April 30, 2012


There are times where a player plays himself out of being traded; by playing inconsistently or plain bad.
There are exceptions to the rule, like Byrd being shipped to Boston with a .071 batting average. But the Red Sox had a desperate need for a starting OF with three outfielders hurt. The trade helped Byrd get to .300 in AL. The only reason Byrd got dealt was that the Cubs ate most of the salary.

But Cubs closer Marmol is a different story. His mechanics continue to be bad. He has serious control problems, aggravated by his falling off the mound to first base. His slider is erratic and when he uses a fastball, he cannot find the corners of the plate for strikes.  Early American filmmakers used to set up cameras on single tracks to capture head on train wrecks. Marmol is a slow motion train wreck in progress.  Even yesterday's five run lead was not safe when Marmol took the mound in the 9th.

After trading Marshall for minor leaguers, there was no reliever on the squad that could take the closer's role away from Marmol. However, Dolis seemed to be the one guy pitching coach Bosio is willing to take a gander at: Dolis got his first major league victory and save last week. The big, burley right hander may not put the Lee Smith style fear of god in batters, but he does have a good enough fastball if his control is good.

Garza threw another good game. Garza and Marmol are the remaining the two potential trade candidates when spring training broke camp. Trade a veteran with a team with need near the trade deadline for a bunch of prospects who can help in 2014.

If Marmol was pitching lights out, then there would be some team who would see value in a shut-down closer (after many contenders have lost their closers to arm injuries). One or more could actually take Marmol and his $7 million contract for high quality prospect or two. But as of today, there are no takers for Marmol in the open market. Even if the Cubs eat most of Marmol's contract, most GMs would be wary of what kind of pitcher they are getting in return.

So Marmol is the perfect Catch-22. He has played badly enough not to be traded, but no bad enough to be demoted or sent to the minors.

April 27, 2012


A team only has 27 outs per game. An out is a valuable commodity. Thirty years ago, managers and players stressed the value of a "productive out," something on the field which helped the team as a whole score runs.

But in the statistic era of the sport, players are more concerned about individual stats for their arbitration hearings or free agency market comparisons. Outs are not considered good leverage at the bargaining table.

In theory, a team can score 9 runs per game without getting a single hit.
Walk. Stolen Base. Fielder's choice or sacrifice to move runner to third. Sacrifice fly scores runner at third. It is counter intuitive to have a team batting average zero but score 9 runs.

There is less emphasis on moving runners along or sacrifice hits. Bunting is a lost art.

If a team has an offense that averages .300, that equates to around 8 hits per 9 innings. That is why some managers try to stress bunching hits in one inning and hope for the Earl Weaver mantra: the three run HR.
But most teams do not have .300 hitters and power hitters throughout the line up. More like .250 hitters, which means between 6 or 7 hits per game. Timely hits needed, indeed.

In today's modern specialization, a newer productive out category could be the "long at-bat." With starting pitchers corralled at 100 pitches per game, a productive at bat would mean any series of more than 10 pitches (a full count equals minimally five pitches; the decider would be the sixth pitch). A batter that fouls off a series of pitches wears down the pitcher, most physically and mentally. If a team is patient and can make a starter throw 25-30 pitches in the first inning(s), they will be seeing a weaker bullpen pitcher by the fourth inning.  However, we rarely see long at-bats in the majors. Most players are looking to rip away at the first two pitches because mentally, they think the pitcher needs to get ahead in the count.

We only see glimpses of this philosophy in the late inning(s) in a one run game, where the team that is behind attempts to "manufacture" the tying run.  In most cases it does not work, because you are asking the hitters to dramatically change gears on their strategy in the batter's box that they had used he last 8 innings. Baseball is all about making little adjustments, not major leaps of faith or character.

It makes more sense to "manufacture" a run in the first inning than the 9th. How many teams have a lead off hitter willing to bunt for a base hit out of the gate? How many teams then have a number two batter willing to sacrifice himself (an out) to move the lead off man into scoring position? Not very many. Instead, teams just allow the players to go up and hack, not realizing that managing outs is just as important has getting hits.

April 23, 2012


It was not surprising that Marlon Byrd was traded by the Cubs. What was surprising that any team would want a .071 hitter. More shocking, that team was the Boston Red Sox, who had a long, drawn out soap drama on Theo Epstein's compensation package.

Apparently, Byrd was the only starting outfielder in the majors available to quell the Red Sox problems. Boston gets Byrd, but only has to pay the major league minimum (Cubs pay the rest). In essence, the Red Sox hope that Byrd gets back to his "baseball card" average numbers in the second half of the season to hit around .270.  Except, Byrd's rapid decline could be attributed to being hit in the face by a pitch by his now new Boston teammate. Significant facial and head hits can make some baseball players gun shy at the plate, and any fraction of a second hesitation causes less contact in the hitting zone.

Byrd is a nice guy, a professional player. But he goes into a hornet' nest of bad feelings in Boston. New manager Bobby Valentine's approach to the players has met with one of the worst starts in team history. Getting blown away by the Yankees on national television does not help the clubhouse chemistry either.

The Cubs get a 25 year old reliever, Michael Bowden, and a player to be named later.

Bowden has been in the minors 7 years. Last season in AAA, he went 3-3, 2.73 ERA, 16 saves and 1.158 WHIP. It is hard to imagine why the Red Sox, in need of a closer, did not give Bowden more of an opportunity at the major league level.  He may be one of those AAAA players.

At the very least, the Cubs could use him as Kerry Wood's replacement in the set-up position.

The move of Byrd did not open up the center field spot for Brett Jackson. Instead, the Cubs called up Tony Campana, who misplayed two fly balls in his first game. Campana, who really comes down to a pinch runner-base stealer, is not an everyday center fielder. Joe Mather and Reed Johnson are bench players which will now platoon in center because there is no reason to start the arbitration clock on any player in Iowa. Campana, Mather and Johnson are the three-header $7.5 million outfield corps for the rest of this lost season.

The Cubs will keep Jackson and 1B prospect Anthony Rizzo in Iowa all year so they can pile up huge numbers. Then, the Cubs marketing gurus will use those numbers this off season to campaign for season ticket renewals under the guise that the "kids are ready to play!"

April 20, 2012


Kerry Wood was placed on the disabled list. He had left the team in Miami to return for treatment on his shoulder.

Wood signed a $3 million deal after the local media pundits railed against new Cub management for not having any interest in signing the fragile Cub icon.  The drumbeat was so loud that Epstein was forced to make the marketing move and sign Wood on the eve of the Cubs convention. The signing of Wood made no sense at the time when the Epstein Era was supposed to be all about Change.  In the end, marketing and PR took priority over assembling a competent bullpen.  Wood has the local media to thank for his windfall $3 million retirement check.

In 2012, Wood's numbers were shockingly poor:

4 games, 0-1 record, 11.57 ERA in 2 1/3 IP, 2.571 WHIP and 1.33 K/BB ratio.

In contrast, lefty reliever Scott Maine has been called up. His Iowa numbers:

5 games, 1-0 record with 1 save, 1.42 ERA in 6 1/3 IP, 0.632 ERA and 2.50 K/BB ratio.

Maine gives Sveum another lefty in the bullpen in the quest to replace Sean Marshall as the
setup man, spot closer.

The season is quickly getting away from management. The Cubs are 3-10 and face a tough 14 game in row stretch against contending teams. The trend of losing every series to date seems to continue to hold through the end of April. The promised change in hitting approach and upgrade in defense from spring training seems to have been lost once the real season began on Opening Day. And most the stories from the Cubs deal with the great plans for upgrading Wrigley Field, which strikes hollow to fans who thought the Cubs were going to prioritize the upgrades on the field.  Wood's injury prone Cub career is the perfect symbol of the Cub  status quo.

April 19, 2012


Theo Epstein says that he is not worried about the Cubs "slow start."  He said that the team would make some "small moves" during the season with the "big picture" in mind.  So, roughly translated there will be no blockbuster moves to find some offense. It means that Rizzo and Jackson will be called up later from AAA than sooner. After 12 games, the Cubs are 6 GB in the NL Central, on pace to lose 121 games.

One of the reasons has been a lack of offense. The Cubs are last in HRs in the National League.

The Cubs made three significant changes to their position starters, in right field, third base and third base. Have those changes made a difference?

PLAYER      GP       HR      RBI   AVG  OBP
Colvin           9            1          5       .364   .391
DeJesus       11            0          0       .281   .439

Ramirez       11           1          6        .140   .191
Stewart        12           1          6        .205    .295

Pena            12            3        12        .356   .463
LaHair           9           2          6         .360   .448

What jumps out is the comparison with DeJesus: no runs batted in so far. Is he on pace to go an entire season like Byrd did last year and drive in only 35?

Stewart seems to be a wash with slow starting Aramis.

Pena is blistering the ball, but when LaHair plays he has been more productive than DeJesus or Stewart, combined.

April 16, 2012


Giants closer Brian Wilson will have to have Tommy John surgery. He will be lost for at least 18 months.

The Giants have spent a fortune on starting pitching, some analysts believe it is the best rotation in the NL.

But a loss of a closer so early in the season can blow up a championship run right out of the gate.

The Giants organization is the most budget conscious group in the majors. They refuse to add any big money to the payroll during the season. With Wilson gone, it appears that the team will try to bandage the bullpen closer role from within the team and minor league system.

There really is only one known free agent closer. Mike Gonzalez is available, but he has lost his status the last few years. He split time between Baltimore and Texas last season in more of a mop-up role.

The other prospect would be trading for a known closer.  The only teams that would give up a closer are teams that know that they will not be in the race.  Astros closer Brett Myers is going to be shopped at the trading deadline. Houston is in the midst of new ownership and a tear down of the roster. The team is looking to add depth at all positions and Myers is the best chip on the team to trade. However, his $11 million salary will put off most teams.

The Cubs Marmol may also be available. He also has a high salary. But Marmol has known command issues at times which may scare off teams in the heart of a pennant race more than his salary.

For whatever reason, the closer (9th inning) role has taken on more significance in recent years due to the sabremetric specialization of all baseball roles. There are some excellent 8th inning relievers who mentally cannot handle a "promotion" to the closer role.

It will be interesting to see how the Giants will mend their broken bullpen, especially when the Dodgers have had their best opening record in franchise history (9 wins one loss).

Giants Manager Bruce Bochy has told the media that he would handle the Wilson loss with his current bullpen. The Giants had the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League in 201. Returning veterans Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez will handle the closer's role by committee.

April 14, 2012


One of the most misstated baseball stats for performance is Earned Run Average (ERA).  ERA only counts "earned runs," being runs scored by the work of the opponent. But all runs are scored against a pitcher by some work of the batter.  The scorer's generosity to not charge a pitcher with an earned run if that runner got on base by an error is inconsistent when that error was actually caused by the pitcher himself.

In addition, a starting pitcher could load up the bases. He gets pulled from the game. Even though he is no longer in the game, he is responsible for all three base runners. The relief pitcher, whose job it is to get the team out of jams, is not responsible for "inherited runners."  Well, if a person inherits a house with a mortgage, that person still needs to pay the mortgage. So an ineffective relief pitcher can allow all three inherited runners to score, and not have one "earned run" put on his ERA.  In fact, those inherited runners are ghosts; they don't exist on the reliever's record at all: they apply only to the guy in the dugout. In this common situation, the starting pitcher's performance stats are lessened through the bad pitching of a reliever.

Also, the concept of an "unearned" run also lessens the true performance of a pitcher. A pitcher is the most important player in the field. He controls the ebb and flow of the game by his pitch selections and control. And part of the pitcher's command is getting batters out with three strikes.  So when a pitcher allows a ball to be hit into play, he is responsible for that contact. Just because a fielder commits an error should not lessen the fact that the pitcher could not strike out the batter. It is a team performance issue when the batter reaches first on an error. And after that error is recorded, all further runs scored usually don't count against a pitcher's ERA.

The ERA formula is a well established tradition in baseball. It is just not the best gauge of pitching performance. Pitching is one thing: not allowing your opponent to score runs. Since it is a team game, the team on defense sole purpose is to get outs.

A better method of true performance (what the players are actually paid to do: get outs) is Runs Allowed Average. The problem with this stat is that the official scorers do not break split inherited runs scored from the earned run responsibility.

For example, a box score could look like this:

PITCHER           IP          R      ER                ERA
Starter                5.0          3        3                  5.40
Reliever             1.0          0        0                  0.00

You would think the starter had a bad day, and the reliever did his job well.

But, what about a fuller box score:

PITCHER           IP          R      ER                ERA       H     BB  SO
Starter                5.0          3        3                  5.40        0        3      4
Reliever             1.0          0        0                  0.00        3        1      3

What do you call the starter's performance now? Bad luck?
The starter had a no hitter through 5 innings.  He gets into trouble in the 6th and walks three batters.
A reliever is called in and gives up a walk and 3 hits.  All three "inherited runners" score. Then the reliever calms down and strikes out the side.
In reality, the reliever was the one who was "on the mound" when the runs scored. He should be responsible for them.

In the insurance world, it does not matter whether you caused or did not cause an accident in your motor vehicle. A "claim" is a claim. It should be similar in baseball pitching stats: it should not matter whether you inherited runners, you should stop them from advancing and scoring.

So, a modified box score would look like this to show Runs Allowed Average (RA/IPx9):

PITCHER           IP          R      ER                ERA       H     BB  SO   RA  RAA
Starter                5.0          3        3                  5.40        0        3      4     0       0.00
Reliever             1.0          0        0                  0.00        3        1      3     3     27.00

Since baseball reference books do not break down individual runs scored to pitchers on the mound per se, the only quick comparison point would be in the team runs allowed to IP.

In 2011, the Cubs allowed 756 runs to score in 1434.33 IP. 
In 2012, the Cubs have allowed 33 runs to score in 72 IP.
The Cubs 2011 RAA was 4.74  The team ERA was 14th in the league at 4.33.
The Cubs 2012 RAA is 4.125. The team ERA is 11th in the league at 3.88.

RAA is a much better gauge of pitching performance, especially for relief pitchers who are not penalized for inherited runners scoring on their watch.

April 12, 2012


The Cubs slow start at home this season has resulted in 1-5 record; a winning percentage of .167; and a pace to lose 135 games this season.

Dempster has thrown two quality starts and has an 0-1 record and 1.88 ERA.

Quality pitching will keep a team in the game. But in order to win, the Cubs need to score.

And that is where our concept of "relative ERA" comes into play.

Normal ERA is taking the number of earned runs allowed divided by innings pitched and compared to a 9 inning game. For a starting pitcher, a generous "quality start" is loosely defined as 1 ER in 5 IP, 2 ER in 6 IP or 3 ER in 7 IP (range 1.80 to 3.86 ERAs) The average is 2.89.

But one must factor in whether the bullpen can hold a quality start to victory. The Cubs bullpen has been woeful so far.  In six games this season, the pitching staff has given up 28 runs for a staff ERA of 4.67.

The Cubs offense has only mustered 19 runs in 6 games or 3.17 runs per game.

The difference between runs allowed and runs scored is 1.5 per game.

The run differential means that the pitching needs to be significant better in order to coax out a victory.
The relative staff ERA needs to come down below the Cubs run production of 3.17 runs per game.

And a "quality start" relative to the Cubs current offensive production needs to average a 1.39 ERA. So Dempster's stellar 1.88 ERA is not enough to generate one win. It is just not enough.

The starting pitchers have started to shoulder the "blame" for not completing what they started (the game) in these close losses, where either the offense failed to rally or the bullpen imploded. That puts more pressure on the starters to go beyond the norm in order to find success.

So relatively speaking, the Cub starters are under pressure to give up only 1 run per game. Then the bullpen is under pressure to give up only 1 run per game to total 2, since the Cubs offense is mired in only scoring 3 runs per contest.

April 11, 2012


There is an old saying that a fast start by a team does not win a pennant, but a slow start can doom a season.

The Cubs have started off 1-4. After only 5 games, the Cubs are 3.5 games out of first place in the NL Central.

In order to get to an optimistic .500 season, the team will have to win at a .510 clip to reach 81.
If the Cubs continue on this pace and reach 2-8, then the winning percentage increases to .513 to reach 81.

Considering that the team as whole last season was under .500, it is like climbing an ice packed mountain.

Despite the glowing stories on how Cubs spring training was "different" than past seasons, there is no compelling change noticed in hitting, fielding, pitching or base running so far this season. The Cubs slow start dampens any expectations for a "surprise" season by the Epstein and Sveum crew.

April 10, 2012


The Nationals have no interest in trading demoted SP John Lannan to the Cubs for OF Marlon Byrd. Byrd, who used to be a reserve outfield for the Nationals, would only be used as a stop gap measure to cover for some injuries. The Nationals are willing to wait for former first round pick, Bryce Harper, to be called up to solve any outfield issues.

Lannan is unhappy by being demoted to AAA. He is the Nats Randy Wells. It was a numbers game, and Lannan wound up the 6th starter. With an option left, he was sent to AAA to be held in case one of the five regulars gets hurt or shut down. Which is a possibility since Strasburg is coming back from an injury and his innings may be throttled back.

Why the Cubs would want to pick up another $5.5 million starter in Lannan when the real immediate problem is with the bullpen is fairly simple: depth. Adding Lannan to the mix allows the Cubs to massage a deal down the road to trade Dempster ($14 million) or Garza ($9 million) or package them to move Soriano and some of his $19 million salary.

It is going to be a long, tough season on the North Side, especially at the turnstiles. Ticket demand is waning, so the best business plan is to continue to pare back on salaries, even with a spendthrift owner buying and building real estate projects. Byrd's $6.5 million contract appeared to be the most movable piece on the roster, but that is an expensive 4th outfielder for most teams. Most of the Cubs moves this season will be Seller salary dumps.

April 9, 2012


The Cubs juggled the roster over the weekend to shore up the bullpen.

When second game starter Garza feels that it was his fault for not finishing his start
(when the bullpen duo of Wood and Marmol imploded for the second game in a row),
there had to be some quick action.

Rodrigo Lopez was recalled from Iowa, and last minute pick-up, shortstop Luis Valbuena,
was sent to AAA.

So GM Hoyer's opening day roster is more than a work in progress but a ricketty high speed
freight train between Chicago and Des Moines.

Which is fine, but does say that the suddenly realization that the club needed a back up shortstop
was overblown.  It is good that new management can recognize a problem and quickly make moves to solve it. What is more concerning is the total lack of team power during the first series.
The Cubs are the only team in the majors without a home run.

The duo of Bret Jackson and Anthony Rizzo continue to hit well in Iowa. The power drought may have to be cured by calling up one or both of these players sooner than later.

April 7, 2012


It was only one game. Opening Day should set a tone, for the team and the fans.

The Cubs loss to the Nationals, 2-1, had some good but mostly bad overtones.

The good: Dempster had his best pitching performance in more than year (it probably helped that it was cold and batters did not like to swing and the wind was blowing in at gale force.)

The bad: some said Game One of 2012 was like witnessing Game 163 of 2011.

Two bad baserunning errors were critical in the game's outcome. Sveum said he told Soriano to steal third base. Why? He was already in scoring position. He has bad legs. He is not a base stealer. "Aggressive" baserunning is one thing; but stupid baserunning calls seems to be standard operating procedure, a continuation of Quade. Then sending Mather home on "contact" with less than two outs is also stupid. Every little leaguer knows you hold at third until the ball is through the infield or the ball is thrown toward first (and you have a large lead). Sveum's excuse was that if the ball was a foot left or right of Zimmerman at third, Mather scores. But that was not the play!! There is a fundamental grasp of baseball basics which has not changed at all, even though the coaching staff made great emphasis on running the bases in camp. The training and actual on-field calls are in conflict, which leads to lack of baseball intelligence in the players.

The bullpen concerns going into the season exploded into outright bleeding ulcers. Dempster threw 108 pitches and had to be relieved in the 8th. Kerry Wood is called to get two outs. He walks three batters and the game is tied. Horrible outing by a pitcher who the organization "babied" during spring training to not overuse him and "save him for the regular season."  Rust is rust. Bad is bad. Wood was bad.

Then Marmol was not that much better. The staff began fiddling with his fastball grip just as camp was coming to an end. There is a problem filling a pitcher with known control issues new mechanics on how to throw instead of teaching him how to pitch in situations. Whatever was rattling around Marmol's skull in the 9th did not equate into a good performance on the mound.

The team's offense was more than anemic. It was non-existent. The team had a .095 batting average. And there was no indication that the team can manufacture a run if their lives depended upon it.

Nothing in the home opener changed the no expectation attitude that this will be a long, long season on the North Side.

April 5, 2012


In another strange last minute twist, the Cubs claimed infielder Luis Valbuena from the Blue Jays. Valbuena was out of options and could not be outrighted to the minors.

Valbuena, 26, a career .226 hitter in the majors, had been traded by the Indians to the Blue Jays last November. He spent most of 2011 with Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate where he hit .302/.372/.476 with 17 homers in 472 plate appearances. The infielder played 194 games for the Indians' varsity squad in 2009 and 2010 and saw a good deal of time at second base. The Cubs signed him to be the backup shortstop to Castro.

Which is odd realization as the team broke camp that it did not have a backup shortstop on the roster (Barney was the backup on the depth chart). So in order to add another journeyman infielder to the roster, the Cubs cut recently picked up reliever De La Cruz. In order to get Valbuena on the 25 man roster, the Cubs brass have decided to go with an 11 man pitching staff.

The Cubs blew up their bullpen (which was the best "asset" in 2011) by getting rid of Marshall, Cashner and moving Samardzija to the rotation. So the solution to rebuilding the pen is to have one less arm. That seems counterproductive.

The bullpen to start the season will be Marmol (closer), Kerry Wood (set up), Russell, Dolis, Camp and Rule 5 pick up Lenny Castillo, who is a AA player making a large leap. The Cubs have to keep Castillo on the major league roster all season or he has to be returned to the Phils. Dolis is a rookie and Camp was picked up off the scrap heap only a week ago. Fans should have little confidence on how the bullpen was pieced together at the end.

But even more puzzling than the Valbuena claim is the report that LaHair has a sore back and may not be able to play. Looking at the roster, the Cubs have no designated back up first baseman, just a few utility guys (Baker and Mather) who can play first. But Sveum told the media that DeWitt would back up LaHair at first. DeWitt has never played first base!!! (This is another Hendry 2.0 move: playing a player out of position). So what if DeWitt bats left handed: there are other lefty hitters in the lineup.

And if LaHair goes on the DL, Rizzo would not be called up to replace him. Sveum said that designated pinch runner Campana would be making the trip to Wrigley just in case. So, the Cubs plan if LaHair is hurt is to activate a 6th outfielder instead of a real first baseman.  Again, it does not make much common sense.

But common sense may be the last thing on management's mind. Epstein is going to string out the honeymoon period with fans and media as long as possible. He really does not care what people think ("it's just noise," he said). With the public having no expectations for this season, you would think they would be more forgiving if the Cubs went on a youth movement. But that rebuild plan is on hold; the plan is to jury-rig a season of players seeking a comeback season.

April 4, 2012


Here is a recent photograph of the work being done on the new "Party Patio" at Wrigley Field. It is going to be ready for Opening Day.

It is different than the badly drawn sketch shown by Ricketts at the Cubs convention. It appears that there is only two seating walls above the scoreboard. The big beer vendor shack with large red roof (for advertising) is sure to block some rooftop views.

And speaking of limited views, the wall seats nearest to CF appear to be blocked by the existing RF bleachers (and fans), which means that many patrons of these new expensive seats will have to go "standing room" on the party deck if they want a better view of the field. Whether that is intentional or not, it brings the fans closer to the beer shack.

What is still unknown is how gaudy the scoreboard feature will be being on top of the existing brick wall, Will it be a static lighted scoreboard, or will the LED technology allow for moving graphics (which could affect the vision of batters or fielders under certain conditions.)

It still seems like an expensive effort in order to increase seating capacity of Wrigley by approximately 42 seats. These new party deck seat packages are premium (opening day may be as high as $165/each).

It will be interesting to absorb the fan reaction during Opening Day.