Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Of Bunts And Good Intentions

Winning (and losing) can be such a drag

By Christopher Heun

Dateline: New York City

The situation: Winning run on third base. Tie game. Two outs. And the batter lays down a bunt just past the reach of the pitcher. Winning run scores. Game over.

That’s how the Mets beat the Rockies Tuesday night in 12 innings. Endy Chavez’s drag bunt made him the hero.

Listening to the game on the radio, I was struck by the dramatic finish because it could have been the exact same outcome for the Orioles the night before, when Melvin Mora tried to bunt home Corey Patterson, the tying run, from third with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Except Mora’s bunt did not get past the pitcher. Patterson could not score. The Birds lost.

It was a good idea – even if Patterson seemed surprised by it – but it didn’t work. Mora's bunt didn't get past A's closer Huston Street, who held Patterson at third. (After an intentional walk to Nick Markakis, Miguel Tejada made the final out of the game.)

It would be easy to draw grand conclusions about the larger fates of the Mets and O's based on this one game. That’s probably not fair. But still, one of these teams is a playoff contender while the other is not.

The Mets won a game with a pinch-hit homer in the 10th by Damian Easley and a bunt single by Chavez, who also had come off the bench, in the 11th. Manager Sam Perlozzo should be so lucky to have such options in the late innings. (And to pull the right strings at just the right time, but that’s another topic for debate.)

By the way, ex-Oriole David Newhan has also found a spot on the Mets’ bench. He had a chance in the 12th too, but struck out.)

Throughout this young season, the Birds have shown a resilient streak and have come from behind to win – something that would not be possible without an improved bullpen that shuts down opposing lineups in the late innings.

But they lost a game on Monday night that they didn’t deserve to win but probably should have won regardless: with runners on second and third with nobody out in the ninth, they failed to score.

Then they followed that disappointment with a poorly played game on Tuesday afternoon filled with more miscommunication and mental mistakes.

With Boston visiting Camden Yards for two games, the Birds could very well sink back to .500 after an impressive winning streak in which they took eight out of nine.

Or maybe not. Maybe Mora redeems himself. I can’t help but think that he may have a doppelganger in Chavez, whose playoff heroics last October in the N.L.C.S. versus St. Louis endeared him to Mets fans much like Mora did during the 1999 postseason.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jinxing the Pen?

by Matthew Taylor

On April 7, after the O's bullpen shut down the Yankees to secure a 6-4 win in the Bronx, the verdict was in: the Birds had made a wise investment.

The Washington Post, among other news outlets, heralded the team's off-season manuevering, as witnessed by the headline of the paper's game story: "Yankees Are Left Penned Up By O's."

We all know what happened next.

Last night the bullpen turned in another fine performance, and The Sun's John Eisenberg is fĂȘting the team in a column headlined, "So far, Orioles right on money with their revamped bullpen."

Cue the Delmon Young heroics.

Monday, April 09, 2007

100 Words or Less About ... The Yankees Series

By Matthew Taylor

Our second round of "100 Words or Less" reviews the weekend series in the Bronx.

Last time we used corporate speak to dissect the O's off-season. This time we use the Yankees' very own postgame anthem - an abuse of Sinatra's work, if you ask me - to break down the action.

100 Words or Less starts ... now:

"Start spreading the news, the O’s left town yesterday, with a series win in New York, New York. Loewen and Bedard were a part of it, as was Bako (homering for the first time since 2004). Chris Ray woke up on Sunday in a city where he couldn’t sleep, but he made a brand new start of it in old New York. The Birds season-opening blues seem to be melting away. They aren’t 'A Number One,' 'Top of the List,' or 'King of the Hill' in the AL East, but if they can win up there, they can win anywhere."

Final Count: 100 Words Even. Mission Accomplished.

See you next time on "100 Words or Less."

Good Seats Still Available

By Matthew Taylor

How can a longtime Orioles fan be such a novice when it comes to Opening Day tickets?

The Birds have a "Buy Tickets" link today on the front page of the team website, which just a week ago offered no such option. A quick check reveals that scattered singles are still available ($45 Lower Box and $30 LF Lower Box, for example). Meanwhile, multiple standing room tickets are up for grabs. Not a bad option for $8, especially if they utilize the temporary bleachers.

Also from the O's website, fans will give new meaning to "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks" this afternoon: "Concession stands are estimating serving 10,500 hot dogs, 3,500 soft pretzels, 1,650 gallons of soda, 2,800 bags of peanuts, 3,000 pounds of French fries and 400 bags of Cracker Jacks."

Why am I sitting in my office today? I think I feel a bout of illness coming on.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Former Birds in the Box Scores

By Matthew Taylor

Former Birds are all over the box scores for Friday night:

-In Cincinnati, the always likeable Jeff Conine hit a three-run homer in a 6-1 Reds victory over the Pirates. The hit came one night after Conine had a "game-tying pinch-hit single and scored the go-ahead run against the Cubs."

-In Tampa, former O's closer B.J. Ryan gave up three earned runs in two-thirds of an inning, including a two-run homer to Delmon Young, as the Blue Jays coughed one up against the Devil Rays, 6-5. Wonder if Ryan noticed what Baltimore's bullpen did in the Bronx.

-In Texas, the always-powerful Sammy Sosa got an excuse-me RBI, his first of the season, on a check swing against the Red Sox. Rangers 2 - Red Sox 0.

-And, of course, in New York, Mike Mussina gave up six earned runs in four innings as the good guys took down the Evil Empire, 6-4.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Our Electrical Contraption of Prognostication Is Smarter Than Yours

After three games, have the statheads won?

By Christopher Heun

The statheads have done their voodoo math tricks and predicted the future that is the 2007 baseball season, including the mean height that the grass in foul territory in every ballpark will grow, normalized to the respective league average, of course.

We here at RF34 have also crunched some numbers. Whatever numbers we could find lying around: we picked up a 10 and carried a two and that was pretty much it.

The statheads at
Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere have shared their predictions (basically, that the Orioles will finish last in the A.L. East), and we’re prepared to do the same. (Basically, we disagree, but not by a whole heckuva lot.) In fact, we’ll be so bold as to throw down the gauntlet: let this season be the battle royal, the final test of good old-fashioned love of the game that our fathers taught us versus newfangled progressive attitudes open to understanding baseball in new ways, reportedly involving statistics and other such figures.

If, at the end of the season, Pecota is right, we’ll stop taking cheap shots at statheads. (For the purposes of this exercise Pecota shall represent all forecasting formulas. We’ve heard of others out there – Chone, Marcel and ZiPS, but really, we can’t be bothered, except to ask, who names this stuff?) If, however, our prophecy turns out to be closer to the final standings, then we’ll sign a sponsorship deal for the new Texas Instruments scientific calculator.

Since we are an amiable sort and wish to make all of our guests comfortable, regardless of who wins this final test of wits, any reader of this blog who professes an affinity for the world of statistics shall retain the right to get his hackles up after encountering harmless commentary posted here. (As one anonymous poster did recently, referring to us collectively a “
judgemental prick.”)

Now that we have that out of the way, on to the magic number . . . 79.

That’s how many wins we believe the Orioles will manage this season. We were going to say the O’s will finish 80-82, a sort of poetic near-miss at mediocrity in a Bad News Bears sort of way, but then we read two different baseball writers for The Sun, Peter Schmuck and Roch Kubatko, both predict the team would win 78 games, so we took that into consideration. We like to think of ourselves as one better than those guys.

For the record, Pecota predicts last place for the Birds, with a 74-88 record, four games behind Tampa. We say the Orioles will actually be five games better than the Devils Rays.

Why do we think this, and how can we state this with any certainty? Because it’s what we want to happen. We admit it. Pecota's forecasting system runs on pure numbers and unbiased algorithms. Our prediction engine is fueled by a careful balance of hope, faith, and blind intuition.

Admittedly, we’re not taking much of a risk, given that the O’s (as we all know) have finished in fourth place eight of the last nine seasons.

This is a club that has a chance to be average. It could very well end up at exactly .500 – neither winners nor losers. Imagine that. We should be so lucky.

But just as a .500 season is within reach, it is equally as possible that the Birds will finish in the cellar. I’m tired of listing the reasons why; we all know them by now. One additional reason, given frequently this spring, is all of the Devil Rays' potential – and this time the sportswriters, and the scouts, and everybody else really mean it.

True, the Rays are loaded with young talent. But the one thing that Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes, and Delmon Young can’t do is pitch.

With a starting rotation of Jae Seo, James Shields, Casey Fossum, and Edwin Jackson following Scott Kazmir, how can anyone realistically expect Tampa Bay to win 17 games more than they did a year ago? Tampa Bay has never lost fewer than 91 games in a season; last year their record was 61-101.

Even if Tampa doesn’t finish ahead of the Birds this season, it will probably happen soon enough. There simply isn’t enough talent in the upper tiers of the Orioles farm system to match what clubs like Tampa are producing. Last month the O’s traded their 2006 minor league player of the year, Cory Keylor, for a 37-year-old journeyman catcher with 11 career home runs. Enough said.

All is not lost, though. The Blue Jays haven’t got it all figured out, either. Their three starters who will follow Roy Halladay and A. J. Burnett – Gustavo Chacin, Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers, according to
mlb.com – combined last season for a 5.81 E.R.A. in 246 innings, allowing 281 hits and 48 home runs. Where’s Russ Ortiz when you need him?

So here’s the final verdict: the Birds will win more games than last year but still finish below .500 and still finish in fourth place. That’s the karma of a bad ball club. They’ll be marginally better (though not for the long haul), but still be bad. Still a loser. Still a joke.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot of numbers to see that.

Home and Away: O's Blogs vs.Twins Blogs

By Matthew Taylor

It's time to pit the hometown bloggers (Maryland Sports Fan) against the visitors (Right Handed Heat) in this season's inaugural version of "Home and Away."

Baseball bloggers in Baltimore and Minnesota can agree on at least one thing after the first series of the season: the Birds ain't lookin' so hot. But in keeping with the cliché, it's not what you say, but how you say it.

Maryland Sports Fan proclaims "Orioles Suck!" in a recent blog headline, but it's of course said out of love. It reminds me of my favorite O's analyst, my grandfather, who was always delightfully irritated with the Birds.

Maryland Sports Fan offers a reasoned analysis of the team's slow start and examines the individual efforts of Kevin Millar, Chris Gomez, Daniel Cabrera, and Jaret Wright.

Away: The "Twin Cities fanatics" at
Right Handed Heat offer a slightly milder conclusion, "The Orioles stink," and add a funny line about the upcoming debut of former Birds hurler Sidney Ponson: "A fine drunk but a lousy pitcher."

Right Handed Heat has to take some heat, however, for using the awful nickname "Boofer" (Boof Bonser) and the decidely unimaginative descriptor "Bitchsox" for their AL Central rival.

Advantage: Maryland Sports Fan. It's root, root, root for the home team in Vol. 1, Issue 1 of "Home and Away."

[See the RF34 "Vide-O Corner" for the insight of a young Birds critic.]

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Patterson: The New Secretary of Defense

A free agent payday awaits, if only he could hit lefties

By Christopher Heun

A strained hamstring will keep new outfielder Jay Payton out of the opening day lineup in Minnesota against the reigning Cy Young winner, Johan Santana. Could this be an omen for Corey Patterson?

Patterson, who will get to start in center field because of the injury, needs to prove that he can handle left-handed pitchers after hitting just .207 against them in 2006. This will be an important season for him. A free agent next year, his chance for a big payday depends on how decisively he can shed the tag of a part-time player.

That seems to be what the Orioles have concluded about him. A big reason they signed Payton this winter was for his right-handed bat that could spell Patterson against southpaws. Now that Payton has been injured before the season even starts, Patterson has one last shot to play everyday, even if it’s only for a short period.

Next winter, the Orioles, along with a bunch of other clubs, will be asking themselves: how good is Patterson? Is he the player who hit .276 last year with a .757 OPS (slightly below league average)? Or is he the power threat who slugged .511 in 329 at-bats in 2003? The No. 3 pick in the 1998 draft, Patterson has always drawn raves for his physical tools, but he’s never managed to put it all together on the field.

Some seasons he’s been truly awful. The lesser Corey Patterson, the one who played his way out of Chicago in 2005, hit a measly .215 with an OPS of .602 – probably the worst hitter in the major leagues that season.

His defense and speed have never been questioned. He stole a career high 45 bases last year while flashing an outstanding glove in center field. Chris Dial at Baseball Think Factory, posting defensive stats that ranked the Orioles centerfielder as the best in the American League in 2006, wrote that Patterson is “climbing the charts as one of the top defensive CFs over the last 20 years.”

Patterson is a lifetime .229 hitter vs. lefties (and .266 vs. righties). Subtract his wasted at-bats against southpaws and last year he hit .301 with a .826 OPS in 342 at-bats. Not bad. Pair it with a right-handed hitter who can hold his own (for comparison’s sake, Payton posted an .817 OPS vs. lefties in 2006), and you’ve got a decent platoon. Not quite Roenicke-Lowenstein, but nothing to sneeze at, either.

Of course, Patterson insists he should play every day and points out that he actually hit better against lefties than righties in 2004; an adequate .819 OPS. "It's all about repetition; the more you do it, the better you get at it,” he told the Associated Press recently. His splits weren’t dramatically different in 2003 but overall, his career stats show a clear weakness against southpaws.

Should he put together a decent 2007 with the bat, Patterson could be in for a fat contract next winter given the deals handed out this off-season to some other center fielders of dubious skill.

Two of the most egregious: the Angels gave Gary Matthews Jr. $50 million over five years after a career year in which Matthew hit .313 with 19 homers and a .866 OPS. The Dodgers, meanwhile, handed Juan Pierre $44 million for five years after Pierre hit .326 with three homers (and 45 steals while getting caught 24 times) and a .781 OPS.

At this rate, Patterson will get at least 8 million per year as long as he can sign his own name.

Based on the OPS+ stat on baseball-reference.com, (which rates players’ on-base percentage plus slugging percentage compared to the league average) Matthews, Pierre and Patterson are all below average hitters for their careers.

Career OPS+ (100 is average)
Matthews: 96
Pierre: 86
Patterson: 84

Last year was the only season Pierre put up an OPS+ greater than 100; it was 107. Patterson has managed it just once, too, in 2003 (.116). If Patterson could manage to get on base just a little bit more frequently than in the past, he might be able to convince Dodgers GM Ned Coletti to give him $10 million a year.

One thing Patterson, at 27, has in his favor is his age. He’s five years younger than Matthews and 2 years Pierre’s junior.

Patterson has another (admittedly convoluted) connection to Matthews. Not Gary Jr., but his dad. When the elder Matthews, known as “Sarge,“ played for the Phillies, (he was a member of the 1983 team that lost in the World Series to the O’s), one of his
teammates, Gary Maddox, earned the nickname, “The Secretary of Defense,” for his glove work in the outfield.

Phillies announcer Harry Kalas used to say, "Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Garry Maddox."

The same could be true of Corey Patterson.