be fair it must be pointed out that the club struck out so much because they were taking a lot of big swings regardless of the count.  No doubt those big swings resulted in more home runs than the more traditional “two-strike approach” would have which was important for a team that had such low batting averages.  If a team is loaded with hitters with averages ranging from less than .200 to the low .240s those hits they do get need to feature a large number of home runs or even fewer runs will be produced. A .220 hitter who hits mostly singles can’t play in the major leagues for long.  A .220 hitter with 25 or more home runs will keep getting a look.

From 70 to 86 wins was a huge leap for the Astros even if they had not made the post season.  But they did by a game and entered the playoffs with the worst record of the 10 teams from either league.  But the were in and no one will remember that circumstance for long.

And they held up well when the pressure was on.  Winning the Wild Card game in New York put the Astros on center stage. Then they took on the team with the best record in the American League in the best of five Division Series.  It was a series they could have won, too.  At some point they led in all five games.  They could only win two of them and the heartbreaking slow death in game four will be remembered as the difference.  Leading by four with eight outs to record, the Royals came to life and peppered Astro pitching with base hit after base hit.  Then the next game back in Kansas City the Royals superiority finally won out.

The Rangers situation was different.  They had won the first two in Toronto, but when coming back to their home field could not close out the Blue Jays.  Yet they had a lead late in game five when inexplicably they could not make relatively simply plays on defense.  The Jays climbed back into a tie game before a Batista three run homer dashed all Ranger dreams.   Like the Astros, the Rangers could have won, but in the end the better club took the series and moved on.

If there is an object lesson to all from this it may be that teams who can put the ball in play and not necessarily with mammoth home runs have a better chance in winning games than those that don’t.  Certainly Batista’s home run was mammoth.  But all those misplays made by the Rangers could not have happened if Jay hitters had not been making contact.

And in the Kansas City case they had a number of soft and bloop hits in their comeback.  But they were making contact.

They say that having a chance to be in the post season is one of the greatest learning opportunities any player can have.  With the pressure on, things are seen and learned that cannot be from a regular season game in May.

Both the Astros and Rangers have learned a lot.  Management and players have learned what needs to be boosted to not only win more games in the regular season, but to be able to advance further in the post season.

There will be significant turnover on both teams before next season begins. Some of it will be caused by simple financial matters with players eligible for free agency or large raises.  Others will be made to improve the club.  For the Astros that might be filling a spot with a higher average hitter or finding bullpen arms with power arms.  Perhaps another starting pitcher if a hole results from a free agent moving on.

Most of the improvement must come internally.  George Springer has to work to cut down on his strikeouts. If he can learn to do that he can become a real star.  If not he may be a player with “potential.”  That term is not good to use for a player 26 years old with two or three years of major league experience.  The same for Jason Castro and any number of other players who may or may not return.  Carlos Correa is already on the right track.  Next year he could blossom into a superstar .300 hitter with power.  Jose Altuve is not immune to needing to improve. He had a very poor record hitting in clutch situations for the type of overall hitter he is.  His numbers with runners in scoring position, for example, were well below his numbers overall.  They should be at least roughly equal.  It may be nothing more than his trying too hard and putting undue pressure on himself.  He may have to do nothing more than relax and understand pitchers are trying to get him out by him getting himself out with his proclivity for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. That is correctable.

Will late season hero Colby Rasmus be back?  What about Valbuena, Carter or Marwin Gonzalez?  All had their moments and the injury to Gonzalez hurt the club.  He was one of the better hitters for average with some power and could play multiple positions.  Rasmus can be a free agent as can several other members of the club.  Others are under team control but may have shown enough to coveted and be included as parts of trades GM Jeff Luhnow may be able to make to repair some of the other areas on the club that need fixing.

In the spring some more members from the highly regarded Astro farm system will have chances to make the club.  Third base and first base are two positions that could have open competition.  The pitching staff and perhaps even a spot on the catching staff will have competition.  The 2016 Astros won’t be a mirror image of the 2015 Astros.  But that is good.  The 2015 team accomplished more than anyone could have ever dreamed.  The object is to make the 2016 edition even better.

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Play by Play From Studios is Nothing New

In the last couple of years there has been some amount of criticizing decisions by both ESPN and FOXSports 1 for having announcers handle play by play while watching a feed of the game being played miles away.  The announcers did their work in a studio.

While it is obviously much more preferable to have the announcers at the site the decision was made to cut costs.  Teams, broadcasters and networks have been trying to do that for years, but up until last season the cuts were in the actual production of some so-called low level games.  Fewer cameras or lesser trained production people or sharing cameras with either the local or even in-house feeds were used.  Many of the games on ESPN3, for example are bare bones productions with lightly experienced staff and announcers not paid a real network level wage.  Those games are slated for computer or smart phone viewing primarily and typically are seen by few.

Why complain about it?  Those are also the games that have no alternative if the teams or schools involved want to be accessible at all.  If the game is announced from Bristol but played in California the alternative was to have no telecast at all.

A story publicized recently indicated the “no announcers on the road” concept may be coming to a team in the NHL.  The story indicated the very wealthy Toronto Maple Leafs are leaning toward having all radio broadcasting done from a studio…using the TV feed (which would have announcers on site) as the radio announcer’s source of action.

The reason stated in one story was that the club will no longer allow announcers and production staff –even if it is part of the Maple Leaf family–as the radio crew is– on the charter flights with players and coaches.  Having the radio crew fly commercial would not only increase costs by an estimated $200-thousand per season, but also put some broadcasts in jeopardy of not making the air.  Travel in the winter during hockey season is not always easy.  When going with the team on a charter no games would be missed on radio.  If the team couldn’t get there the game would not be played.  If the announcers couldn’t get there, too bad.

So, the Toronto situation is a bit different, but still all goes back to money.  Doesn’t everything?

In baseball the “re-creation” on radio is a part of the sport’s lore.  When baseball first appeared on radio only home games were aired.  Some clubs started airing road games but not sending their announcer.  He would work in a studio and re-created the game after being handed information called in or from a wire service ticker.  Most of those re-creations were produced to sound like real games….with crowd noise…cheering…and bat hitting ball sounds.  After the Giants left New York for San Francisco announcer Les Keiter did the whole season for New York fans by re-creations on WINS.  Is doing radio from a studio watching a TV screen much different?

In fact, by using a television screen it is much easier and better.  Many Spanish language broadcast crews even today don’t travel to road games in Major League Baseball.  They watch the television screen of the local telecast and call the action.  Sometimes it is possible to get a clean feed on a special line from the ballpark.  That will include only the sounds from the park and not include announcers.  The Spanish broadcasters add their voices to the natural background sound.  The game is thus in the same time window as the telecast.  It is a few seconds behind what the English language radio audience hears since they are on the scene.  The television transmission may travel over 45,000 miles to a satellite and back down before it is actually on the air.

While all the information can be relayed to fans who want to listen to a re-creation, a Spanish language radio broadcast off a TV screen or an English language telecast with video and announcers miles away it is still not as good as having both pictures and audio or audio only (in the case of radio) coming from the actual site of the game.

But it saves money.  It makes more games available that otherwise might not be on radio or television at all.

Next to come may be the day when all stadiums are rigged with a couple sets of remote cameras at many locations that can be transmitted back to a control room in a single location.  The actual cameramen will be located with remote controls in that production facility.  So will be the producer and director, the switcher, graphics co-ordinator, tape operator and audio man.  The announcers?  They will be in a booth next door.  No travel will be needed to cover a game anywhere.  If it is the future blame it on the cost of doing business.  But the idea is nothing new.  Red Barber was calling games for the Dodgers in Brooklyn when the team was playing in St. Louis 75 years ago.

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Fans versus Objectivity

All sports need die-hard fans.  Teams would not be able to survive without those individuals who are with them win or lose, in bad times or good and who complain when the national media ignores their boys and who buy tickets and team gear regardless of the team’s spot in the standings.

Those who are in the business of reporting on sports on radio, television, print or even the professional internet are not the same.   Their very job is to report what is going on and to use their years of experience being around the sport to interpret what it all means.   Their job is not that of a fan.  They are not cheerleaders with the “my team, right or wrong” attitude.

Certainly, if they are game broadcasters or telecasters who are employed to announce the games or it they are members of the team’s media relations staff they are not likely to emphasize what shortcomings the team may have.  But if they are good broadcasters they will not totally ignore things either. Some announcers feel they have to do a lot of ignoring for job security.  The late Ray Patterson, when he was GM of the Rockets and I was a telecaster over 30 years ago, told me to not ignore mistakes or weaknesses in the team, just don’t beat ’em over the head with them.  In other words, make mention that the club was doing something wrong then move on.

Sometimes I feel, since I have been retired from major league broadcasting and do offer some comments on social media, that fans either have forgotten or never knew the role of the broadcaster in the big picture.  We are not fans like they are.  We certainly want the team to win.  But we also, through years of experience and hundreds of conversations with players, coaches, managers and general managers know a lot more than the average fan.  Fans generally have opinions.  Announcers have informed opinions.  There is a difference.

When I was writing pieces on the internet during my broadcasting career I learned to stay away from anything I thought could remotely be considered something ownership–misguided or not–might not like.  I wasn’t a cheerleader, but I always tried to find the positive in a situation before commenting on any negatives.  But the main goal was to be factually correct and keeping my opinions to those that I knew someone in an official capacity had said in my presence and that I agreed had merit.  If I learned something that  I felt the fans should know, but would never appear in an official team release, I would find a way to write it without anyone being able to really know the source.  I might even make it sound like speculation on my part to keep the individual who may have inadvertently “leaked” the information from facing any problems with his bosses.  The bottom line is that my job was to inform…not make everyday sound like candy and roses.

Now, I am writing almost exclusively based on more than 45 years in sports and 30 in the major leagues.  A lot of experience is behind my words.  I have nearly seen it all.  Do I offer comments  that die-hard fans think I am doing because I have a grudge against someone now that  am not part of the television team?  Not at all.  For one thing you will never find me critical of a manager, player, general manager or coach as a person, or calling them  a dunderhead for making idiotic decisions.  Those jobs are too hard and involve too many variables than no one but those directly involve can ever know.

But what I write may be something I could have not done when I was involved in the telecasts. Then I always had to choose my words and topics carefully.  I no longer have to do that and can call on my 30 years experience in the major leagues to form my comments and opinions.  There are few, if any, from the fan community that have as deep a background.  I don’t ask avid fans to agree with everything I write, but only to respect that I am not writing to rip or criticize and that my words are heartfelt and derived from a life of experience in major sports.  I have seen a lot, heard a lot and learned a lot.  History does repeat itself.  Those of us who have been around for a long time have seen it happen.

Sports announcers are fans of their job.  They are fans of whichever team they are working with and when that changes they change as well.  The avid fan is a different animal.  Retired sports announcers or writers are still fans of the games and have great interest in the teams they once covered and those in the city in which they live.  However, they will never be hard rooting fans of the teams.  They won’ follow every game or even watch or attend that many.  They have gone to and watched games all their adult lives.  They want the home teams to win, but as a result of their years they will be more tempered in their evaluations.  They aren’t being negative.  They are just writing or saying what they see.  Its nothing more than that.

I hope the Astros pull off a miracle and not only win the ALW wire to wire, but move on to the World Series and win that too.  Am I being negative when I point out that even with their great start the odds are long?  I don’t think so.   I am just being factual based on years and years of baseball history.  Could the Astros pull it off?  Of course they could.  They have played so well during the first 54 games who is to say they couldn’t do it the rest of the year?   So when I may write something pointing out the team hitting on the whole is weak EXCEPT the huge HR output is that negative?  Absolutely not.  It is only a fact.  If I write that despite the record there are only two sure fire All Star Game candidates, Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, is that being negative?  Again, not at all.  More than two could squeeze onto the roster, but the sure-bets are only those two.

I am not nor will ever be a cheer-leader–our team right or wrong.  I never was, but now as a free agent I can be even more practical in print…whether that upsets “die-hards” or not.

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Howard’s 26 Rebounds a Wonderful Feat, but routine for Wilt

Houston Rocket pivot man Dwight Howard’s 26 rebounds in Friday’s 130-128 NBA playoff victory over the Dallas Mavericks was a tremendous feat in modern pro basketball.

But for Wilt Chamberlain it would have been just another day in the office.  Wilt, like contemporary Oscar Robertson, belong on the same level in basketball as Babe Ruth is in baseball,  They were the models of excellence that present players only hope to emulate.

Wilt Chamberlain AVERAGED more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game for his entire career!  The actual numbers were 30.1 points per game and 22.9 rebounds.  In five of his twelve seasons in the NBA he finished the season with averages more than 20-20.

Only two other players in NBA history have had a single season with averages of more than 20-20.  Jerry Lucas did it twice and Bob Pettit once.

It is true that in the Chamberlain, Lucas, Pettit era game scores like Friday’s 130-128 Rocket win were far more common than today.  More shots were taken–and missed than in the present era which is why the numbers Chamberlain put up will never be equaled.

As for Oscar he was the master of the triple double.  For one whole season, 1961-62, he averaged a triple double all year.  He scored at 30.8 points per game, rebounded  at  12.5 and assisted at 11.2.  Those numbers were good enough to carry him through the first five years of his career with a triple double average.  His final rebound per game average dropped off to 9.5 by his retirement and his concentration on play making.

No one in the NBA will ever do what Wilt and Oscar did again.  It is also likely no one will ever do what Babe Ruth did either.  His single season and career home runs have been topped, but not by any player who also registered a .342 batting average.  Combine that with his pitching skills early in his career and there will never be anyone like the Babe.

And while I am at it how about Jim Brown in football?  Look up his average yardage per carry someday and find anyone who comes close.

We have great players in all sports and more of them than at any time in history.  Yet it is very unlikely and future player will equal the achievements of Wilt, Oscar, Babe and Jim Brown.

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How to Learn Something from Spring Training

Every winter right before the pitchers and catchers report to spring training baseball fans start to get excited.  While it is OK to anticipate baseball, it will be  six weeks of spring training before the baseball season will actually begin.  The spring games themselves mean nothing.  Teams are charging outrageous prices for tickets to these practice exercises.  About the only real news notes that occur during the early days are negative.  This player or that player has torn his elbow, shoulder or knee and will be missing much or all of the upcoming season.

But there are ways to get some value out of watching the doings from the camps if one simply must.  First of all start paying attention only to the players who will likely have a real chance to make the team.  That is why wins and losses don’t matter at all.  The players who will definitely make the team play sparingly during the spring until the last week or so.  Up till then players who are being used just to get some experience wearing the major league uniform with the major league manager and coaches watching will get far more innings than anyone should want to pay to see.

While results for the veterans don’t matter much, they do matter for those veterans on minor league contracts or in competition for playing time even if their spot on the roster may be nearly assured.  Watch those guys.  Don’t worry about the AA pitcher who gives up four runs in one inning of work.  He is not going to be on the team anyway.  Wait a year or two on him.

Eventually those minor league guys won’t be playing much.  Then you can start trying to see if the team has hopes of being better than the previous year.  Are the hitters hitting a lot of balls hard against major league pitchers?  Are your pitchers throwing strikes and getting real major league hitters out?

That won’t start occurring until most of the spring games have been played.  The last week or ten days regulars will be playing more, starting pitchers will be going deeper in games and the bullpen will be used in the manner planned during the off season.  THEN you may have some games worthy of inspection and be able to deduct just how well your favorite team may be able to play when the games count.

There are a dwindling few major league clubs who still have live radio broadcasts for all spring games.  It was never 100 percent, but the figure is dwindling as stations don’t want to give up valuable air time for games that number in the hundreds instead of thousands of listeners.

Instead many teams are offering some of the live game on the team internet site.  For some clubs that is an addition since all spring games were never on the radio.  For others it is change with some of what used to be on live radio now on the internet.

Announcers who truly love baseball don’t mind if their team is radio-silent for spring games.  The early ones are almost impossible to call with confidence for all nine innings.  Players enter games that have no number on the roster sheet–perhaps last minute call ups from the minor league camp. Substitutions are made that are not seen. Players that have no chance of being on the big club get a lot of playing time.  It is a somewhat casual set up for the managers and coaches, but a long day at the office for announcers.

Many clubs traditionally have aired weekend games and started doing all or most games in that critical last week to ten days when the club that would open the season was nearly down to its roster.  Television is still relatively untapped with most clubs holding themselves to no more than three or four games for the spring.  While exposing the team on television from Florida or Arizona is used as a ticket-selling ploy the teams are wise in keeping the number of games at a minimum since it isn’t really championship baseball but many fans still agonize over losses just the same.

The best way to follow spring training is to stay at home…check the local newspaper or its internet site to look at box scores.  Note if players being counted upon, especially pitchers, are doing well or not.  Listen to as many broadcasts or telecasts as you wish.  That is a personal preference.  Take the most interest in that final week.  That is when you can agree or disagree with your general manager regarding which players he is choosing to make the team.   Just always remember in modern baseball performance on the field in the spring is not as large a deciding factor as contract status, money owed and what sort of and how long the team has control on players.  Good young players that have options left are much more likely to be sent to the minors than players without options even if they perform slightly below expectations.  Teams want to try and squeeze the last possible play out of veterans if they can.

Baseball history is littered with great spring training numbers by future stars who still did not make that team that spring because a higher priced veteran player with fewer skills, but with experience and a guaranteed contract was ahead of him.  It will happen this spring, too.

So, remembering all these things follow as closely as you wish.  Just remember baseball really starts on Opening Day.  And that is not too far away.

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