September 29, 2004
Missing the Point
When chasing October, it helps to play bad baseball teams.
Trailing 4-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth last night, the Dodgers were treated to an appearance by the Rockies' Shawn Chacon. With his 35 saves and 7.11 ERA this year, Chacon has shattered whatever standards previously existed for worst performance by a closer who held his job all year. Watching him is actually more painful than reading those numbers; he goes to a 3-2 count so often you'd think he's getting paid by the pitch.
Last night, he went the distance on four of the five batters he faced. After striking out Olmedo Saenz on four pitches, Chacon walked four straight batters to give the Dodgers a run with the bases loaded. Clint Hurdle, 24 hours removed from a terrible pitching decision, swapped out Chacon for Tim Harikkala, a Triple-A veteran who apparently expired when that level's season did: he has a 16.50 ERA in September after coming into the month at 3.34. Harikkala gave up hits to Jayson Werth and Steve Finley, and just like that, the Dodgers had put up a comeback victory worthy of the 1988 squad.
The team's joy was marred by the latest Milton Bradley meltdown. Bradley, who'd left runners on base in the first and fifth innings, dropped a fly ball--he got caught between holding the glove up and holding it down--to cost the Dodgers three runs in the eighth inning.
Not long after the misplay, the camera cut to Bradley walking towards the stands with a bottle in his hand. Bradley reached the right-field foul pole, exchanged some angry words, and slammed the bottle down in the aisle between two sections.
Bradley's actions were inexcusable. He once again allowed his frustration and his anger to come out in an inappropriate way, and he deserved both his ejection and the suspension that will almost certainly follow.
However, the coverage of the incident that I saw--largely on "SportsCenter"--is a sad example of fitting the facts to the established storyline. Bradley was shown walking towards the stands with the bottle--no mention of it being plastic, no mention of how it got to him (thrown at him by an idiot in the stands), with some semi-amusing voice-over. The clip of him throwing down the bottle, not at anyone, and again with no mention of its being plastic, was shown with the same voyeuristic glee with which the media replayed the Frank Francisco clip.
Bradley was wrong, but there are gradations of wrong, and his actions did not occur in a vacuum. Some moron threw a plastic bottle at a player, and I've yet to see anyone mention that as the provocation for the incident. Unlike the situation with the A's fans and the Rangers' bullpen, it was the fan in this case who escalated from verbiage to violence, albeit mild.
Harold Reynolds, who you would think would know better, criticized Bradley in part by saying, "Fans will cuss at you, they'll throw things at you." Excuse me? One of those is an order of magnitude worse than the other, and linking the two in the same sentence as common behaviors is egregiously wrong. Fans will yell and cuss, and while I find the practice of cussing at baseball players from 50 feet away to be a distasteful relic of a more uncouth time, it is a part of the game that isn't going anywhere. Throwing anything at someone else in public...I mean, who does this, and how does it get dismissed so easily?
The media can make you and break you. Without defending Bradley's action, it wasn't really that bad--the whole point behind the plastic beer bottles at games is to keep them from hurting anyone, and Bradley clearly did not throw the bottle at anyone. Where is the opprobrium for the idiot who launched the bottle at him?
(As I write this, I'm reading the scroll at the bottom of ESPN. "Bradley: ejected in eighth inning after throwing a plastic bottle into outfield stands." Well, they have the plastic bottle now, but again, the image created by that line doesn't quite fit what happened, other than technically.)
While I'm here, where is the criticism of Giovanni Carrara, who reacted to Bradley's eighth-inning misplay like a Russian gymnast unhappy with the judges of her floor exercise? Isn't it part of the blessed code that pitchers don't show up fielders who make misplays? Had it been, say, Derek Lowe doing a pirouette in the wake of a Kevin Millar error, how would the story have played?
Bradley was wrong. Using his behavior as the impetus for another round of Bradley-bashing, however, ignores the other elements of the story, and does people looking for the truth a disservice.
In other places...
- The A's got another bad start, this one from Tim Hudson, but didn't get rescued by their offense. Their 7-2 loss to the Mariners cost them sole possession of first place in the AL West, increasing the chance that they'll miss the postseason for the first time since 1999.
This deserves a longer column, but two of the A's disappointing starters, Hudson and Mark Mulder have strikeout rates that have slipped below average. That statistic remains the best predictor of career length, and while many people wanted to excuse the big three's declining strikeout rates as part of a larger plan, isn't it just possible that they need to miss more bats to be successful?
- Give the Angels a lot of credit. After slipping to three games behind the A's after a loss to them last Friday night, they've won four in a row, outscoring their opponents 24-10 behind four straight quality starts, to tie for first place. They might well have the better starting pitcher in every one of their last five games, and their offense, with Troy Glaus back in the lineup, has been firing on all cylinders since the team's back-to-back shutouts at the hands of the Rangers ten days ago.
- The NL wild-card race became a virtual three-way tie, as the Giants and Astros both made up a game on the Cubs. The Astros still need help, as they're a game back in the loss column. They need one more win tonight against the Cardinals, behind Roger Clemens, to set themselves up nicely: their last three games are at home aganst the inept Rockies.
Some history worth mentioning: A year ago, the Astros were tied with the Cubs for the NL Central lead on the final Friday of the season, and they were playing their last three games at home against the inept Brewers. They lost on both Friday and Saturday while the Cubs won at Wrigley Field, and were eliminated.
The Giants still have the toughest road, with five road games against tough opponents and no more Jason Schmidt until the season's final day. The Cubs, who have lost enough games to the Reds, Mets and Pirates to drive their faithful crazy, have two home games against the Reds and three against the Braves.
The playoff odds report indicates that the Cubs are slightly better than even-money to take the fourth playoff spot, with the Astros and Giants at 3-1 (with a small chance that the Dodgers end up as the wild card, and a microscopic chance that it's the Padres). That still seems right to me. They're the team most likely to run the table.
- Between the AL West and the NL wild card, there's an excellent chance that there will be a baseball game on Monday. There's a reasonable chance that we'll have two, which would be a first in baseball history. That would create some chaos in the NL, where the playoff matchups hinge upon which division the wild-card emerges from.
- I don't know how much it matters, because you can probably interpret the information in multiple ways, but the Cubs won't get to scoreboard-watch again until Sunday. They'll play all day games the rest of the way, and will be off the field before the Astros or Giants take it every day between today and Saturday.
If it was me, I'd like it that way; I'd want to play and get the chance to put up a win before my opponent took the field that night. Honestly, though, I think it's the kind of thing that has no real effect, but sounds like it should.
- With their losses last night, the Rangers and Padres were effectively eliminated from playoff contention. In one case, the team has to be happy. The Rangers had their best season since 2000, found some pitchers, watched some hitters develop, and saved money. They should have established a foundation for the future, although they seem likely to fall victim to the Devil's Theory of Ballpark Effects. The theory, named by Bill James, states that teams in extreme parks tend to misevaluate their needs.
The Rangers had an above-average pitching staff and a below-average offense this year; in losing three straight games to effectively end their season, they scored five runs. They need OBP, preferably in the outfield, and perhaps some left-handed hitting. All signs point to them trying to upgrade the pitching staff, however, which could cement their status as the AL's version of the Rockies.
The difference between the Astros and Padres this morning is three games. Or, if you prefer, Carlos Beltran. The Padres' inability or unwillingess to improve their team at the trade deadline, to fill their hole in center field, cost them dearly. They can use injuries, especially in September, as an excuse, but they had a chance to be special this year and they didn't get there. With the bloom already coming off Petco Park, and the roster a lot older than you think, the Padres have some challenges ahead of them.
- I'll wait for the official announcement before delving into the Expos' move to Washington, D.C. I have reservations about whether this is even going to happen, but let's hear some details before getting into that.
If you haven't read Jonah Keri's feelings on the move of his favorite team, go do so. If you have, read it again. It's that good.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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