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Astros Up to the Elbow in the Cookie Jar

January 18, 2020

Hugh Atkins

The Houston Astros got caught cheating, and Major League Baseball handed down some penalties. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers opened Pandora’s box back in November when he confirmed that Houston was using electronic technology to steal signs and pass the information to their batters when he was with the team in 2017, the year they won the World Series. But if Commissioner Rob Manfred thought the investigation and resulting suspensions would be the beginning of the end of this scandal, he was sadly mistaken.

The statement from Manfred detailing the investigation into Fiers’ allegations specifically named former Houston coach Alex Cora and former player Carlos Beltran as the masterminds of the scheme. Manfred chastised manager A.J. Hinch for knowing about the cheating and not taking any action to stop it. Manfred took Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow to task, saying that he did not pass along a directive from MLB stating that using electronic technology to steal signs would result in severe penalties.

2017 Topps Heritage Mike Fiers

© T.C.G.

The fallout from the investigation was immediate. After Manfred suspended both Luhnow and Hinch for the 2020 season, the Astros fired them both. The Boston Red Sox fired Cora, who served as their manager the past two seasons, winning the World Series in 2018. The New York Mets parted ways with manager Carlos Beltran before he ever made it to Spring Training as a major league skipper.

Manfred’s apparent naiveté is evident in the statement he released when announcing the suspensions. Manfred applauds the Astros for completely cooperating with the investigation, but, like Bud Selig when it came to performance-enhancing drugs, he has his head in the sand if he really believes that Luhnow did not know his team was cheating or that Hinch did not approve of it. Manfred takes at face value the Astros’ contention that the cheating ended after the 2017 postseason.

Even though Manfred suspended Luhnow and Hinch for an entire season, the punishment does not match the crime; baseball has banned players, managers, and executives for life for lesser offenses. (Let me be clear, however; weighing Houston’s punishment against that of Pete Rose or the eight players involved in the 1919 Black Sox scandal is comparing apples to oranges.)

MLB also took four draft picks from the Astros and fined them $5 million. While that is a lot of money to someone like me, it is $800K less than the Astros paid reliever Collin McHugh to go 4-5 with a 4.70 earned run average this past season.

Further allegations regarding the Astros’ clandestine activities continue to seep out. The Los Angeles Times and other outlets reported rumors that Houston players wore buzzers under their jerseys. Of course, the Astros deny these latest charges, but they also denied all allegations of cheating until after Fiers let the cat out of the bag.

Another sad element in this whole sorry affair is that the players who participated in and benefited from the cheating got away scot free. While Manfred may be correct in his statement that “assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical,” it is not impossible. Even if there were players who did not participate in the scheme, it is inconceivable that any one of them didn’t know it was happening. Manfred at least could have tried to make the players return their 2017 postseason pay.

In the end, I will say this for Rob Manfred; he at least is trying to do something about the cheating. While I don’t believe his punishment went far enough, compared to Bud Selig, Manfred is Judge Roy Bean.

The Wait is Over for Ted Simmons

December 15, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Ted Simmons is going into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Modern Baseball Committee corrected a mistake by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), who gave Simmons but 17 votes in his first year on the ballot in 1994. Since Simmons received less than five percent of the vote, he dropped off the ballot after only one year.

Simmons got new life through the Eras Committees, who consider players no longer eligible for the writers’ ballot, along with managers, umpires, and executives, who had their greatest contributions to the game during one of four eras. Simmons was on the ballot for the Modern Era Committee (1970-1987); the other eras are Today’s Game (1988-Present); Golden Days (1950-1987); and Early Baseball (Prior to 1950).

© T.C.G.

Simmons first came to the Big Leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals for a couple of at-bats at the end of the 1968 season, and he had five at-bats at the end of 1969. He was in the Major Leagues to stay by the May of 1970. Simmons became a regular player in 1971 and hit .304 with 77 runs batted in. For the next several seasons, he was an elite slugger and one of the most durable catchers in baseball.

Simmons played 21 seasons and hit .285 with 248 home runs and 1,389 RBIs. He drove in more than 90 runs eight times, including three seasons in which he had more than 100 RBIs. He hit over .300 seven times, including a career-high .332 in 1975.

In 1980 Simmons hit .303 with 21 homers and 98 RBIs, but for some reason the Cardinals traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason. It was an odd trade; the Cardinals had traded for reliever Rollie Fingers four days earlier, and they included him and pitcher Pete Vuckovich in the deal that netted them outfielders Sixto Lezcano and David Green and pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.

The Simmons trade was one of many that general manager Whitey Herzog made at the Winter Meetings in 1980. The Cardinals won the World Series (against Simmons and the Brewers) in 1982, but I contend they won despite the Simmons trade rather than because of it. Lezcano and Sorensen were gone from the Cardinals after one season and Green never lived up to his potential. LaPoint was decent during his four seasons with the Cards, but he was not the pitcher Vuckovich turned out to be, and Fingers was a dominant closer for three seasons with the Brewers.

In addition to his 13 seasons in St. Louis, Simmons spent five in Milwaukee before playing his final three with the Atlanta Braves. Had Simmons played any of his prime years in New York, I would not be writing this post, because he likely would have been in the Hall of Fame for about 15 years now.

© T.C.G.

Fans can debate whether Simmons deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but he stacks up well with some of the other catchers already there, like Gary Carter and especially Rick Ferrell. Simmons certainly deserved to remain on the ballot for more than one year, and that’s why the Eras Committees are so important.

While the Eras Committees have caused consternation among fans for some of their selections–Harold Baines by the Today’s Game Committee last year, for instance–I believe Simmons is Exhibit A in why these committees are necessary.

I believe a system that runs the risk of allowing a player like Harold Baines into the Hall of Fame is worth it if it also allows consideration for a guy like Ted Simmons.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference. Trade details are from Retrosheet. Eras Committees information is from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Soto Gets a Free Pass

October 27, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The World Series sometimes causes managers to go against their usual strategies. In Game 2 against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch decided to issue an intentional walk. While that normally would not stand out as unusual, it was the first free pass the Astros had issued in over a year. Unfortunately for Houston, it did not work out so well.

With runners at second and third and two outs in the top of the seventh inning, Hinch flexed four fingers, and Juan Soto trotted to first base. It was an understandable move, given that Soto killed the Astros in Game 1 with a double, a home run, and three runs batted in. At the time of the intentional walk in Game 2, Soto was 1-3 with a double. The decision would have worked out had third baseman Alex Bregman been able to field a fairly routine groundball off the bat of Howie Kendrick following the walk to Soto.

© T.C.G.

Even though Hinch decided to end the Astros’ moratorium on intentional walks, I believe the Astros are on to something with their approach. It seems logical to me that anytime an additional runner reaches base, it increases his team’s chances of scoring. That being said, I think there are situations where an intentional walk not only is justified, but it is also necessary.

If the visiting team is in a tie game heading into the bottom of the ninth (or extra innings) and the home team puts a runner at third with no outs, then it makes sense to intentionally walk the next two batters to load the bases. In a similar fashion, a single intentional walk would be in order if the home team put runners at second and third with no outs. The reasoning behind this strategy is that it sets up a force at the plate, which is the visitor’s best option since a run by the home team ends the game. The manager of the visiting team also should pull the outfielders in shallow to take away a possible hit since a deep or medium-depth fly ball ends the game on a sacrifice fly.

Another situation where an intentional walk would be in order is in National League games when there are runners in scoring position with two outs with the eighth-place hitter at the plate. If there is only one out, then it makes sense to go after the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher rather than load the bases and then face the pitcher and leadoff hitter.

© T.C.G.

It is difficult to imagine that the Astros did not face any of these scenarios this season. With the intentional walk to Soto, Houston made the decision not to let a hot hitter beat them, which is also an understandable justification.

The Astros had not issued an intentional walk since August 17, 2018 when they walked Jed Lowrie of the Oakland Athletics to load the bases; Khris Davis was coming to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. This was a bold move by Hinch since, at the time of the free pass to Lowrie, Davis had 34 home runs and 93 runs batted in. Davis flied out to right field to send the game into extra innings.

I think the Astros’ approach on intentional walks is the flipside of not using the sacrifice bunt. By not issuing intentional walks, Houston is choosing not to give the opposition free baserunners, and by not using sacrifice bunts, they are choosing not to give the defense easy outs. I like this philosophy.

(Game details are from Retrosheet and MLB.com.)

Look Who Isn’t Going to be in the World Series

October 21, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The 2019 World Series is all set. Tomorrow evening the Houston Astros will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the 115th Fall Classic. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, and this is the first trip to the Series in the history of the Washington Nationals. This Series is also notable for who will not be in it.

The New York Yankees have been in 40 World Series and have won it 27 times. They became a regular fixture in the Series beginning in 1921, Babe Ruth’s second season in the Bronx; the Yankees won their first Series in 1923. Since the Yankees have been in 35% of all the World Series ever played, I suppose it is significant anytime they aren’t in it. To provide further perspective, yesterday morning the headline for an article by Scott Boeck of USA Today read, “The Yankees go decade without a World Series trip for the first time in 100 years.” That is significant. Unfortunately, it’s inaccurate.

This is a good place to point out that, as my friend Dr. Alvin Rose used to say, since there was no Year 0, the first decade was years 1-10. It logically follows that all subsequent decades began in years ending with 1 and run through years ending in 0. Therefore, the current decade began in 2011 and runs through December 31 of next year. Since the Yankees actually have one more shot at keeping their streak intact, Boeck obviously is writing under the incorrect assumption that the current decade began in 2010.

Meriam-Webster defines a decade as “a period of 10 years.” From the article, it is obvious Boeck was not referencing that definition, but even if he were, he still would be incorrect.

From their first appearance in the World Series in 1921 through 1964, the Yankees never went more than three consecutive seasons without returning. They then experienced a 12-year drought before making it back in 1976, so while they were absent from the Series for over a decade, they still met Boeck’s parameters for being there in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978 and lost the 1981 Series. They then went 14 seasons before returning to and winning the World Series in 1996. They were in the Series seven times in 14 seasons between 1996 and their last appearance in 2009 when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies.

© T.C.G.

The Yankees just completed a period of 10 years without appearing in the World Series, but they have not quite gone the entire decade of the 2010s without being in the Fall Classic.

Speaking of not appearing in the World Series, Bryce Harper will not be there unless he buys a ticket. Agent Scott Boras whined all winter and well into the season about how bad it was for baseball that teams weren’t lining up to pay Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, and Craig Kimbrel the ridiculous amounts of money they were demanding over the insane amount of years they expected.

The Phillies signed Harper and finished in fourth place; the San Diego Padres signed Machado and finished in last place. Kimbrel signed late and was an absolute disaster for the Chicago Cubs who finished in third place. Keuchel also signed late and went a modest 8-8 for the Atlanta Braves who won the National League East.

Maybe Harper and Keuchel can hang out together and watch their former teams play in the World Series and figure out how in the world those teams managed to make it there without them.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference.)

World Series May Be in the Cards for the Nats

October 15, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The Washington Nationals are up 3-0 on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series with a chance to close out the series in Washington, D.C. Barring a total collapse, the Nationals will make their first ever appearance in the World Series. Not only that, but if the Nats manage to eliminate the Cardinals, then the Fall Classic will return to the nation’s capital the for first time since 1933.

The road back to Washington, D.C. for the World Series has been a circuitous one. The Washington Senators won the American League pennant in 1933 and lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games. The Senators then went on a run of futility that produced only three winning seasons over the next 27 years. After the 1960 season, the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Minnesota Twins. But expansion created a new version of the Senators in 1961.

The Senators who headed to the North Star State actually had some good young players. Harmon Killebrew was an established slugger, having led the AL in home runs with 42 in 1959, and a young Jim Kaat was about to become the ace of their pitching staff. The Twins made it to the World Series in 1965 and won the AL Western Division title in the first two seasons of divisional play. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, so the original Washington Senators franchise experienced some postseason success after 1933.

© T.C.G.

The new version of the Senators lasted 11 seasons and had only one winning campaign, which they achieved in 1969; that was the first season Ted Williams served as manager. Frank Howard was their biggest star, and his power earned him one of the best nicknames in sports history–the Capital Punisher. The Senators moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season. The Rangers finally made it to the World Series in 2010, but lost in five games to the San Francisco Giants. Texas was back the following season and were one strike away from a win over St. Louis in six games, but the Cardinals came back to win that game and also Game 7.

After 33 years without a team, baseball returned to Washington, DC., this time to the NL, when the Montreal Expos became the Nationals. The closest the Expos came to getting to the World Series was in the strike-interrupted season of 1981. A home run by Rick Monday of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 denied the Expos a trip to the Fall Classic.

The Expos were leading the NL East by six games on August 12, 1994 when the players went on strike, and MLB cancelled the postseason. The Expos never seemed to recover from the strike and drew fewer than 750K fans to Olympic Stadium in their final season.

The Nationals had some lean seasons after arriving in D.C., but have made the postseason five times in the last eight seasons; this is the first time they have advanced past the National League Division Series. The Nationals have a decent lineup and, as the Cardinals have discovered, a fine pitching staff.

If the Nationals can polish off St. Louis, a rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez will make them a tough foe for either the New York Yankees or Houston Astros. And the first World Series in the nation’s capital since the days of the Great Depression just might go the way of the Washington Nationals.

(All game details are from Baseball Reference.)

Postseason Losing Streaks

October 6, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The New York Yankees overpowered the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the American League Division Series in an 8-2 win that gave the Bronx Bombers a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Scott Boeck, writing the story of the game for the USA Today website, stated that the Twins now own a 15-game postseason losing streak. But while the Minnesota franchise has lost their last 15 postseason games, does it really make any sense to say the Twins have a 15-game postseason losing streak? Can the 2019 edition of the Twins carry on a streak started by the players on the 2004 team?

The loss certainly extended the misery for Twins fans, and it likely doesn’t help that 12 of those losses have come at the hands of the Yankees, who also have eliminated the Twins in Minnesota’s last four postseason appearances. For the fans, it really doesn’t make much difference that the losses started back in the days of Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan, neither of whom had anything to do with Saturday’s game.

The first time I remember hearing anything about a decades-spanning postseason losing streak was in 1991. After the Atlanta Braves lost the opening game of the National League Championship Series, broadcaster Tim McCarver stated that the loss gave the Braves a 10-game postseason losing streak. I didn’t think much of his pronouncement then, and my opinion hasn’t changed in 28 years since.

The 10 losses McCarver tallied began in the 1958 World Series. The Milwaukee Braves won the first two games of the Fall Classic against the Yankees, dropped Game 3, and then took a 3-1 lead in the Series on a 2-hit shutout by Warren Spahn. The Yankees came back to win three straight to take the Series.

© T.C.G.

Eleven years later, the Atlanta Braves were the first National League Western Division champions. They lost the best-of-five NLCS to the New York Mets in three straight, which became losses four, five, and six in McCarver’s version of a postseason losing streak. Henry Aaron was still with the Braves, and played in all six of those losses. The only other members of the 1958 Braves team still active in 1969 were pitchers Don McMahon, who split the year between the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants, and Juan Pizarro, who was with the Cleveland Indians; backup catcher Hawk Taylor was with the expansion Kansas City Royals. How can the 1958 Braves be responsible for the three postseason losses by the 1969 squad?

Thirteen years passed before the Braves played another postseason game, and again they lost three straight, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals. These were losses seven, eight, and nine in McCarver’s postseason losing streak. Phil Niekro started one game in both the 1969 and 1982 series, but the only other Braves players still active in 1982 were outfielder Dusty Baker, who was then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, third baseman Darrell Evans, who was then with the Giants, and pitcher Ron Reed, who was then with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Braves ended McCarver’s postseason losing streak in Game 2 of the 1991 NLCS. Several members of the 1982 Atlanta squad were still active somewhere in the major leagues in ’91–including Brett Butler, Dale Murphy, and Pascual Perez–but none of them still played for the Braves. Most members of the team weren’t even born in 1958.

Maybe the Twins can at least beat the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, but they will have to do it without the assistance of Cristian Guzman or Johan Santana from the 2004 team.

(All game details and player references are from Retrosheet.)

The Braves in the Postseason

September 29, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The Atlanta Braves are headed to the National League Division Series, and they will try to end a long postseason dry spell. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001 when they swept the Houston Astros, despite having played in seven series since then.

The Braves played in the first 11 NLDS, which began in 1995. They won the first five of those, including sweeps of the Los Angeles Dodgers (1996), Houston Astros (1997), and Chicago Cubs (1998); the Braves beat the Astros 3-1 in 1999. The St. Louis Cardinals swept the Braves in 2000, but the Braves bounced back to sweep the Astros in 2001.

The Braves were up 2-1 against the San Francisco Giants in 2002, but lost the final two games. The Braves lost in five games to the Cubs in 2003 and to the Astros in 2004, marking the last time the Braves pushed a series to the limit. The Astros knocked off the Braves in four games in 2005; the Braves lost in four games to the Giants in 2010.

© Strat-O-Matic Game Co.

The Braves only appearance in a Wild Card game (2012) ended in disaster with the Cardinals beating them 6-3. That’s the game in which Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule on a ball hit at least 100 feet into left field, even though the Cardinals could not have turned two on Bobby Cox on the play, but I digress.

The Braves returned to the NLDS in 2013, only to lose to the Dodgers in four games; they suffered the same fate last year.

In that 2001 NLDS, the Braves were making their tenth straight postseason appearance. These were still the Braves of Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, and Greg Maddux, but looking back over an account of the series, I saw some names from that team that don’t usually come to mind when thinking of the Braves postseason history.

Rudy Seanez got the win in Game 1 in relief of Maddux after the Braves scored four runs in the top of the eighth inning to win 7-4; John Smoltz got the save. Chipper Jones delivered the big blow–a three-run homer off Billy Wagner. Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones also homered.

© T.C.G.

Game 2 was a classic Braves win. Glavine pitched eight shutout innings and Smoltz got the save. B.J. Surhoff doubled to open the second inning and scored on a double play grounder by Rey Sanchez. The Braves made that unearned run hold up as the only run of the game.

The Braves took the lead in Game 3 on a two-run homer by catcher Paul Bako in the bottom of the second inning; Julio Franco added a solo shot in the third to make it 3-0. Bako drove in another run on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the fourth. John Burkett gave up a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to make it 4-2, but Steve Reed and Mike Remlinger closed out the inning with no further damage. After Steve Karsay held the Astros scoreless in the top of the eighth, Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer in the Braves half of the inning to make the score 6-2. Smoltz closed out the win with a perfect ninth inning, and the Braves moved on to the NLCS where they lost in five games to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s always great when your favorite team makes it to the postseason, but it has been a long time since Braves fans have had much to celebrate during the long winter offseason. Maybe this year will be different.

(Postseason details are from the 2019 Atlanta Braves Media Guide; game details are from RetrosheetFor more on “The Braves in the Postseason” visit ¡NO ME DIGAS!)

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