Sometimes, when I work a game, I can get so wrapped up in the individual details that I lose the forest for the trees. It won’t be until after the game that I’ll notice that a player has gone three-for-four with five RBI, or that a pitcher retired fifteen consecutive batters. On the other hand, sometimes something at the microdetail level will strike me. Last night, in the Norfolk Tides’ 5-1 loss to the Columbus Clippers, it was about in the fifth inning that I noticed that very few pitches were swung at and missed by Clipper hitters. I started paying attention, and by the end of Chris Jakubauskas’ seven innings, only four of his 96 pitches had been swing-and-misses. (One more pitch may be recorded as a swing-and-miss, but it was really a non-strike-three foul tip, caught by the catcher.)
I think that the few numbers of swing-and-misses doesn’t bode well for Jakubauskas’ chances. Batters swing and miss because the pitch is overpoweringly fast, or because the pitch breaks substantially, or because the batter thinks the pitch is doing one thing when it’s really doing another. If a pitcher isn’t recording a lot of swing-and-misses, then he’s neither overpowering nor fooling batters. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.
The Tides brought in Alberto Castillo to pitch the eighth inning; he ended up facing five batters, retiring them all. Of his 24 pitches, there were four swing-and-misses — exactly as many as Jakubauskas had, facing five times as many batters.
I first saw Dontrelle Willis pitch in May of 2002. I was working on a temporary work assignment in suburban Chicago, and one evening I went to a Kane County Cougars game. Dontrelle Willis was a rail-thin 20-year-old, with a high leg kick and a whip-like delivery that overpowered the Fort Wayne Wizards. Almost everyone could see that this was a young man with a future. And the future began soon, as he won the National League Rookie of the Year award the following season and became a phenomenon.
After four years of success, Willis lost his effectiveness, and has spent the last four years among major and minor league teams. This season, he’s with the Louisville Bats in the Reds’ organization, and he was the starting pitcher last Saturday. It was hard to believe he is just 29 years old. First, he’s no longer rail-thin; he’s filled out quite a bit, although he wouldn’t be considered portly. Second, he’s eliminated the leg kick from his delivery, probably because he’d lose his balance if he kept it. Third, he no longer has a whip-like delivery; it’s smoother and more compact. He efficiently retired the first four batters he faced; then suddenly lost his command. He walked two batters (with a wild pitch among the called balls); gave up two hits, and then the shortstop couldn’t handle a hard-hit ground ball. Brendan Harris then hit a shot off Willis’ leg; it rebounded to catcher Corky Miller, who threw to first base for the rare 123 putout. (You’ll occasionally see a 123 double-play when a batter hits one back to the pitcher with the bases loaded, but I’d never seen a 123 putout before.) Willis had to leave the game.
Having seen Dontrelle Willis pitch before he became famous, it was interesting to see him pitch now that he’s trying to come back. It would be nice if he could have a second “career”, maybe as a fourth starter or a lefty-on-lefty specialist.
After completing a eight-game road trip, the Norfolk Tides return home tomorrow (Saturday, May 21) for a eight-game homestand. First up is four games against Louisville. One of Louisville’s better players is Todd Frazier. I’m hoping that Frazier plays and makes outs. Whenever a player named “Frazier” makes an out, we in the press box get a chuckle by repeating in Cosellian tones “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
At one time, Baseball Prospectus compared Brendan Harris, favorably, to Albert Pujols. That’s the kind of comparison that gives statistical analysis a bad reputation. Harris never had Pujols’ power, and had more polish, less projection. At that time, Harris was projected as a third baseman; for several reasons (primarily Aramis Ramirez and a 32-home-run season by Tony Batista) he never got there, and got a chance to play as the starting shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007. Since then, he’s been a utility player.
I bring this up because I earlier posted an entry about Brendan Harris at shortstop. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been amused; I should have been angry. For earlier this month, J.J. Hardy was in Norfolk on a major league rehabilitation assignment. In the first game Hardy played, an Indianapolis Indian hit a hard groundball back up the middle. Hardy moved to his left; gloved the ball; and threw the runner out at first base.
In the next series, against Syracuse, Hardy had finished his rehab and Brendan Harris was in the lineup at shortstop. With the bases loaded, a Chief hit another groundball up the middle. This was hit slower than the groundball Hardy made the play on, plus it was hit closer to the normal shortstop position. Harris moved to his left but was still a step away from the ball when it bounded into the outfield.
That play made it clear that Brendan Harris has no business playing shortstop — he simply doesn’t have the range for it. And that made me angry. Angry that the Baltimore Orioles are forcing their AAA affiliate to play a manifestly unqualified shortstop. Angry that the Orioles are forcing the Tides to stockpile past-their-prime backups to no good end. And, frankly, angry that no one is calling Buck Showalter out on this.
Ever hear of him? Probably not, unless you’re a reader of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook or a fierce Nationals fan. Tommy Milone is a left-handed pitcher, in the Nationals’ system, currently with the Syracuse Chiefs. Baseball America rated him the #17 prospect in the Nationals’ system. He’s been a classic left-handed, college-trained control-type pitcher; in 2009 he went 12-5 with High-A Potomac, with a 2.91 ERA and a 106/36 K/BB ratio. In 2010 he went 12-5 with AA Harrisburg, with a 2.85 ERA and a 155/23 K/BB ratio. He’s not a top prospect because his fastball tops out at 90 MPH.
And he was the Syracuse starter last night against Norfolk. It was impressive to see him work; throwing strikes, moving the ball around, retiring batters without throwing a lot of pitches — all but but three plate appearances were five-pitch or fewer (and the others were six-pitch). Milone needed only 84 pitches to work through 7 2/3 innings. He walked no one and struck out seven.
While he was fun to watch, his weaknesses were apparent as well. He gave up five hits, but three of them were extra-base hits. That’s why he gave up three earned runs. And he seemed to tire quickly; he retired 18 of the 19 batters he faced in the first six innings and 24 of his 84 pitches were to the eight batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings. But even though he (probably) won’t be a major league star, he was fun to watch and I’ll remember his outing for a long time.
Years — or perhaps decades — ago, baseball magazines would have a feature in which obscure rules and unusual situations would be brought up for discussion. Bill James once described a typical question as “what happens if the live baseball lands in the pocket of a passing marsupial?” Friday night’s Tides-Indianapolis game included a play that led to a potential “knotty problem of baseball.”
In the top of the third inning, Indianapolis’ Brian Friday blooped a single to center. He was sacrificed to second by Gorkys Hernandez. Chase D’Arnaud lofted a fly ball that Tides center fielder Matt Angle misjudged. Angle drifted back on the ball, then suddenly broke out into a sprint back toward the infield and dove for the ball. From my vantage point in the seats behind home plate, I couldn’t tell whether Angle had trapped or caught the ball; and the umpire making the catch was out of my line of vision.
Friday, on second base, thought that the ball was caught and returned to second base. D’Arnaud, the batter, either thought that the ball was not caught or wasn’t sure, and he charged for second base. The two runners arrived at the same time; both dove headfirst into the base; and nearly conked heads. Angle threw the ball to the second baseman, who looked perplexed before finally tagging runners clinging to second base. Eventually, the umpire arrived, said a few words, and D’Arnaud got up and trotted to the dugout.
We still weren’t quite sure what happened. Our first guess was that Angle was ruled to have made a catch and thus D’Arnaud’s dive, though spectacular, was wasted. But our confidence was shaken when the scoreboard operators put an additional base hit on the line. After discussing this for a bit, we finally decided that Angle had not caught the ball, and that D’Arnaud was tagged out by the second baseman. By rule, if two runners are legally on a base (more on that later), the trailing runner is put out when tagged. Finally, we went back to our first opinion — that Angle caught the ball — when later in the inning the extra hit was taken off the linescore.
Now for the knotty problem. By and large, runners are not allowed to run the bases backwards. More precisely, a runner who has legally reached a base is not allowed to go back to a previous base. A century ago, a “character” named Germany Schaefer, on first base, broke for second on a hit-and-run play and stole the base successfully, although the hit-and-run failed. On the next pitch, he broke back for first base so that on the third pitch, he could try the hit-and-run again. That’s now illegal — once a player has legally reached a base safely, he can’t go back to a previous base. A runner can run back and forth during rundowns, because he’s never reached the following base — and he can return after a fly ball has been caught, because he never reached the following base legally – but once he’s reached a base, he can’t go back.
Another principle is that the final decision of the umpires is final. So, for example, if one umpire signals “No catch” on a fly ball and another umpire signals “catch”, and a runner doesn’t tag up because he sees the “no catch”, and the runner is doubled off his base, and the umpires, after conferring, rule a catch, the runner is out of luck — the final ruluing is a catch; he never tagged up; hence he’s out.
So, let’s take the Friday-D’Arnaud-Angle play and complicate it a little. Suppose that Friday reached third base. He then either saw the umpire signal “catch” or heard the coach telling him “catch” and thus returned to second base. D’Arnaud reached second base but seeing Friday returning to second, decided to return to first to allow Friday room to return. Both runners reached base safely; the umpires then declare “no catch”. Could Friday and/or D’Arnaud be then called out for running the bases backward? I don’t know the answer.
The Tides returned home after a surprising 5-3 road trip to Indianapolis and Louisville. Before that trip the Tides had been 5-13, so a 5-3 road trip provided hope, especially since this eight-game homestand featured the two teams — Indianapolis and Syracuse — with records comparable to Norfolk’s. Unfortunately, the hopes were dashed after three innings of Thursday’s game against Indy.
The Tides were scheduled to start veteran Ryan Drese, but shortly before game time changed to Chris Jakubauskas. Jakubauskas was on the opening-day roster, but was promoted to the Orioles before he made an appearance. After a couple of appearances, he was placed on the disabled list with a strained groin. Sunday, he made a rehabilitation start for the Tides and lasted less than two innings. Despite that, the Orioles optioned him to Norfolk on Monday and he made the start on Thursday.
It was clear that Jakubauskas was not in condition to be a regular starting pitcher, as the Tides declared that he would be on a 50-pitch limit. That limit proved to be about 40 pitches too many. The first Indianapolis batter fouled out, and then the second blooped a single to center. That second batter was then caught stealing second base. That was ten pitches. After that, Jakubauskas gave up a double and a two-run home run (granted, the home run was wind-aided) before escaping the first, then walked two batters before giving up a three-run home run in the second. After he gave up a single to the leadoff batter in the third, he reached his pitch limit and was replaced by Drese, who was unable to strand that runner although the run was charged to Jakubauskas. Down 6-0, the Tides were unable to do much against crafty lefthander Brian Burres. When the shouting was over, the Tides lost 9-1.
On the face of it, it made no sense to send Jakubauskas down when he was not ready. The Orioles returned Chorye Spoone to Bowie when Jakubauskas was sent down. Maybe the Orioles really wanted Spoone at Bowie; but that still doesn’t excuse them from sending Norfolk a pitcher who isn’t ready to pitch. Especially since there are other pitchers — Troy Patton and Armado Gabino — who could step into the rotation while Jakubauskas works into shape.