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July 10, 2012

Western Front

Trying One's Patience

by Geoff Young

After our failed attempt at watching Danny Hultzen and Jamie Moyer do battle in Tacoma, my wife and I drove north to Seattle via Federal Way (where we enjoyed Hawaiian barbecue with Baseball Prospectus alum Brandon Isleib. Our lunch stop isn't central to the plot, but Brandon is a good guy whose wife helped me remember the name of a “Burn Notice” villain that I'd forgotten—Simon Escher, played by the excellent Garret Dillahunt, if you must know). We stayed on Lake Union, near a local seafood chain that served delicious chowder. The Wooden Boat Festival took place across the street from us. As was the case for most of our journey throughout the typically rainy Pacific Northwest, we encountered almost no precipitation; temperatures sat in the range of a Livan Hernandez curveball, occasionally dipping into slightly less comfortable Vicente Padilla eephus territory.

We caught two Mariners games, both against the Boston Red Sox. Seattle won on Saturday night thanks to a Chone Figgins sacrifice fly, which was as unexpected as (check all that apply):

  • __ Learning that AC/DC once played a gig with Split Enz in 1975
  • __ Learning that Angus and Malcolm Young's older brother, George, co-wrote and played rhythm guitar on the Easybeats' 1966 hit “Friday on My Mind” (and also co-wrote John Paul Young's 1978 hit “Love Is in the Air”)
  • __ Finding excellent carnitas in Port Orford, Oregon

Much earlier in the game, after Figgins had been called out on strikes, I wondered why he still played for the Mariners. After all, he has hit .229/.300/.284 in 1,180 plate appearances since coming to Seattle. Heck, I wondered why he still played for anyone.

* * *

Padilla appeared in Saturday night's contest for the Red Sox. He threw the eephus while warming up but not during the game.

* * *

The night before Figgins' carnitas-in-small-town-Oregon heroics, the Mariners were dominated by aging ground-ball machine Aaron Cook. I have waxed poetic in the past about Cook, who is perhaps best known for his inability (or unwillingness; ascribing motive can be a perilous endeavor) to hurl baseballs past big-league hitters. He owns a career 3.8 K/9 in the whiff-happiest of eras.

On this evening, Cook disposed of the home team in 81 pitches. He struck out two batters, the only two he has struck out in 22 2/3 innings this year.

The Mariners swung early, often, and to little effect. They managed just two hits—a grounder to second base that Ichiro Suzuki beat out to start the fourth and a lined single by John Jaso to start the eighth—against Cook, who bore scant resemblance to the man that posted a 6.03 ERA for the Rockies in 2011.

I wondered about Seattle's “approach” of hacking at everything, which seemed even more curious than the continued employment of Figgins (which I wouldn't wonder about until the following night, although such existential questions always linger at the back of my mind). A few Twitter correspondents advised me that Mariners manager Eric Wedge likes his hitters to be aggressive.

The available numbers aren't as conclusive. The Mariners see 3.82 pitches per plate appearance, only slightly below the American League average of 3.84. This number is higher than that of the Rangers (3.80) and Angels (3.73), which suggests that a) hacking away isn't the worst thing in the world, b) pitches per plate appearance isn't the best way to measure this, or c) a little of each.

Seattle's first-pitch swinging percentage is 27 percent. This is a shade higher than league average (25), tied with Texas, and behind only Detroit and Tampa Bay. The Tigers are a mediocre offensive team, the Rays a bit worse, and the Rangers score more often than... well, they score a lot.

If Wedge likes his hitters to be aggressive, it isn't manifesting itself this year. In 2011, however, the Mariners led the league in swinging-strike percentage and were second (tied with Toronto) to the Tigers in first-pitch swinging percentage.

Whatever the case, judging from Wedge's postgame comments, his charges carried their conception of aggressiveness several degrees further than he had intended, or even imagined possible:

We were horrible tonight. We just stunk up the joint tonight. Nothing more to say. An 80-pitch complete game? Not taking anything away from that guy, but you can't make it that easy for him. It was just brutal.

Like Wedge, I don't mean to denigrate Cook, who still has a right arm, but the Mariners and their approach facilitated his success. This, in turn, facilitated Wedge's decision to call a team meeting after calling out his hitters, who in fairness deserved it. His comments after the meeting were no less gentle:

The level of play, at this level, that I expect has to be better than that. I just made sure that they understand that, in not so many words, what's important and what should be important, what their priorities are and what they should be and just about the way we are going to go about our business. Whether it be young players trying to figure it out or older players who are supposed to be doing better, whether you are playing every day or not playing every day—I don't give a damn. What we do is we come out to the ballpark and we play with a championship presence and we work towards being a championship team and we are going to find out just who the hell wants to be a part of it.

Honesty isn't always comfortable, which probably explains a lot of things in this world.

* * *

It is understood that when I refer to the Mariners as the home team, I mean in name only. Red Sox fans outnumbered Mariners fans by plenty at both games we attended. Many stayed in our hotel, a fact not lost on folks who worked at said hotel. They expressed, in the diplomatic way that hotel workers must express things to customers, displeasure at seeing so many people root for the “other” team.

This was not an issue before 2004, when the Red Sox broke a nonsensical curse, attracting in the process a legion of people who self-identify as “long-suffering,” which might be the only thing more nonsensical than the notion of a curse. What bothered the hotel workers most was that many of these “fans” called Washington home. Their connection to Boston was that, frankly, that city's franchise had been successful where Seattle's had not.

The hotel workers seemed disappointed at my lack of outrage. As a customer, I could be more passionate about such matters without fear of appearing unprofessional. Instead, I nodded my head and explained that the situation is pretty much the same in San Diego.

They shrugged their shoulders and returned to being diplomatic. I shrugged my shoulders and, blissfully indifferent to outcome, boarded the shuttle that would take me to Safeco Field.

* * *

Intriguingly, this wasn't even the most efficient start of Cook's career. Since 2000, there have been 11 games in which a starter worked at least nine innings while using 85 pitches or fewer. Six guys have done it once, Carlos Silva has done it twice, and Cook three times:

Player

Date

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

Pit

Str

Jon Lieber

5/24/01

9.0

1

0

0

0

1

2

78

56

Steve Sparks

6/19/01

9.0

3

1

1

0

2

0

84

54

Roy Halladay

10/5/01

9.0

2

0

0

0

0

8

83

60

Carlos Silva

5/20/05

9.0

5

1

1

1

0

3

74

54

Rich Harden

7/14/05

9.0

2

0

0

0

0

8

81

61

Carlos Silva

7/18/05

9.0

8

2

2

1

1

2

85

62

Aaron Cook

7/25/07

9.0

7

2

2

0

0

2

74

55

Aaron Cook

7/1/08

9.0

5

0

0

0

0

4

79

58

Luke Hochevar

6/12/09

9.0

3

1

1

1

1

3

80

57

Jeff Karstens

7/15/11

9.0

5

0

0

0

0

2

83

64

Aaron Cook

6/29/12

9.0

2

0

0

0

0

2

81

58

You don't walk guys, you don't (unless you are Halladay or Harden) strike 'em out. Facing a lousy hitting team doesn't hurt. Cook, for example, did it to the 2007 and 2008 Padres, and the 2012 Mariners. The key difference between those first two teams and the third is that he no longer has to face Adrian Gonzalez, who now plays behind him.

* * *

Harden hails from nearby Victoria, British Columbia. So does Michael Saunders, who plays for the Mariners but who sat out the two games we saw due to the flu. Victoria is a relatively small town that has produced few big-leaguers. Harden, Saunders, Steve Sinclair... Steve Wilson was born there but attended high school in the much larger Vancouver.

I mentioned in a previous article the gentleman who drove the bus from Victoria to Butchart Gardens. He had a habit of getting angry without raising his voice. On our way back to Victoria, a truck passed him on the right. “What an idiot,” he said with barely perceptible inflection, then apologized to no one in particular and launched into a polite lecture about how passing on the right is unsafe and illegal.

“He probably doesn't know it's illegal,” excused the bus driver. “He's probably from Vancouver.”

If only Mariners hitters had exercised such restraint against Cook on Friday.

* * *

You know about Saturday's game (Figgins, AC/DC, carnitas). The following afternoon, as we drove south to Portland, the Mariners and Red Sox played again. Whatever Wedge said in his meeting had a profound effect—at least in the short term, while everyone remembered how angry he seemed.

Seattle lost the game, with Padilla picking up the victory for Boston, but the Mariners made starter Felix Doubront work hard. Doubront left with one out in the fifth despite having allowed just one run. He had thrown 103 pitches.

Scoring actual runs would be a nice next step, but making a guy work is a start. At the very least, it's an improvement over not making a guy work.

We did not see a game in Portland due to the fact that the Beavers, which had played there in various incarnations (and with various nicknames) dating back to the late 19th century, closed up shop after the 2010 season and relocated to Tucson, where they are known as the Padres. I wore my Beavers cap, which elicited no response from the fine citizens of Portland. It did, however, get a comment from one of the Red Sox fans I encountered at Safeco Field on Friday.

He wore a Jacoby Ellsbury jersey. Ellsbury had played college ball at Oregon State, and this fan was an Oregon State season ticket holder who lived in Portland. He lamented the loss of the Beavers but seemed happy to see the Red Sox, although Ellsbury was on the disabled list at the time.

I forgot to tell the hotel workers that I met a Red Sox fan from Oregon, which was a whole state away from Washington, albeit still not close to Boston. Then again, I doubt telling them would have helped.

* * *

We spent the morning of July 4 with family, watching a parade in Ashland, Oregon. We spent the evening across town, watching a concert and fireworks at Ashland High School. The music was great, if a bit heavy on the Sousa for my taste, but I spent a good chunk of the program trying to figure out how to work in a bit about Jeremy Guthrie, who once took snaps for the Grizzlies football team where the tuba player sat.

Player

Year

Team

IP

ERA

ERA+

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

K/9

Aaron Cook

2011

Rockies

97.0

6.03

74

11.8

0.8

3.4

4.5

Jeremy Guthrie

2012

Rockies

83.1

6.05

78

11.8

1.9

3.0

4.4

Ideally there would be a joke about fireworks relating to Guthrie's home-run rate. Failing that, it's enough to note that the Rockies couldn't have done a better job of replacing Cook if they'd tried.

Also, I don't know exactly where on the field Guthrie took snaps, but tubas are hilarious.

* * *

This section is unnecessary, possibly even gratuitous. I include it to extend the riff on Guthrie and also to remind you that my idea of a good vacation involves hanging out at libraries, reading microfilm.

I had tried to visit Portland Central Library, but it is closed on Mondays, effective the Monday I arrived at its doorsteps. Locals were similarly baffled (you haven't lived until you've heard a woman pushing a stroller launch F-bombs at the city government), but no less helpless against Portland's budget.

On Thursday I was able to sate my need for all things dusty in Ashland. After buying a few used books and CDs in town, I spent two hours at the library, poring over microfilm of the Ashland Daily Tidings from April to June 1997 in the hope of finding some nuggets about Guthrie. My patience was rewarded. Here is a sampling of what I discovered (dates are when the newspaper was published):

  • April 9: Guthrie was clocked at 97 mph in the second game of a doubleheader. The lead MLB story that morning read, “Jury acquits Indians' Mesa of all charges in rape trial.”
     
  • April 14: Guthrie used a “94-plus mph fastball” to whiff seven batters on the North Medford Black Tornado (best team name ever), but allowed seven runs and 11 hits. That morning's Family Circus “punchline” read, “I've never had a square meal. All our dishes are round.”
     
  • April 28: Guthrie was “clocked at 91 mph as late as the seventh inning by a Philadelphia Phillies scout” and struck out 10, driving in two of his team's three runs and scoring the other. Quoth Guthrie: “It was hot out there, and it took a lot out of me. But I concentrated on my fastball today. Everyone seems to hit all my other stuff.” Guthrie's coach, the exquisitely named Gunner Gurwell, called it his pitcher's best game of the season.
     
  • May 5: Guthrie struck out 11 over nine innings, but his team lost in the 10th on a single followed by three straight walks. Quoth Family Circus: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of the mall?”
     
  • May 28: Guthrie was named a second-team Southern Oregon Conference all-star as voted by conference coaches. He finished his senior season with a 4-3 record, 2.44 ERA, and 83 strikeouts in 63 innings. Quoth Family Circus: “It's a porcupine. That's where we get pork.”
     
  • June 5: The San Diego Padres, Oakland A's, and New York Mets all were associated with Guthrie in the draft. The Mets took him in the 15th round, but he turned down a reported $300,000 in favor of attending Brigham Young University, where he could study and complete his Mormon mission. The article noted that Guthrie, a second-team all-star in baseball, also led the basketball team in scoring and won conference Player of the Year honors in football.

I perused only two months' worth of microfilm. As much as I would have loved to linger longer, I was on vacation and did have a production of As You Like It to watch that evening. It featured, among many other fine actors, the woman who played “The Log Lady” in Twin Peaks.

* * *

Perhaps I have tried your patience too much. Perhaps the Mariners have not tried patience enough. Either way, there are three things you should take away from this:

  • Seattle's approach against Cook last week was terrible, but this is not the first time Cook has carved through a weak lineup with ease.
  • Guthrie in 2012 is doing a great impression of Cook in 2011.
  • Tubas are hilarious.

May you be the fairest of the mall and all your dishes be round.

9 comments have been left for this article.

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