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March 10, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Day One at HoHoKam

by Christina Kahrl

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As I noted yesterday, spring training is an exercise with its own echoes, whether as a matter of careers, characters, or ballclubs. Arriving at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa provided me with ample opportunity to ponder the present and future as well as the past, because the Royals and Cubs gave us something to see, even in the course of what might get demeaned as “just” a 13-4 blowout.

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First, there was the question of what Matt Garza might do, and whether or not he was going to work in anything off-speed. The news wasn't good, as he got lit up, while also not showing much in the way of reliable off-speed stuff. This isn't entirely dissimilar from his performance record, so assertions that he's given to saving pitches with wiggle in them for the regular season don't help much—last year, in the games that counted, Garza didn't throw curves or sliders to lefties even 20 percent of the time, while being much more ready to try them out on right-handers.

Walking Lorenzo Cain and Mike Aviles to lead off the game put Garza in the position of working from the stretch early, so even if he had wanted to break out the benders, he wasn't getting to work in an optimal laboratory environment. I mean, c'mon, walking Jeff Francoeur? That's spring training. Or April in the Apple, I suppose, but folks were so willing to get carried away a year ago.

Complaints that perhaps Garza didn't get great defensive support would be overstated. Sure, the gork single off Alex Gordon's bat plated the Royals' fifth run in the first, but without Marlon Byrd's stabbing running grab of a dying quail in the second, Garza's day might have ended even sooner than it did in the third.

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In contrast, Bruce Chen continues to age like one of your finest ripples. Perhaps it's just a matter of how he pours what he has on tap, because as Mike Fast, Harry Pavlidis, and I were chattering about on Twitter yesterday, one of the most interesting developments with Chen's new lease on life has been his changing release points. The Panamanian Banal isn't dealing better pitches from the same pedestrian assortment, but by serving them up with a better bow, he's putting a new twist on the basic challenge, upsetting timing and getting people out. If ever you wanted a reminder that even the prospect “disappointments” of history have more going for them than just stuff (until they don't any more), watching Chen paint, duck, and weave his way through four innings wasn't so much a cause for encouragement if you're a long-suffering Royals fan as much as a reminder of how a survivor gets it done.

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Watching Mike Quade pick a roster for the first time is going to be an interesting enough exercise, but seeing him plug in Jeff Baker at second and leave the utility lefty masher out there for a full game was an interesting case of looking at the other guy after Blake DeWitt's uneven camp both afield and at bat re-asked the question of whether Baker might be able to help as effectively and as often as he did in 2009. Baker showed good hustle going from first to third on a single to left after drawing a leadoff walk in the first inning, but later got called out on strikes and then rung up by right-handed mediocrity (being kind) Kanekoa Texeira.

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Similarly, it was interesting to see the Cubs give time to their other aspiring right-handed bench bats. Reed Johnson's first at-bat, against Texas League hero Everett Teaford in the sixth, was a case of desperate veteran facing organizational lefty—Johnson needed to do damage, and he did, refusing to get backed off by inside fastballs or go fishing for an outside ball before hammering a double to right. But then Johnson flailed through an eighth-inning whiff at the hands of lefty Brandon Sisk, taking some of the snap out of his first garbage-time at-bat.

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Mike Aviles just kept grinding along, giving reason to wonder why there's any debate over whether he's an everyday player. A couple of walks, a single, solid play afield at the keystone... as an on-base threat and a playable glove up the middle, Aviles represents one of those fundamental challenges for a new skipper. Either Ned Yost will identify the good ballplayer, or he'll drink the Kool-Aid and futz around with Chris Getz to indulge past conceits. As much as spring stats don't mean anything, if the upshot of Aviles' hot March and Getz's stone-cold flailures leads to the right result in the short-handed way, why argue against the outcome?

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Top Cubs prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters both got into the game and did some of things for which they're known. Jackson got rung up on called strikes his first time up (against Teaford), nearly neglected to take the bat off his shoulder the second time (before hitting a tapper to first base that he almost legged out), and finished up with a game-ending grounder to first. It was a sequence that called to mind a young Eric Chavez more than a young Jim Edmonds, and I mean that in both the good and bad ways.

In contrast, Vitters simply made noisy contact by hacking away, in the sixth smiting a double to right-center that didn't just look hard-hit, it sounded it, even through the press box plexiglass. He repeated the attempt in the eighth, but had to settle for a loud out to right that again would have gone for extra bases, if Mitch Maier hadn't gotten on his horse and run it down.

In a nutshell, both prospects provided reminders in even these brief appearances of why you might love them, and also why they might break your heart.

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Brett Carroll got hit by a pair of pitches in two plate appearances, getting pelted first by Justin Berg and then by Esmailin Caridad. Since he subsequently scored both times after already scoring as a pinch-runner for Melky Cabrera in the fifth, he gets that entertaining 0 3 0 0 day at the office, perhaps another sure sign of spring. Keep in mind, whatever Carroll's other limitations, getting in the way is one of his virtues: in his brief big-league career, he's generated a HBP 3.45 percent of the time. If he could keep it up, that would be a good enough clip to rank in the top 10 of postwar players with 500 or more career plate appearances, behind reigning champ F.P. Santangelo (4.00 percent), Ron Hunt (3.94), Craig Wilson (3.89), Carlos Quentin (3.79), Sal Fasano (3.78), John Patterson (3.77), and Luis Terrero (3.52), and tied with Jason LaRue (3.45). I know, such things are dull trivia, but these are the kind of guys who get to play at this time of year.

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Finally, it's worth remembering that this is spring training for everybody, so sloppy play rules the day. Kosuke Fukudome was robbed of a fielder's choice in the bottom of the second, not that you normally go begging for such things, but what had to be scored as a double play was a matter of getting ruled out by first-base ump Gary Darling on a wild throw from Mike Aviles that pulled Billy Butler off the bag. Admittedly, frogs did not rain from the sky, nor is it likely the sun will skip its rise in the morning by the time you read this, but it was a reminder that everyone needs to get their reps in this time of year.

The ugly/stupid play of the day was a home-plate pileup in the top of the seventh. Lance Zawadzki fulfilled Harry Caray's old rule of following up a great play in the field (pivoting on a 4-6-3 DP in the bottom of the sixth) with one at the plate, lancing a single to center that scored Carroll, and then... well, Gregor Blanco came home, where Max Ramirez still didn't have the throw from Brett Jackson but was blocking the plate just the same, so we got a collision (to get the Royals that critical tenth run on their lead), followed by Blanco's reach over to slap home plate and get credited for the run that was already his by all rights.

You can understand the motives of everyone involved easily enough. MaxRam wants to be taken seriously as a receiver. Blanco is fighting for his professional life to be at least the Royals' fourth outfielder. And because the de facto observance of the rules allows for plate-blocking without the ball, risk-taking mayhem ensues, in this case to very little point. Even recognizing the thin line between encouraging player safety and emasculating the action, this was just gratuitously unnecessary. As much as every conversation about umpiring seems to start with ball/strike calls, here's hoping the new regime on the umpiring beat cracks down on this, not to mention the phantom tag.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Mike Aviles,  Harry Caray

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