Indians’ hot start has others steaming
Look what the Indians have done.
Cleveland is not directly responsible for Ozzie Guillen’s latest rant, nor Jim Leyland’s impatience with his second basemen. But without question, the Indians’ surprising play has increased the pressure on both rival managers.
Both probably should relax — the Indians have lost five of six and are only 11-12 since their 20-8 start. But Leyland is in the final year of his contract with the Tigers. And although Guillen is signed through 2012, his White Sox are an immense disappointment.
I understand what Guillen was trying to say Sunday — that fans have short memories and don’t always appreciate the passion that managers put into their jobs. But he went too far with his remarks and with his criticisms on Twitter about how those remarks were reported.
Speaking of the fans, Guillen said: "They’ll only remember the 2005 team (that won the World Series) in 2020 when we come here in wheelchairs. Oh yeah, thank you. As soon as you leave the ballpark, they don’t care about you anymore. They don’t.
". . . The monuments, the statues they have for you, they pee on it when they’re drunk. That’s what they do. Thank you for coming for 30 minutes for all the suffering you did all your life.”
Well, that’s life in professional sports, a life for which Guillen is well compensated. White Sox fans surely remember 2005. But six years later, they’re more concerned that designated hitter Adam Dunn leads the majors with 69 strikeouts and that left-hander John Danks is 0-8 with a 5.25 ERA.
The White Sox, 8-1/2 games back, are still talented enough to make a run. The Tigers have moved within five games of the Indians, but Leyland, who led a veteran team to the Series in 2006, is struggling to get the most out of a team that features several young players.
The Tigers are now on their third second baseman — Ryan Raburn, who has only five hits in his last 54 at-bats. Scott Sizemore, who took over for Opening Day starter Will Rhymes, was traded last week to the Athletics for left-handed reliever David Purcey.
Sizemore, 26, failed to hit after winning the job out of spring training in 2010 and failed to hit again after replacing Rhymes. But the emergence of Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who struggled offensively last season, is testament to the importance of patience.
On the day that Leyland named Rhymes his Opening Day starter, he said of Sizemore, "I want to make it perfectly clear that I was really, totally impressed with Scott Sizemore, totally different guy. I think it’s a 100 percent that Scott Sizemore is a big leaguer, and I’m not sure I could have said that before."
The Tigers traded that big leaguer for a 29-year-old out-of-options reliever, albeit one with talent. The move spoke to management’s urgency; general manager David Dombrowski, like Leyland, is in the final year of his contract.
I still love the Tigers’ pitching — their rotation, at least — but Leyland needs more out of Raburn, center fielder Austin Jackson and outfielder Brennan Boesch. Veteran third baseman Brandon Inge also is struggling, creating another offensive hole.
The Indians aren’t going away. The pressure is on.
THE VALUE OF O.C.
The Indians might face a very interesting decision as the season progresses: Should they stick with veteran Orlando Cabrera at second base or promote a younger infielder with greater offensive potential?
Cabrera, 36, is batting .258 with a .286 on-base percentage and .330 slugging average, albeit with 26 RBI. The Indians’ OPS at second ranks only 24th in the majors. Meanwhile, shortstop Cord Phelps has a .936 OPS at Triple-A, and second baseman Jason Kipnis is at .853.
Kipnis, who was a center fielder at Arizona State, is still learning the nuances of second. Phelps, a switch-hitter out of Stanford, is perhaps more advanced at this point; he possesses a year more of professional experience.
Then there is Cabrera, who also has struggled defensively of late, but whose mentoring of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and overall impact have contributed to the Indians’ success.
“It’s very difficult to quantify. It’s not something that always shows up on the stat sheet,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti said.
“He has had some really big hits to drive in runs. But the biggest thing is his influence on our group of players, his leadership. He’s been an important component for our team.”
Orlando Cabrera also is on a personal roll. He has appeared in four straight postseasons and six of the past seven. Those playoff appearances have come with five different clubs.
Teams typically don’t experience a spike in attendance until the season after they enjoy success. Still, it will be interesting to see how quickly the Diamondbacks regain the trust of their fans.
In 2002, the year after the D-backs won the World Series, their average home attendance was a whopping 39,515. In ’08, coming off an appearance in the NLCS, their average was again impressive: 30,986.
That number declined in each of the past two seasons, and stood at only 22,310 after 23 home dates in ’11. But the D-backs built momentum in their last home series, drawing nearly 100,000 for three games against Minnesota. They then went 6-1 on a trip to Colorado and Houston to move into first place.
They returned home Monday and drew a Memorial Day crowd of 23,465 for their 15-4 victory over the Marlins. Neither the Marlins nor the D-Backs’ next opponent, the Nationals, is a particularly good draw. But the increase in local TV ratings is a positive sign.
Although attendance figures do not yet hint at revivals in markets such as Phoenix, Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the possibility is within reach in each case — a huge development for the sport.
PHILS’ MANUEL A FAN OF REDS’ BRUCE
Twice in two days, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel offered raves for Reds right fielder Jay Bruce, who had a monster series in Philadelphia last week.
Manuel, an authority on hitting, said he was particularly impressed with Bruce’s bat speed through the hitting zone.
"He doesn’t even know what he’s got," Manuel said. "He’s got a quick bat. He’s got pizzazz. He’s got a chance to put together a career year as far as batting average and power."
Bruce, 24, leads the NL with 16 homers and 43 RBI. His .937 OPS, which ranks fifth in the league, would be a career high.
PETCO DEBATE RAGES ON
Talk of moving in the fences at Petco Park is gaining momentum. I said on a recent video that the Padres should be careful not to lose their competitive advantage; the park enables them to sign previously unattainable pitchers and enhances the performance of their entire staff.
The problem, though, goes beyond how Petco depresses offense, driving the Padres’ hitters to distraction. Padres officials also worry that the low-scoring games are too dull — in effect, poor entertainment.
That, obviously, is a major concern.
If the Padres want to bring in the fences at Petco, the place to do it is in right field. Adrian Gonzalez, one of the game’s top left-handed hitters, batted under .250 at Petco in both 2008 and ’09 (though he did produce an .859 OPS in the second of those seasons).
But there is another issue here: Finding the right types of players for Petco, selfless types who are willing to sacrifice individual statistics for team goals.
The Padres had such a group last season — David Eckstein, Yorvit Torrealba, Scott and Jerry Hairston, etc. The players on this year’s club aren’t necessarily selfish. But when a hitter is playing for a contract, as right fielder Ryan Ludwick and first baseman Brad Hawpe are this season, it creates a different kind of dynamic, a different kind of pressure.
METS’ TURNER: A STUDY IN PERSEVERANCE
Mets infielder Justin Turner describes what happened to him on May 21, 2010 as "kind of an emotional 30 minutes in my life."
Turner, then in Triple-A with the Orioles, was elated to learn that Scott Moore, his teammate and childhood friend from Long Beach, Calif., was heading to the majors.
But minutes later, when hitting coach Richie Hebner summoned Turner to manager Gary Allenson office, the painful reality struck.
The Orioles needed to add Moore to their 40-man roster. And Turner would be the one getting bumped off.
The Mets claimed Turner on waivers four days later, but it took almost a year for his fortunes to truly change.
Turner batted .333 at Triple-A, but the Mets declined to make him a September call-up, a development that he says was "devastating."
Spring training wasn’t much better. Turner got only 39 at-bats while the Mets took a first look at Rule 5 draft pick Brad Emaus, who made the club, and a last look at Luis Castillo, who was released.
Well, it all worked out.
Turner has been a revelation for the Mets, batting .337/.384/.467 and, in the words of manager Terry Collins, playing “the living hell out of third base.”
The Mets plan to move him from third back to second after David Wright comes off the disabled list.
ANOTHER POSTSEASON BABY?
Cole Hamels’ wife, Heidi, is due to give birth to their second child in late October. Depending upon how the Phillies fare, it could be their second postseason baby.
The Hamels’ first child, Caleb Michael, was born shortly after Cole started — and lost — Game 2 of the 2009 Division Series.
Heidi had texted Phillies traveling secretary Frank Coppenbarger and said: "I’m in the hospital going into labor. Could you please tell Cole as soon as he’s done pitching?"
Coppenbarger recalls asking pitching coach Rich Dubee if he could tell Hamels the news after the Phillies took him out of the game. Dubee said yes, and Hamels bolted off the bench so he could get to the hospital.
AROUND THE HORN
• If the Braves were crafting a perfect team, the one piece they would need to add is a dynamic leadoff hitter. Such a player might not be available this season, but the answer might come from within.
Jordan Schafer finally appears to be grasping that his future is not in the No. 3 hole but at the top of the order. The Braves believe that the sooner he completes the adjustment, the better the player he will be.
• Phillies reliever Danys Baez, a hero in the team’s 19-inning victory over the Reds, actually got some negative reaction to his performance that night.
Besides pitching five innings — his longest appearance since Aug. 24, 2002 — Baez struck out leading off the bottom of the 16th in his first at-bat since ’09 and only his second since ’03.
Braves reliever George Sherrill, Baez’s former teammate with the Orioles, sent him a text message: "Great game. Terrible at-bat."
• Interesting test for the Brewers, who began a seven-game trip to Cincinnati and Florida with a 7-3 loss to the Reds on Monday.
The Brewers — an NL-best 21-7 at home and NL-worst 8-18 on the road — have replaced the Rockies as the team with the biggest split personality in the game.
Miller Park played essentially neutral last season but currently ranks second in park factor for runs, behind only Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Park factor compares the rate of stats at home to the rate of stats on the road, accounting for both clubs in each game.
• Reds right-hander Homer Bailey is on the disabled list because of a shoulder sprain. Righty Edinson Volquez is at Triple-A working on his focus. The Reds are next to last in the National League in rotation ERA.
So, how confident is GM Walt Jocketty in his starting pitching?
"For the time being, we’re confident," Jocketty said. "We’ll see how quickly Bailey comes back, how Volquez does in the next week or so at Louisville.
"There is not a lot of pitching to be had. It would be tough to get anyone if we do need someone."
• Torii Hunter finally is hot. Vernon Wells is getting closer to a rehabilitation assignment. And a third Angels veteran, Bobby Abreu, might be reviving, as well.
Abreu, 37, is hitting for minimal power, with only two homers in 203 at-bats. His ground-ball percentage would be the highest of his career. However, he leads the team with a .390 on-base percentage and ranks second with 13 doubles.
• Yes, Francisco Rodriguez’s fastball velocity is down, but there is an explanation: Rodriguez is throwing more two-seam (sinking) fastballs, continuing a transformation that he began last season.
Rodriguez said he first tried the pitch in a game during the Mets’ series against the Marlins in late June. He held his hands about a foot apart to demonstrate the break, and estimated that 90 percent of his fastballs now are two-seamers.
• A scout who recently saw Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan came away stunned.
"He throws 95 percent first-pitch fastballs and 100 percent fastballs anytime he is behind in the count," the scout said. "I don’t know anybody who does that. He’s not even throwing a slider."
The scout exaggerated somewhat. Hanrahan is throwing "only" 86.5 percent fastballs. But his average velocity is 97.1 mph, according to Fangraphs.com, so why not?
Hanrahan’s strikeouts are down but so are his walks. There is a heaviness to his fastball, the scout says, and hitters find it difficult to square up.
• A final note on closers: The struggles of two of the best — the Royals’ Joakim Soria, who was taken out of the ninth inning after his latest meltdown Sunday, and the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz, who has been inconsistent since coming off the DL — points again to the volatility of the role.
Feliz’s problems, along with the success of converted reliever Alexi Ogando, practically ensure that the Rangers will make Feliz a starter next season. The free-agent market will be deep in closers, and the Rangers ultimately would prefer to get 200 innings from Feliz than 70.