My stepdaughter is back home after her sophomore year at college. Last Monday, I worked the Rochester – Norfolk game for BIS. When I got home after the game, she asked how the game was and I said that the Tides won, 2-1. She responded “I’m sorry the game wasn’t more exciting.”
She probably would have been even more convinced that the game wasn’t interesting if I had told her that the game lasted 2:50, and that all the runs were scored in the first inning. That’s right; it was 2-1 Tides after the first inning, and it ended 2-1 Tides.
But the game was exciting. Rochester got its leadoff batter on base in every one of Tides’ starter Chris Tillman’s six innings. That meant that Rochester was always threatening to tie the game — not in the “every batter could hit one out” sense, but in the tangible sense that something was going on. Rochester center fielder Jason Repko made an outstanding, lunging, diving catch of a line drive to rob Blake Davis of an extra-base hit. In the eighth inning, with two out, Rochester’s Danny Valencia walked; Jacque Jones singled him to second. Wilson Ramos singled sharply to left field; Tides left fielder Jeff Salazar gunned Valencia at the plate (Valencia was just touching third base when Salazar let his throw go.) In the ninth, Matt “Mother” Macri singled, took second on a wild pitch, and was sacrificed to third. Repko was hit by a pitch. Matt Tolbert hit a hard ground ball to the right of first baseman Brandon Snyder; Snyder threw to second base to force Repko. The throw was off-line, but somehow Blake Davis stretched out full-body, kept his toe on the bag, and got the force-out. Even more improbably, he lifted himself to one knee, threw back to first, and somehow got enough on the ball to retire the speedy Tolbert in time to complete the double-play. Game over!
From the sublime to the ridiculous — in the sixth inning, Valencia singled. On the first pitch to Jones, he broke for second — and managed to get over halfway to second base before Tillman reacted — by pitching to the plate. Needless to say, Valencia stole the base easily. Kudos to Tillman for concentration, but not so much for the teammates who must have seen Valencia break and apparently failed to alert Tillman.
I hate the concept of “Three True Outcomes.”
That’s one of the latest trends in baseball analysis. The idea is that only walks, strikeouts, and home runs are “true” measures of pitchers and hitters; all other results are “polluted” to some degree by the defense. The implication is that “hitting ‘em where they ain’t” and getting batters to hit lazy flies and routine grounders aren’t skills; it’s just a matter of luck. Tell that to Tony Gwynn.
That’s not to say that sometimes pitching lines can’t be deceiving. Take Troy Patton’s start for the Tides against Rochester May 22. On the surface, it looks pretty terrible:
4.1 13 8 8 0 0 0 Game Score: 5
(That’s innings pitched, hits allowed, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks, strikeouts, and home runs. I had been assuming that everyone reading this would know that, but maybe not.)
Looking at that line in a box score, you might think that Patton was being hammered; that he was throwing lollipops up there and the Red Wings were knocking his pitches all over Harbor Park. But those of us at the game know differently:
· In the first inning, Matt Tolbert dropped a bunt down the third base line that stubbornly refused to go foul.
· In the third inning, Toby Gardenhire lined a double that landed fair, within a foot of the left-field foul line. He came around to score.
· Later in the third inning, Brian Dinkelman lined a double down the right-field line that also landed just fair. He, too, came around to score.
· Gardenhire led off the fifth inning with a single over the third-base bag; he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
· The next batter, Jason Repko, grounded a double just fair over the third-base bag. He came around to score on …
· A double by Matt Tolbert that stayed just fair down the left-field line. Tolbert scored on …
· A single by Dinkelman; a soft line drive that fell just between the shortstop and left fielder. Dinkelman later scored.
· The last hit Patton gave up, before being relieved, was another flare to left field, this one by Dustin Martin.
That’s eight of the hits off Patton that, with just a little bit of luck, (just a little bit of luck) could have gone foul or been caught. I’m sure the batters’ timing isn’t so perfect that they couldn’t have made contact a fraction of a fraction earlier, and driven the balls down the lines foul. And I’m sure that the their eyesight isn’t so perfect that they couldn’t have hit the ball a millimeter higher or lower, and the flares could have been easily caught.
Fans want to simplify baseball. Casual or beginning fans will look at Troy Patton’s line and think he’s terrible. The number-crunching fans will look at his line and see no walks, no strikeouts, and no home runs, and smugly conclude that he was a victim of bad defense or bad luck. As always, the truth is somewhere in between; although in this case the stats geeks would be closer to the truth.
When you score pitch-by-pitch as many games as I do, anything and everything out of the ordinary becomes interesting. Take recently-acquired Tides relief pitcher Pedro Viola. The Orioles organization claimed Viola, a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball, on waivers from the Reds. In his first eight Tides appearances, he was ineffective. In his eighth appearance, he gave up one earned run in one inning, which lowered his ERA by almost half a run.
That got me to wondering — what had been Viola’s best appearance of the year? If giving up a run in an inning — an ERA of 9.00 by itself — can lower your season ERA, it’s a safe bet that you’re not helping many fantasy teams. But, particularly for a relief pitcher, one or two really terrible outings can blow a season’s ERA sky-high, obscuring the good outings. So how had Viola pitched?
The answer — he was consistent if nothing else. His best outing of the year had come on May 15, in Buffalo, in which he walked a batter in a third of an inning, but at least didn’t give up any runs. In all of his other outings, Viola had given up at least one run.
Which is why, last Saturday, when Pedro came in to pitch the ninth inning with the Tides trailing 9-2, I had a peculiar and possibly perverse fascination. When he walked the first batter on four pitches, I thought that he was holding true to form. But he rebounded, retiring the next three batters on a popup, strikeout, and forceout. I felt confident that I was one of the few in the crowd of 7942 who knew that Pedro Viola had completed his best Tides outing of the season.
There isn’t much to say about last night’s game itself. Scott Moore hit two home runs to right field. Michael Aubrey — nominally a first baseman — killed Bubba Bell at third base with a nice throw on a fly to fairly deep left field. Pawtucket pitcher Michael Bowden got his glove up in time to save his face when Moore hit a line drive at the box.
The press box discussion focused on two topics. For background on the first topic, the Tides have a promotion with a local business through which a young fan gets to be the “Junior Broadcaster”, and spends an inning in the radio booth. Historically, the kids have been monosyllabic — the desparate broadcaster will ask a question such as “What grade are you in?” and the nervous kid responds “fifth” or “third” or whatever. (If he’s in second or seventh grade, then the answer will be duosyllabic rather than monosyllabic.) Last night was Junior Broadcaster night, and the winner was quite the raconteur — not at the Lefty Gomez or Dizzy Dean level, perhaps, but almost all of his responses were multi-word, multi-phrase. As an ego-affirming aside, he was in the press box before his gig. Our crack media relations person was explaining what we do and who we are, and the kid was impressed (at least I think the word “Sweet” expresses positive impression) when Ian described my function as datacaster.
The second topic was whether or not there was a fast player named “Bubba”, motivated by Bubba Bell’s stolen base. We came up with a few other Bubbas in baseball — Bubba Trammell, Bubba Carpenter, Bubba Church, Bubba Phillips, Bubba Morton — none of whom would be thought of as fast.
Finally, Pedro Viola pitched the eighth inning, giving up one run on a couple of hits. That was the second-best of his eight Tides appearances, topped only by the time he pitched one-third of an inning, giving up no runs and one walk.
It’s been ten days since I worked a Tides game. I worked the first two games of the Tides-Toledo series — both of which were Tides victories. In different ways, each reflected exciting baseball. On Thursday the 6th, the Tides jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but gave it all back by the middle of the 8th. Tied at 7 going into the bottom of the 8th, Norfolk scored five runs, capped by a bases-loaded double by Robert Andino. Two notes about this game — the nineteen runs scored in the game (12-7) marked the most runs scored in any game I had ever seen in Harbor Park; and the Tides left two runners on base — both of whom had hit bases-loaded doubles.
The second game marked the first time the Tides came back from more than a one-run deficit in 2010. Trailing 2-0, they came back to tie the game (the tying run scoring on the ever-popular single/passed ball/passed ball/wild pitch.) Josh Bell ended the game after 3:45 with a lead-off, walk-off, home run in the 12th inning.
Even though the game was nearly four hours long, it wasn’t boring. There are some baseball games which feel like you’re in an airplane circling the airport — those 7-2 games with pickoff attempts in the eighth inning come to mind — but no well-played baseball game is too long or slow.
The least impressive starting pitching from the recent Scranton – Norfolk series at Harbor Park — at least in the games I saw — was on the Monday, May 3 game. It was still impressive.
May 3 — Scranton — Ivan Nova — 7 9 3 1 2 4 (Game Score 53) (Winning Pitcher)
Ivan Nova, in some ways, pitched better than his line looks. The two unearned runs came when the center fielder dropped a routine two-out fly ball. The only baserunner he allowed in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th innings was on another error. While he didn’t wow anyone with his stuff, he managed the game well and gave the Yankess a chance to win (which they did). I can easily see Nova at the back end of a major-league rotation, although probably not the Yankees’.
May 3 — Norfolk – Chris Tillman – 5 8 2 2 2 3 (Game Score 44) (No Decision)
In his previous start, Chris Tillman had pitched a complete-game no-hitter at Gwinnett, and the fans attending the game on an overcast night had hopes for another historic performance. Those hopes lasted three batters, when the Yankees’ got their first hit with two outs in the first. The first inning exemplified Tillman’s night — usually in trouble but never in serious trouble. Of the ten baserunners he allowed in his five innings, seven came with two out; and one of the other three was eliminated on a double play.
Tillman, of course, is one of the Orioles Pitchers of the Future, and he just turned 22 in April. He didn’t have his best command, perhaps not surprising in the game after his longest and best outing ever. If this were the only game I had ever seen him, I wouldn’t think he has ace potential, but because he pitched this well on a night he didn’t have his A game, he definitely will be in a big-league rotation (assuming he stays healthy.)
The Toledo Mud Hens visit Norfolk’s Harbor Park for a four-game series starting today. I’ll be working tonight’s and tomorrow night’s games. Before this series begins, I’ll finish up my review of the terrific starting pitching from the preceding Scranton series.
May 2 — Scranton — Jason Hirsh — 7 1 0 0 3 3 (Game Score 75) (Winning Pitcher)
Hirsh was a top prospect in the Astros organization. He was traded to Colorado in the ill-fated Jason Jennings trade in 2007, and pitched fairly well for the Rockies in 2007. Then he hurt his arm, and found himself in the Yankees system. He’s still only 28 years old.
Hirsh was not overpowering, but he was in complete control of the game. He had a four-pitch sixth inning, resulting in three fly outs to right field. He should be able to be a successful spot starter/long man in the major leagues, and could make it as a #4/#5 starter.
May 2 — Norfolk – Brandon Erbe – 6 3 1 1 3 6 (Game Score 65) (Losing Pitcher)
The 22-year-old Erbe — a Baltimore native and resident — is one of the second-tier Orioles pitching prospects behind Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton. Erbe had struggled in his first few starts with Norfolk, but delivered a good performance against Scranton.
Although Erbe pitched well — the only run he allowed was driven in on a slow ground ball that scored a runner who had reached on a leadoff triple — I doubt he has a future as a starter. His delivery looked very effort-ful, and could lead to injury down the road. He is more likely to be a successful relief pitcher, possibly a power closer.
After an eight-game trip to Charlotte and Gwinnett, the Tides returned home Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (May 1,2,3) to face the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. In all three games, the starting pitching ranked from the solid to the outstanding. I thought I’d review and comment on all six starters:
May 1 — Scranton — Romulo Sanchez — 7 6 2 1 1 8 (Game Score 66) (Losing Pitcher)
Romulo Sanchez brings heat. The Harbor Park radar gun was consistently in the 97, 98 range for his fastballs, and he simply overpowered the batter in a few at-bats. He obviously had good control, with only one walk. He seems to have stamina — in his last inning, he gave up an unearned run on a two-base throwing error and a single, but he struck out two batters. But there doesn’t appear to be much movement or deception on his pitches — the Tides hit several balls hard both for base hits and for outs.
Sanchez is 26, and pitched 26 games in relief for the Pirates in 2007-08. He’s spent most of his time in the minors as a relief pitcher also; it’s hard to tell whether he’s starting this season because the Yankees think he can be a starter or because there’s nobody else to do it. I don’t think he’s got much of a future as a major league pitcher, but if he gets a job, he could deliver one good year out of a bullpen.
May 1 — Norfolk — Troy Patton — 7 5 1 1 0 4 (Game Score 67) (Winning Pitcher)
While less overpowering than Sanchez, Troy Patton was more effective and equally impressive. He moved his pitches around the strike zone and induced routine grounders and flies. The only run allowed came on a Juan Miranda home run, although he was saved by a spectacular tag at the plate to turn a potential sacrifice fly into an inning-ending double play. Aside from those innings, Patton was not threatened and stranded only two runners.
Patton has dominated every level up to AAA; he has struggled at AAA. However, he’s pitched better in his last three starts and may be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery. If he has, and he is able to maintain his command, he should have at least a Paul Maholm-like career; Ted Lilly may be his upside.
I’ll discuss the remaining pitchers in future posts.