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Freddie Freeman Returns

July 5, 2017

Hugh Atkins

The Fourth of July saw the return of Freddie Freeman to the Atlanta Braves lineup. Freeman was sidelined on May 17 with a fractured wrist courtesy of a fastball from Aaron Loup of the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time of the injury, Freeman was hitting .341 and led the National League in home runs with 14; the Braves were 16-21 on the season.

Many Braves fans, myself included, felt the loss of Freeman doomed the Braves chances for even a mediocre season. But the Braves went 24-20 during Freeman’s absence and entered play on Independence Day one game under .500 (40-41) at the season’s halfway mark. The Braves got some unexpected assistance from the St. Louis Cardinals to help them bridge the gap until Freeman’s return. Three days after the Freeman injury, the Braves traded minor league infielder Juan Yepez to the Cardinals for first baseman, Matt Adams.

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The Cardinals were having trouble finding a spot in their lineup for Adams since he only plays first base and Matt Carpenter took over that position this year. In 39 games while Freeman was out of the lineup, Adams hit .285 with 12 home runs and 32 runs batted in. While Adams isn’t the only reason the Braves played better during Freeman’s absence, he certainly exceeded expectations and it is doubtful that the Braves would be within a game of .500 without him.

Adams performed so well while Freeman was sidelined that the prospect of dropping his bat from the lineup upon Freeman’s return could not have been something that manager Brian Snitker was looking forward to. But, as I mentioned earlier, since Adams only plays first base, it appeared that he was destined to become a pinch hitter or the designated hitter when the Braves were visiting American League venues. If only the Braves could work out a position change that would allow them to keep both Freeman and Adams in the lineup at the same time.

Lo and behold a position change presented itself. Well, actually Freeman presented a position change to the Braves. He notified management that he would be willing to move across the diamond to third base in order to find a permanent spot for Adams in the lineup. So Freeman began working with coaches Ron Washington and Terry Pendleton to reacquaint himself with the hot corner, a position he hadn’t played since high school.

In his two minor league rehab starts, Freeman played third base for the Gwinnett Braves and then notified the big club that he was ready to go. In his first at bat on July 4, Freeman singled to center field and flawlessly fielded the only ball hit to him at third base. Adams went 2-4, but the Braves still lost to the Houston Astros by a score of 16-4.

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Freddie Freeman added to his reputation as the consummate team player by volunteering to move to third base. He is an established star and, in addition to swinging a powerful bat, he also is one of the best-fielding first basemen in the game. While Adams is no Dick Stuart–a first baseman whose fielding was so erratic that it earned him the nickname, Dr. Strangeglove–it must be pointed out that he also is no J.T Snow (he of the six Gold Gloves). Rookie Johan Camargo was filling in nicely at third base after the injury to Adonis Garcia, swinging a strong bat and having a real impact defensively.

I hope the Braves are not panning for fool’s gold by trying to keep Adams’ bat in the lineup. No matter what, it was nice to see a player of Freeman’s caliber put his team first.

The Opposite of Freddie Freeman

On June 14 New York Mets second baseman, Neil Walker, suffered a hamstring injury while trying to beat out a bunt against the Chicago Cubs. Walker became the latest in a long line of Mets to hit the disabled list this season. David Wright hasn’t played at all this season and Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Yoenis Cespedes have spent significant time on the DL. Walker’s double play partner, Asdrubal Cabrera, injured his thumb the night before Walker landed on the disabled list.

With all of their injuries, manager Terry Collins did some creative shifting of personnel. Jose Reyes moved from third base to shortstop and Wilmer Flores landed at third base; first baseman, T.J. Rivera, shifted to second base and Lucas Duda became the fulltime first baseman. With this combo, the Mets promptly lost seven of eight games.

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When Cabrera was set to return from his stint on the disabled list, Collins informed him that he would be shifting from shortstop to second base. Cabrera responded by demanding a trade, but said he’d feel better about the shift if the Mets went ahead and picked up his option for 2018.

In Cabrera’s defense, I don’t see how playing Reyes at shortstop is a good option for the Mets. Why have three players out of position when they could limit it to one by leaving Cabrera at short and moving Reyes back to third? But that’s beside the point. It’s Cabrera’s job to play the position his manager tells him to play. Collins, as manager, decides which lineup provides the best opportunity for his team to win and he suffers the criticism if his decisions don’t work out.

Cabrera moved to second base and hit well, going 14-43 while the Mets won seven of their next 11 games. He improved his average from .244 at the time of his injury to .260. He even reevaluated his stance on the trade, saying he’s good with staying in New York from now on. Even though Cabrera has played well since moving to second base, he can’t just undemand to be traded and hope everyone forgets he wanted out. The damage is done; his reputation as a selfish player is too well established.

It will take a Herculean effort from both the Braves and the Mets for either of them to catch the Washington Nationals; heck, it will take a similar effort for either of them to secure the last Wild Card spot in the National League. But win, lose, or draw, Freddie Freeman volunteered to change positions to keep a potent bat in the lineup while Asdrubal Cabrera demanded a trade if he had to move from shortstop to second base.

Time will tell whether either of these moves really made sense, but one thing is not up for debate. Only one of these players put his team first and that player was not Asdrubal Cabrera.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

What’s the Hurry, Fella?

March 8, 2017
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

In 1974, Charles O. Finley, maverick owner of the Oakland Athletics, decided to sign Herb Washington to serve solely as a pinch runner.

At Michigan State, Washington set world indoor records in the 50- and 60-yard dash, was a NCAA champion, a repeat All-American, and a seven-time Big Ten titlist but he hadn’t played baseball since he was a junior in high school.

Washington appeared in 92 games in 1974, stole 29 bases, and scored 29 runs; he was caught stealing 16 times. A player who could do nothing but pinch run forced manager Alvin Dark to burn three players each time he used him. Obviously, the player for whom Washington ran was out of the game and, since Washington did not play a defensive position, Dark had to use another player to replace him once the Athletics returned to the field.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Washington was on the Athletics 1974 postseason roster and appeared in two games in the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles; he attempted two steals and was caught both times.

Unfortunately, Washington’s defining moment may have come in Game Two of the 1974 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sent in to pinch run for Joe Rudi in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game, Mike Marshall picked off Washington to snuff out an Athletics’ comeback. Washington appeared in two more games in the Series but he did not steal a base or score a run.

After appearing in just 13 games early in the 1975 season, the experiment with the designated pinch runner ended and the Athletics released Washington. Even Charlie O. realized that it just didn’t make sense to carry a player of such limited use on the roster.

Herb Washington finished his career with 31 stolen bases and 33 runs scored; he never batted and he never played the field.

Just Put Him On

In an effort to speed up the game, Major League Baseball decided to change the procedure for issuing intentional walks. No longer will the catcher stand with his arm fully extended at shoulder height and parallel to the ground to indicate that the pitcher will be tossing the next pitch wide of the plate in order to purposely walk the current batter. Starting this season, the manager merely has to signal from the dugout that he wants an intentional walk.

As changes to the game go, this really isn’t any big deal. It’s not as if Major League Baseball is suggesting that there be a designated pinch hitter to bat in place of the pitcher for the entire game, or that the All-Star Game should determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series, or even that teams from different leagues should play games against each other during the regular season.

Baseball purists do not like the new rule for intentional walks. They cite odd plays resulting from wild pitches during intentional walks or the fewer-than-occasional times that batters have reached out and hit a pitch during an intentional walk as reasons for not allowing the manager to merely wave a batter down to first base without any pitches having been thrown.

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One of the best-know intentional walks that went awry occurred in Game 3 of the 1972 World Series.  The Cincinnati Reds were leading the Athletics 1-0 in the top of the eighth inning. The Reds were threatening to increase their lead; they had runners at second and third base with one out and Johnny Bench was at the plate.

Oakland manager, Dick Williams, went to the mound to discuss the situation with pitcher Rollie Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace. Despite the fact that Bench already had two strikes on him, Tenace returned to his position behind the plate and extended his right arm out to his side to indicate that Oakland was going to put Bench on and load the bases. As Fingers went into his windup, Tenace went into his crouch, and instead of soft tossing an intentionally-wide pitch, Fingers delivered a nasty slider that caught the outside corner of the plate for strike three.

These types of plays do not occur often enough to use them as a valid argument against changing the rules for issuing intentional walks. But pitchers also don’t issue enough intentional walks for this new rule to have a significant impact on the total time of the average game. Last season, in 4,856 games, batters went to the plate 184,580 times. Out of all of those plate appearances, pitchers issued only 932 intentional walks—that’s one half of one percent (0.5%) of the total plate appearances. Even if each intentional walk under this new format takes a few seconds off the time of a game, these statistics indicate that this rule change will have virtually no effect on the overall average length of a game.

I really don’t care for any of the other suggestions for shortening the time of a game. I like the idea of telling batters to stay in the batter’s box between pitches and having the pitchers stop fiddling around between pitches. But I don’t think baseball needs a clock to implement those changes.

Another proposal would have extra innings begin with a runner placed at second base. While such a rule might create a roster spot for the next Herb Washington, this proposal is so bad it doesn’t even deserve serious consideration.

It’s the Pitching Changes, Stupid

If MLB officials really want to know why games are lasting longer than they used to, all they need do is look at the team rosters. Every team now carries at least 12 pitchers because late in the game the managers want a left-handed specialist, a set-up man, and a closer. I read somewhere that the Atlanta Braves are considering carrying 13 pitchers this season. It is insane for a team to have more pitchers than position players on their roster.

If a manager has that many pitchers at his disposal, he is going to use them. Whenever a left-handed hitter comes to the plate after the sixth inning, the opposing manager likes to slowly walk out to the mound, paw around in the dirt for a minute, pass the time of day with the entire infield, and wait for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound before finally signaling a left-handed pitcher into the game. If the next hitter is right-handed, whether or not the left-handed pitcher retired the left-handed hitter, the manager again slowly walks out to the mound, paws around in the dirt for a minute, passes the time of day with the entire infield, and waits for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound before finally signaling a right-handed pitcher into the game.

I am not in favor of limiting the number of visits a manager or coach can make to the pitcher’s mound and I certainly do not want MLB to impose a limit on the number of pitching changes a team can make in a game. Rule changes are not the cure for this insanity. For goodness sake, let a big league pitcher try to retire two batters in a row late in the game every now and then. That will do more to speed up the game than a manager waving a batter to first on an intentional walk.

Besides, it is just plain nonsense for teams to spend millions of dollars each year on pitchers who aren’t expected to throw more than a handful of pitches each time they enter a game. These guys are the Herb Washingtons of today’s game.

(Source material for this post: baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org and msuspartans.com)

All is Well in the Windy City

November 9, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The Chicago Cubs outlasted the Cleveland Indians in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series and ended more than a lifetime of frustration for their fans. For the first time since 1908, the Cubs are World Champions. As this Series demonstrated, sometimes there is a very thin line between winning and losing; between celebrating championships and enduring long, cold winters; between Grady Little and Joe Maddon.

In the 2003 American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox were leading the New York Yankees 5-2 going into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7 with their ace, Pedro Martinez, on mound. The Red Sox were trying to get to the World Series for the first time since Bill Buckner broke their hearts in 1986 and they had not won the World Series since 1918.

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© T.C.G.

After Nick Johnson popped out to start the inning, Derek Jeter doubled. Boston manager, Grady Little, did not panic; he stayed with his ace, which was understandable. A single by Bernie Williams made it a two-run game and Little stayed with Martinez. A double by Hideki Matsui put the tying runs in scoring position; Little stayed with Martinez. Finally, after Jorge Posada doubled to tie the score, Little decided that Martinez was finished.

The game remained tied until Aaron Boone ended it with a home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning. Boston fans were devastated and Little never managed another game for the Red Sox.

Joe Maddon may be riding high, but the only difference between Grady Little and Joe Maddon is that Maddon got away with his questionable management of the pitching staff.

Maddon’s mismanagement of the bullpen actually goes back to Game 6 of the Series. The Cubs were firing on all eight cylinders and led the Indians 7-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. Mike Montgomery was pitching for the Cubs and he issued a one-out walk and a two-out single to put runners at first and second. Maddon brought in his closer, the flame-throwing lefty, Aroldis Chapman.

It seemed perplexing that Maddon decided to use Chapman in such a situation. Even if Maddon had left Montgomery in, or had gone to another reliever, and Francisco Lindor had hit a three-run homer, the Cubs still would have been up by two runs. Maddon then could have used Chapman if he felt the need.

Even with the five-run lead preserved, Chapman was right back out on the mound for the eighth inning. He got a strikeout and then gave up a single, but a double play quickly erased the threat. Even though the Cubs tacked on two more runs in the top of the ninth to expand their lead to seven, Maddon trotted Chapman back out to the mound to start the ninth inning; he walked the leadoff batter before departing.

Chapman pitched 2 2/3 innings, his longest outing of the season, on Sunday, October 30. With the travel day on Monday and the blowout on Tuesday, Maddon could have had a well-rested Chapman to call upon early in Game 7. If the Indians had indeed made a game of it, Maddon then always could have gone to Chapman.

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© T.C.G.

In his postgame press conference on ESPN, Maddon defended his decision to go with Chapman. “I thought the game could have been lost right there if we did not take care of it properly,” Maddon said. The game could have been lost right there? So there was a chance that Lindor was going to hit a six-run homer off Montgomery?

The Cubs took command of Game 7 and were up 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning with their ace, Jon Lester, on the mound pitching in relief. (I actually think Maddon lifted starter, Kyle Hendricks, too soon, but that’s another debate.) This is where things got a little dicey. After Jose Ramirez singled, Maddon decided to bring in Chapman.

Brandon Guyer greeted Chapman with a ringing double, Ramirez scored, and it was a two-run game. Then Rajai Davis hit a laser into the left-field stands and, just like that, the game was tied. Cubs fans could be forgiven if thoughts of, “Here we go again” suddenly danced in their heads.

Chapman gave up another hit before striking out Yan Gomes to end the inning. After the Cubs failed to score in the top of the ninth, Chapman retired the Indians in order in their half of the inning.

The Cubs waited out the rain and pulled out a win in extra innings, so all’s well that ends well. I don’t think the Cubs would have fired Maddon if the Indians had won the World Series. And I don’t think the Red Sox would have fired Grady Little had the Red Sox lost even if he had taken Pedro Martinez out of the game after Derek Jeter’s double.

Managers these days are expected to go to the bullpen at the first hint of the first sign of the first glimmer of trouble. Grady Little thumbed his nose at that philosophy and it cost him his job. Joe Maddon painted himself into a corner and lived to tell the tale.

Jason Heyward Saves the Day?

The morning after the Cubs won the World Series, Nancy Armour had an article in USA Today entitled “Jason Heyward’s speech spurs Cubs during Game 7 rain delay.” The article says that Heyward called his teammates together in a cramped weight room, gave them a pep talk, and told them to get back out there and win just one for the Gipper. Not really, but the article made it sound as if, without Heyward’s speech, the Cubs may not have won the World Series.

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© T.C.G.

I like Jason Heyward. I met him once during an Atlanta Braves Caravan during the off-season just before his rookie year. He was very polite, well mannered, and well spoken. He hit a home run in his first big-league at bat for the Braves and he is the best defensive outfielder in baseball today. Even though he failed to live up to his early promise while with Atlanta, I hated to see him go when the Braves traded him to St. Louis.

Heyward struggled all season long in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract; he hit just .230 with seven home runs and 49 runs batted. He was worse in the World Series, hitting just .150. I don’t believe a pep talk from Heyward made any difference in the outcome of the Series. To believe otherwise would mean that a bunch of professional athletes who won 103 regular-season games, took care of the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, and battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series needed a pep talk from their least productive player to get over the top.

It makes for a good story, and maybe the Cubs feel better about the first $23 million they paid Heyward, but I’m just not buying it.

(Statistics are from baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

The World Series Finally Returns to the North Side

October 25, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

For the first time in over 71 years the Chicago Cubs have taken the field for a World Series game. The Cubs lost the 1945 World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have not returned to the Fall Classic since.

More importantly the Cubs roll into the World Series with a chance to end a lifetime of misery for their fans. As any baseball fan knows by now, it has been 108 years since the Cubs last won the World Series. That’s right, the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since the Roosevelt Administration–the Teddy Roosevelt Administration.

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© T.C.G.

Even though the Cubs have been absent from the World Series since the Truman administration, they were actually in the Fall Classic on a fairly regular basis through 1945, having appeared in 10 of the first 42 World Series.

The Cubs first made it to the World Series in 1906 but lost to their crosstown rivals, the Chicago White Sox. They won back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908, defeating the Tigers both times. The Cubs were back in the Series in 1910, but lost to the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1918 the Cubs lost to Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. They had a shot at the World Series title in 1929, but again they lost to the Athletics.

In has been 84 years since the Big Bambino’s “called shot” helped lead the Yankees sweep of the Cubs in the 1932 World Series. The Cubs were back in the Series in 1935, but lost to the Tigers. The “Homer in the Gloamin’” from Gabby Hartnett propelled the Cubs back to the World Series in 1938 but they lost to the Yankees in another sweep.

After the 1945 season, the Cubs fell on hard times. From 1946-1966, they finished under .500 every year but one; they went 77-77 in 1952. They hired Leo Durocher as manager in 1966 and quickly rose to respectability in the National League, finishing third in both 1967 and 1968.

Longtime Cubs fans still remember the collapse of 1969. The Cubs jumped out to an early lead in the National League Eastern Division. They led by as many as eight games before a late-season losing streak allowed the Amazin’ Mets to climb into the top spot on September 10. The Mets would go on to win the division by eight games over the Cubs.

The Cubs blew a great shot at a return to the World Series in 1984. They won the National League East and then won the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres. The Cubs headed to the west coast needing only one more win for a berth in the Series. But the Cubs came up empty after losing three straight in America’s Finest City. The 1984 Cubs are the only team in League Championship history to lose three straight games after leading two games to none in a best-of-five series.

The Cubs were back in the playoffs again in 1989 but lost to the Giants four games to one. The Cubs went to the post season in 1998 as a Wild Card team but the Atlanta Braves swept them in the National League Division Series.

In 2003 the Cubs finally won a postseason series when they beat the Braves in the Division Series. In the NLCS against the Florida Marlins, the Cubs were up three games to two and led 3-0 going into the eighth inning of Game 6. It looked as if the Cubs finally were going to make it back to the Fall Classic. But then disaster struck.

A sure inning-ending, double-play grounder went through the legs of shortstop Alex Gonzalez. The error turned what would have been a one-run inning into an eight-run frame for the Marlins. To be fair to Gonzalez, manager Dusty Baker waited too long to go to his bullpen and when he finally did, his bullpen failed miserably. Even though Game 6 ended in disaster, the Cubs still had a chance to advance, but they lost Game 7 to the Marlins the following night.

The Cubs won consecutive National League Central titles in 2007 and 2008, but the Arizona Diamondbacks swept them in the Division Series in 2007 and the Los Angeles Dodgers did the same in 2008. The Cubs were in the playoffs last season, but Arizona swept them in the Division Series.

The Cubs are very good this year. They won the National League Central going away, finishing 17.5 games ahead of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. They won 103 games; no other team in baseball won more than 95. The Cubs won 100 games in a season for the first time since 1935. But getting to the World Series is just the first leg of a long journey.

The Cleveland Indians are a good, well-rested team, with an excellent manager, and they have a streak of their own that they would like to end. The Indians last won the World Series back when Satchell Paige was pitching for them in 1948.

Either way, hang in there Cubs fans because, as Harry Caray used to say, “The Cubs are for real this year.”

(Statistics are from baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

Postseason Power from the Pitchers

October 13, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series, pitcher Travis Wood of the Chicago Cubs launched a solo home run off George Kontos of the San Francisco Giants. Wood’s long ball was the first homer by a relief pitcher in a postseason game since 1924 when Rosy Ryan of the New York Giants hit a solo home run off Allen Russell of the Washington Senators.

In Game 3 of the same Division Series, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs also connected for a homer, a three-run shot off Madison Bumgarner in the top of the second inning. Wood and Arrieta became the first two pitchers from the same team to homer in the same postseason series since Jack Bentley joined Ryan in the homer parade with a two-run shot off Walter Johnson in Game 5 of the 1924 World Series.

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© T.C.G.

There have been 15 home runs by 13 different pitchers in the World Series; Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles each did it twice. There have been six home runs by pitchers in the League Championship Series, while the home runs by Wood and Arrieta are the first by pitchers in a Division Series.

Jim Bagby of the Cleveland Indians was the first pitcher to homer in the Fall Classic; he connected for a two-run shot off Burleigh Grimes of the Brooklyn Robins in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 5 of the 1920 World Series.

Gibson and McNally are the only pitchers to hit home runs in two different World Series. Gibson hit a solo home run off Jim Lonborg of the Boston Red Sox in the top of the fifth inning of Game 7 of the 1967 Series. The next season, Gibson hit a solo homer off Joe Sparma of the Detroit Tigers in the top of the fourth inning of Game 4. Home runs were nothing special for Gibson; he slammed 24 regular-season homers during his career.

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© T.C.G.

McNally hit the first of his World Series home runs in Game 5 in 1969. It was a two-run homer off Jerry Koosman of the New York Mets. In Game 3 of the 1970 World Series, McNally connected for his second Series homer, a grand slam no less, against Wayne Granger of the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Twice in the World Series a pitcher from each team has hit a home run. In the bottom of the third inning of Game 1 of the 1967 Series José Santiago of the Red Sox accounted for his team’s only run with a solo home run off Gibson who, as mentioned earlier, would go on to hit a homer of his own in Game 7. Gibson is the only pitcher to hit a home run and give up a home run to a pitcher in the World Series.

In the top of the third inning of Game 2 of the 1968 World Series Mickey Lolich of the Tigers hit a solo home run off Nelson Briles of the Cardinals. As mentioned earlier, Gibson hit a home run in Game 7 of that Series.

From 1967-1970 Santiago, Gibson, Lolich, and McNally put together a streak of four straight World Series in which a pitcher hit a home run. And since Gibson and McNally hit two home runs apiece during this span, these four years account for 40 percent of the World Series homers.

pitchers-hitting-homers-in-the-world-seriesMike Cuellar of the Orioles hit the first home run by a pitcher in a League Championship Series. In the top of the fourth inning of the 1970 ALCS, Cuellar hit a grand slam off Jim Perry of the Minnesota Twins. As mentioned earlier, his teammate Dave McNally hit a home run, also a grand slam, in the World Series that year. So not only did Cuellar and McNally homer in the same postseason, but also both of their home runs were grand slams.

With the Wild Card Games, Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series, the chance for postseason home runs by pitchers has greatly increased since the days of Ryan and Bentley. But with the dreaded designated hitter in use for over half of those postseason games, the likelihood of home runs by pitchers still remains fairly remote.

PLAY!

img_1208If you live within a day’s drive of Nashville, Tenn., then you should plan a trip to the Nashville Public Library to check out “PLAY! The Art of Mike Schacht.” This exhibit features over 100 items from Mike Scahacht (1936-2001), who created memorable works of art for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Upper Deck.

Mr. Scahacht created paintings of some of the legendary players from the history of baseball, including Ty Cobb, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams. He also recreated many of the game’s memorable moments. Mr. Schacht was the creator of Fan magazine, a baseball art and literary triannual.

The exhibit is open to the public, free of charge, from now until December 31, 2016, in the Courtyard Gallery of the Main Library, 615 Church Street in Nashville.

(Statistics are from sabr.org and baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

Braves Better Than Expected in 2016

October 4, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The Atlanta Braves finished the 2016 season in last place in the National League Eastern Division with a record of 68-93 and 26.5 games out of first; but it could have been much worse.

The Braves got out of the gate with a 9-28 record that led to the firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez. At the time of Gonzalez’s departure, the Braves were on pace to lose 123 games, which would have been the most in the history of modern baseball.

While it stood to reason the Braves would not lose quite that many games, they seemed certain to lose over 100 games for the first time since 1988 when they dropped 108 and finished 39.5 games out of first place. The Braves played somewhat better under new manager Brian Snitker, but their record at the end of July was only 37-68, which put them on pace to lose 105 games. But a funny thing happened over the last two months of the season; the Braves started playing decent baseball.

From August 1 through the end of the season, the Braves went 31-25. They were 17-10 in September and won 12 of their final 14 games. All talk of the Braves just phoning it in to get the top pick in the amateur draft vanished.

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© T.C.G.

The turnaround by the Braves coincided with their acquisition of Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres. Kemp, who came to the team with a decent 23 homers, 69 RBIs, and .262 average, slammed 10 home runs, drove in 35 runs, and hit .280 after the trade. Hitting fourth in the lineup seemed to spur on Freddie Freeman, who hit .358 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in his final 30 games and was the National League Player of the Month for September. Freeman finished the season at .302 with 34 home runs and 91 RBIs.

Ender Inciarte got off to a slow start due to an injury, but Snitker put him in the leadoff spot late in the season and he hit .317 over his last 30 games to finish at .291. He played excellent defense in center field, as well.

Right fielder, Nick Markakis, hit 13 home runs and quietly drove in 89 runs and third baseman, Adonis Garcia, provided plenty of pop batting second in the order; he hit 12 homers and drove in 65 runs.

Another key to the Braves’ improvement was the promotion of shortstop Dansby Swanson. After joining the Braves on August 17, Swanson hit .302 with three home runs and 17 RBIs. His play at short steadily improved to the point that the Detroit Tigers will have nightmares about his glove work all winter long.

The Braves started holding onto leads late in the game thanks to the resurgence of closer, Jim Johnson. In his final 30 appearances, Johnson notched 18 of his 20 saves for the season and struck out 39 batters in 30 1/3 innings; his ERA over that stretch was 1.48. Johnson was so impressive that the Braves signed him to a two-year deal during the final weekend of the season.

After such a dismal start, when the dust finally settled on the 2016 season, not only had the Braves avoided 100 losses, but they also wound up winning one more game than they did last season.

Obviously, the Braves still have their work cut out for them to be a contender in 2017 when they move up the road to their new park. But with their strong finish, the Braves left their fans with some reason to feel optimistic during the long off-season.

The Giants Are Not a Dynasty

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way right now. The San Francisco Giants are back in the postseason as the second Wild Card team. They travel to the Big Apple to play the New York Mets this Wednesday. If they make it all the way through the postseason and win another World Series title, they will have won four Series in the last seven seasons. But that doesn’t make them a dynasty.

The Giants won the National League West in 2010 and had the second best record in the league on their way to the World Series title. They finished in second place in 2011 with the fifth-best record in the league and did not make the playoffs. They won the West again in 2012, tied with the Braves for the third-best record in the league, and went on to win the World Series. They did not make the playoffs in 2013 as they finished fourth in the West with a record of 76-86. In 2014 they finished in second place in the West with the fifth-best record in the league, but that was good enough for the second Wild Card spot. They got hot at the right time and won another World Series title.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

While it certainly is impressive to win three World Series titles in five years, they are not even close to being a dynasty. If they had won five straight division titles and strung together three straight World Series wins like the Oakland Athletics (1971-1975 for the division titles and 1972-1974 for the Series), then we could talk about a dynasty. A dynasty does not skip the postseason every other year, especially in this era of the watered-down playoff system.

And while I’m at it, unless Madison Bumgarner pitches at least three complete games and wins them all like Lew Burdette did in 1957 and Mickey Lolich did in 1968, he will not have turned in the “most dominant performance in World Series history.” Even if Bumgarner pulls off three complete-game wins, two of them would have to be shutouts, with his final 24 innings being scoreless for him to match Burdette. And even Burdette’s magnificent performance did not measure up to the three starts, three complete games, and three shutouts by Christy Mathewson in the 1905 Fall Classic.

The Giants have been a good team for four of the last seven seasons; but a dynasty they are not and Madison Bumgarner’s performance in 2014 was not the most dominant in World Series history.

Baseball Suffers Heartbreaking Loss

September 26, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins


Sunday morning I tapped into my laptop to check the Internet for the late baseball scores only to see that José Fernandez, the young, enthusiastic, and hugely talented right-handed pitcher of the Miami Marlins was killed in an early morning boating accident. He was only 24 years old.

The news knocked the wind out of my sails. Even with his abundant ability  the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this kid is his wonderful smile. I call him a kid, perhaps, because he was the same age as our son. What a heartbreaking loss for his family, for baseball, and for the world.

It is terribly ironic that Fernandez should die of a boating accident off the coast of Florida given his struggles to get to this country from Cuba. He and his family made three failed attempts at reaching the mainland before finally making it in 2007 when Fernandez was 15.

At the time of his death, Fernandez was 16-8 on the season with a 2.86 earned run average. His 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings demonstrate how dominant he had been this season. In his tragically short career Fernandez won 38 games, lost 17, and had a career ERA of 2.58. He was the National League Rookie of the Year and an All Star in 2012; he also was on the All-Star team this year.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Given the number of active players in Major League Baseball, it is inevitable that tragedy will strike from time to time. Most deaths of active players seem to occur during the offseason. Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while on a humanitarian mission to supply aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews of the Cleveland Indians died, also in a boating accident, on March 22, 1993 during Spring Training.  Unfortunately, in the history of baseball, several players have had their careers ended by tragic deaths during the season.

Before Fernandez the last player to die during the season was Darryl Kile of the St. Louis Cardinals. He died of coronary disease in his Chicago hotel room on June 22, 2002 while the Cardinals were in town for a weekend series with the Cubs. Kile had a career record of 133-119 with three teams over 12 seasons. He was a three-time All Star and won 20 games for the Cardinals in 2000. Kile was 33 years old.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

On August 2, 1979 catcher Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees was killed when a plane he was piloting crashed while he was practicing landings at an airport in Canton, Ohio. Munson, who was 32 at the time of his death, was captain of the Yankees, the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970, and the American League MVP in 1976.

Lyman Bostock signed a free agent contract with the California Angels before the 1978 season. He batted .323 in 1976 and .336 in 1977 for the Twins. The left-handed hitting outfielder was fatally shot on September 23, 1978 while sitting in his car at a red light in Gary, Ind. After a slow star for the Angels, Bostock had gotten his average up to .296 at the time of his death. He was 27 hears old.

Native Tennessean Walt Bond was a veteran of the Negro Leagues and a minor league slugger before making it to the majors in 1960 with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 32. The 6’ 7” former Kansas City Monarch played parts of six seasons in the big leagues. Bond smashed 20 homers for the 1964 Houston Colt 45’s. Despite battling leukemia, he was hitting .313 for the Minnesota Twins in 1967 when died on September 14 at the age of 39.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Harry Agganis was the regular first baseman for the Boston Red Sox in his rookie season of 1954. The following year, he was hitting .313 on June 27 when he died of a massive heart attack while in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. Agganis was 25 years old at the time of his death.

Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died on August 17, 1920. He remains the only player ever to be killed during a Major League game. On August 16, Chapman apparently was moving forward in the batter’s box to attempt a drag bunt when an up-and-in fastball from Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays struck Chapman in the forehead, crushing his skull. He died in the wee hours of the morning despite showing signs of improvement after emergency surgery. The fleet-footed shortstop was 29 years old at the time of his death. He played nine seasons and hit .278 over the course of his career.

On April 14, 1911, pitcher Addie Joss of the Cleveland Naps died suddenly of tubercular meningitis. Joss was all set to start his 10th season in the big leagues, but had not yet appeared in a game for the Naps, whose season began on April 12. He was 190-67 with a microscopic 1.89 ERA at the time of his death; Joss was 31 years old. Unlike the Marlins, the Naps went ahead and played their regularly scheduled game on the day Joss died. Even though he pitched for only nine years, the Veterans’ Committee elected Joss to the Hall of Fame in 1978.

One of baseball’s earliest stars, Big Ed Delahanty, died on July 2, 1903 as a result of a fall from a bridge at Niagara Falls. Delahanty was hitting .333 for the Washington Senators at the time of his death. He played parts of 16 seasons from 1888-1903 and had a career batting average of .346; he hit .404 in 1894 and again in 1895 and hit .410 in 1899. He was 35 years old at the time of his death. Delahanty was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

The death of José Fernandez will affect the Miami Marlins for a long, long time. He was their best player; he was a fan favorite. Fernandez was a huge talent and he seemed to love playing the game more than anybody else in baseball. Of all the deaths of active baseball players, the loss of José Fernandez may be the most tragic. At 24 his baseball star had only just begun to shine. It is said that life “is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth.” But for José Fernandez, that time was way too little.

With apologies to Jimmy Dugan, the fictional manager from the movie A League of Their Own, as of September 25, 2016, there is crying in baseball.

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