K

With Spring in the air, all thoughts turn to baseball. What better way to prepare for the coming season than reading K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner? Kepner has covered baseball for the NY Times since 2010, and in this book he explores the background and usage of baseball’s most popular pitches. The book is divided into (can you guess?) 10 chapters, each devoted to a specific pitch. Kepner researches the development of the pitch and the famous practitioners, and talks about where the pitch stands today in the current baseball pitching arsenal. He interviews a lot of ballplayers, and goes back to older written sources, such as Mathewson’s Pitching in a Pinch, Kahn’s The Head Game, and Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.

As a precursor to the season this was a great read, long on stories and short on spin rate and over-analysis, though there is a sufficient amount of that, too. (How could you write about pitching today without talking about velocity and spin rate and photonic shift effect and all that?) But most of the book is made up of stories, pitchers talking about where they learned the pitch, how they throw it, and how the pitches have been handed down through the history of the league from pitcher to pitcher. That was an aspect of the book I really enjoyed, hearing about the Fraternal Order of Pitchers. The good pitchers are always looking to learn new weapons, and pitchers seem to readily share their knowledge with the young pitchers coming up, sometimes even if they are on different teams. There’s a “We’re all in this together” attitude. It’s pitchers vs. hitters, and it seems like the pitchers rarely win that contest. The object of pitching is to not let the other team score, and yet, every game, there is scoring. Every day, pitchers are beaten. Runs are scored. They are like lambs to the slaughter. And I think because of that, there’s the brotherhood of all pitchers as they battle against all odds for simple survival. Also, pitching is very idiosyncratic. Even though there’s a general way to throw a curve ball, and you can show someone how you do it, how you throw your devastating curve: just like this, put your fingers here, release here… but everyone’s hand and grip varies, along with the angle they throw from, how hard they throw, how and when they release the ball, which fingers they use. Telling someone how to throw the curve is only the first step. Each pitcher has to make the pitch his own, find his own way, find what works for him.

There are a few pitchers in here who were fortunate and found immediate success with a pitch. It just fits for them, their release, grip, everything, from day one. I think that they generally realize how lucky they are. Mostly though it’s a long haul of throwing, fine tuning, trying different things. The trick is to be able to perform time after time, to make the pitch day in and day out, without changing what you do. There was one pitcher, Roy Halladay, who was throwing his pitch well one day, and used a pen to trace his grip on the ball. He carried that ball with him for the rest of his career, and whenever he had struggles he would go back to that ball and get his grip back where it should be.

My favorite pitchers in the book were the guys who didn’t have the amazing arm and the crushing slider or forkball or whatever. The guys who had a bit of this and a little of that, and a lot of moxie. They kept learning, kept thinking, kept evolving throughout their careers. Guys like Jim Bouton (of course) who hurt his arm and lost his fastball and turned to the knuckleball. Or Jamie Moyer, who kept learning new things and pitched till he was 50. Those are the stories that resonated with me, and probably with a lot of people. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the physical gift, and even that may only take you so far. And if you can adapt and evolve, pay attention and learn,you could end up pitching awhile. (And probably this lesson applies to life in general, if you want to take it in that direction.)

All in all, a fun read. I learned a few things. And I’m working on my knuckleball. Because you never know, you know? Maybe, some day… maybe…

The Big Acq

Well, the Twins have gone and done it. With Highly Obvious Needs in the starting rotation, the Twins went into the off season hunting for a #1 starter, a guy who can dominate and take us to the top. And now they have done it, they have gone out and spent some serious cash on a High Price, High Impact, High Risk Free Agent: Josh Donaldson.

Third baseman.

The Big Acq.

Well.

Donaldson can put the ball in the seats, which is something that the Twins have largely lacked over the last few years, although last year they did happen to set an all-time major league record for home runs.

So the big thing they probably got him for was his fielding. He’s excellent at 3rd, and this will enable Sano to move to first, where he belongs, and where he will replace the departed CJ Cron, who will be playing for the Detroit Twins next season. (Gardenhire, Schoop, Cron.)

Having secured the all-important third base position, the Twins can call this off-season a win. A lot of people were fooled by the Twins saying they were looking for starting pitching. Then, out of no-where: WHAK! Third base! Caught you looking!

Donaldson had a good season last year with the Atlanta club.

(Side note: what would the Atlanta club be called if they ditched their name, (which seems to be offensive to many)? The Atlanta Crackers? That may also be offensive, though there was a minor league Crackers club for quite some time, and they did pretty well. Actually, the Crackers has kind of a nice sound to it, such as in “the Crack of the Bat,” which may be one of the reasons they used it. What else is Atlanta known for? The Atlanta Peaches? The Atlanta Golden Domes? The Atlanta Firemen? The Atlanta Airports? The Georgia Peanuts?)

.259, 37hr, 94rbi, and 4 stolen bases. (The Twins were not busy on the basepaths last season, and Donaldson’s speed will add another dimension to the club.) He should be able to fill Cron’s shoes in the offense department, and he’ll probably be an improvement over Sano at third. Sano, though, moves to first, where he will be a drop from Cron’s fielding acumen. So maybe the fielding all evens out. And is fielding important? Perhaps not as important as planting the ball in the upper deck, but it is pretty fun to watch, and fun to make a nice catch too. Everybody loves a dramatic catch.

Probably, on the scale of What’s Enjoyable About Baseball, an amazing catch beats a home run. Even if it’s an upper deck shot. I’d rather see an amazing catch. A home run is just a long base hit. An amazing catch is super-human.

imho

Anyway. Pencil-in Donaldson at third, Sano at first.

Also pencil-in the Twin Surprises, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill (Homer & Hill) into the tail-end of the starting rotation. There was not a lot of talk about Homer & Hill in the off-season, which made them a perfect target for the Twins Front Office, which enjoys the undervalued and relatively quiet pitching acquisitions.

Which reminds me of Yu Darvish. The highly-coveted-in-the-2017-off-season Yu Darvish, who then was injured most of 2018, and went 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA with the Cubs in 2019. Free agents are a gamble, and free agent pitchers even more so.

Now a third baseman, on the other-hand. A third baseman you can take to the bank. He’s not going to hurt his arm while playing Guitar Hero. Third basemen are rock solid.

I see that Eddie Rosario is still with the club. Good. Let’s not go out and trade him for starting pitching. I know we have a lot of young bats in the minors, Larnach and Raley and the legendary Kiriloff. Are they ready to play in the show? No, not quite. We’ll know when they are ready. They will be pounding at the door. But right now, I don’t hear them knocking. Not yet.

Finally: the 2019 Recap

Congratulations to the Minnesota Twins on winning the American League Central Division. Congrats in particular to Rocco Baldelli, who wins Manager of the Year award in his rookie season. When was that last done? And when was the last time the Twins had the Manager of the Year? (As if we didn’t know.)

The Twins finish the regular season with an respectable 101-61 record. (And congratulations Sid Hartman on having the closest prediction this year!) How did the Twins do it? How did they wildly out-perform all expectations? How is this remotely possible?? Have we slipped into Bizzaro World somehow?

No, it’s not Bizarro World. This is real life. And here they are:

The Top 10 Reasons why the Twins Totally Rocked in 2019

  1. Obviously, they (The Front Office) got extremely lucky. Or — and this must be fairly considered — just maybe they know what they are doing? The free agent pickups of last off-season all produced, and I would be very tempted to label the Brain Trust as geniuses, were it not for their 2018 off-season acquisitions, which were largely terrible. (LogMor? All those pitchers?) And so, for me, the jury is out, still, on whether the Front Office is made of Brainiacs or whether they had a lucky roll of the dice.
  2. La Bomba. With the totally magnificent Nelson Cruz leading the way, the twins launched more rockets than the North Koreans. It was an impressive display. AND we even managed to out-homer los yanquis malditos, 307-306. Kepler hitting 36 was a pleasant surprise. Garver hitting 31 and Polanco hitting 22 were bigger surprises. I wasn’t expecting 32 from Rosario. And Cron and Schoop popped for 25 and 23. Pretty nice line-up.
  3. Latin America! Shades of Calvin Griffith! The Twins looked off shore for baseball talent, and Latin America answered the call. (Okay, Germany also contributed.) Cruz, Sano, Arraez, Astudillo, Adrianza (TripleA), Gonzalez, Polanco, Schoop. And Max Kepler.
  4. Rocco Baldelli. His calm demeanor steadied the club through the rough spots, and his juggling of the pitching staff was worthy of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Here’s a surprise: Baldelli was ejected twice this season. It’s kind of hard to imagine. How did I miss those games? I imagine the ejections must have been on some obscure technicalities, too many bats in the bat rack, perhaps, or submitting the lineup card in pencil, or wearing illegal socks. That’s it, Baldelli! You’re Outta Here!

It’s hard for me to judge the value of managers. Probably Molitor (Manager of the Year, 2017) would have done just as well as Baldelli, with a club hitting 300 homers. It’s kind of like how the President gets the credit or the blame for the economy, when they don’t have that much to do with it. Maybe the same with managers. I’m sure it’s a hard job, working with 25 guys who want to play and win and all. Not a job I would want. I’d want to email in the lineup card each day, and then watch the game on my computer. My substitutions would appear flashing brightly on a screen in the dugout.

  1. The Bullpen. Our starting rotation was, to be frank, largely unimpressive, and so a good bullpen was a necessity. The Twins were criticized in the off-season for not bolstering their bullpen, but it turned out pretty okay, as they made do pretty much with in-house arms. In fact, an argument could be made that the Twins had one of the better bullpens in MLB in 2019. Possibly. Depends on what numbers you want to look at. But no matter how you look at it, they were better than expected, and that made a huge difference. Was it coaching? Maturity? Health? Magic? Whatever.
  2. Nelson Cruz. Reminded me a bit of… who? Puckett? Killebrew? Nelson had fun out there and set an example of how to play the game. He helped keep the club on an even keel throughout the season, and he pounded the ball in a businesslike fashion. Probably the most important free agent pick up in the club history. Or, I should probably say, one of the most important, with a nod to… Joe Niekro? Chili Davis? Black Jack Morris?
  3. Pitching coach Wes Johnson gets a tip of the cap. Hard to judge his efforts. Team ERA went down from 4.5 to 4.18. I compared the team pitching stats from 2018 and 2019, and I see slight general improvement. What stood out was 452 walks given up in 2019, compared to 573 in 2018. There were 10 intentional walks in 2019, compared to 34 in 2018. Five balks in 2019, none in 2018. Hmmm. Hmmmm. Well, less guys on base = less guys who can score. Maybe Wes told the guys, throw strikes, and that was all it took.
  4. Jake Odorizzi – There were disappointments in the pitching department, but Jake Odorizzi was not one of them. On the contrary. The 29-year-old slab artist dropped his ERA from 4.49 to 3.51 in 2019, and made the all-star team. He had a few health problems later in the season, as pitchers will, but he was a solid dependable starter, and those are in short supply. Definitely the Twins Pitcher of the Year, in my book.
  5. Mad Max Kepler in right field. Stepped up his game in a major league way, from OPS of .727 in 2018 to .855 in 2019. Thirty-six homers, 90 rbis, and a solid outfielder. Is there more to come?
  6. Mitch Garver claimed the catcher spot with another giant step forward in his game, raising his OPS from .745 to (gulp) .995! Yowza. Seven homers in 2018, 31 in 2019. Mitch Garver had a monster season. They say his pitch-framing improved as well. Which is also very important.

There are, of course, numerous Other Factors that could be mentioned. But how much time does one have to go on and on about last season? Times moves on, and there’s plenty to worry about in 2020. For instance, and maybe you better sit down for this… there are rumors that Steady Eddie Rosario might be trade bait? Eddie Rosario? Well, that’s food for thought. I guess there are a lot of young guys in the minors that can swing the bat. They need a chance. But… Eddie? For what? Pitching?

Let me consider that. I’ll get back to you. But how about those Senators? I mean the Nationals. How about them? Congrats to the DC club. Not actually a division winner, but still, by the grace of God, Champions of all Major League Baseball. Dozier gets a ring! Happy to see that. And Kurt Suzuki too!

Let the Hot Stove League Commence!

—> 9 <—

Could it get any bigger than this?

The Twins go to Cleveland with a tenuous 3.5 game lead. It’s a three game series, and the first game is rained out. So: double-header time. There’s still a good number of games left, so everything doesn’t actually ride on this series. But it kind of feels like it does. The Twins have taken some blows lately, losing Pineda and Buxton. They’ve lost a few games, and the Spiders are breathing down their necks now, and here we are, playing in the Clevelander’s home park, the Spider Web. Play-off baseball. A doubleheader with the top two teams.

There is great potential for disaster.

But the boys come out and take the first one, 2-0, with shut-down pitching from the law firm of  Smeltzer, Littell, Duffy, Romo, and Rogers. Polanco gets a two-run homer to win the game. And then the Twins actually sweep the doubleheader, coming back from a 5-2 deficit in game two. They tie it up in the 8th, 5-5, and with the bases loaded and one out Sano crushes the first pitch into the left field stands.

Twins win, 9-5.

They are up by 5.5 games. And the radio broadcast crew say the words: “magic number.”

And the Magic Number is

9.

the race

I was going to call this “breathing space,” with the Twins 5 and a half ahead of the Spiders today, but thought better of it. Breathing space can disappear in the space of four or five games, and there are plenty of games yet to play. Every game is playoff baseball now, everything counts, and everybody feels post-season drawing closer, and closer, and closer. (Cue: music from Jaws.)

Looking over to the National League, I see the Braves, Cards, and Dodgers all on top in their respective divisions. Coincidentally, the three teams that the Twins have already played in the World Series. So: rematch time?

Credit goes to the NY Times for this lovely representation of the Yanquis.

But first, of course, the Twins will need to overcome los Yanquis de Nuevo York.

Which is a tall task for anybody, but particularly for the Twins, who seem to be allergic to all New York teams, past, present, and probably future. Perhaps if we refer to them as the Phillies or the [insert Florida’s NL team name here] or the Diamondbacks… perhaps then we will do better.

With pennant fever raging, the Twins have gotten a few bits of bad news:

First, they lose one of their key starters, Michael Pineda, for the rest of the season, due to PED rule violation. This hurts, as Berrios and Gibson have been struggling of late, while Pinada has been getting stronger. Apparently Pinada took some over-the-counter medication, given to him by a friend, to help control weight issues? I guess that could happen. This must be awful for Pineda. After all, post-season is THE BIG SHOW, everyone plays all year trying to get into post season, and here’s his shot and suddenly, no, he’s out. How many chances do you get to go to the playoffs?

Which makes me wonder what players have gone a lot, and I suppose there are players out there who rarely get the chance. Who are the active players with fewest post-season games in their career? Are there any players out there who have played a long time and never gone to the playoffs? Which baseball team has the longest post-season drought?

Mariners fans; how do you stand it? It’s been 17 seasons since the Mariners have seen playoff ball. Seventeen long seasons. There are young Seattle baseball fans who have no memory of Seattle in the playoffs, and may not even know that playoffs exist. Perhaps they see the Mariners as the baseball equivalent of the Washington Generals? I think that’s the team that goes around the world losing to the Harlem Globetrotters. Anyway. Seventeen seasons. And the Seattle record so far, in 2019: 58-85. And yesterday they lost to the Astronats by the score of, uh… looks like…  21 – 1.

It may be some time before those Mariners get back to the big show.

Ernie Banks, sad to say, holds the record for most games played without seeing the post season: 2528 games, 19 seasons. Ouch. I have not yet found a source that tracks active players in this regard. I might examine the Mariner roster, for starters.

Anyway, besides Pineda, the Twins also may have to do without Byron Buxton, who’s injured his shoulder. There’s some talk of surgery. Byron has been a tough luck player.

And then, finally, the Twins also may have to do without Max Kepler, who also seems to be injured. That would be another tough loss, if he can’t come back. He’s having a heckuva year.

Oh, well. I suppose the Mariners would love to have these problems. There’s lot’s of baseball left to play, let’s just try to win the next one, tomorrow, in Washington. (Almost like a home game!) And let’s try to stay healthy too.