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June 11, 2008

On the Beat

The Snaking Road

by John Perrotto

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Every team has its share of peaks and valleys over the course of six months and 162 games. Bob Melvin certainly understands that baseball truism. However, he has a hard time explaining the Diamondbacks' peripatetic performance to this point. "When we hit our peak, it was a really high one," Melvin said. "And when we hit our valley, it was a really low one. We've gone from one extreme to the other this season, that's for sure and I think anyone in this organization truly understand why it's happened this way we would try to do something to rectify it."

Perhaps it is Pythagoras evening things out. The Diamondbacks made the postseason last year despite being outscored 732-712 in the regular season, and in April seemed set to put that past mystery behind them when they went 20-8 and opened a lead in the NL West as high as 6 games. However, the Diamondbacks have gone a combined 15-22 in May and the first third of June. That has left the defending NL West champions with a 35-30 record, though still holding a 3-game lead over the Dodgers, thanks to none of the other four teams in the division being over .500.

"It's been frustrating because I know we're better than the way we've played the last five or six weeks," Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder said. "I don't think we played over our heads at the beginning of the season. We have a very good team and we're capable of winning a lot of games. I don't what it is. It just seems like we've been sluggish."

Melvin has heard that same criticism of his team. However, he attributes the characterization of their play to some more straightforward-the Diamondbacks' scoring average dropping from 6.4 in April to 4.1 in May and June. Overall, they are fifth in the NL in scoring with a 4.8 average, but have no individuals in the top 20 in the league in Equivalent Average. Any time you don't score runs, it looks like you're not putting forth the effort," Melvin said. "Our guys are playing hard. I don't see that as our problem. They just haven't played as well as they did earlier in the season. It's a matter of execution, not effort."

The Diamondbacks won the NL West last season then swept the Cubs in the NLDS before being swept by the Rockies in the NLDS. Because of the Diamondbacks' success in 2007, perhaps expectations were raised too high in 2008. While Melvin stops short of saying that himself, he is quick to remind people that the Diamondbacks still have a very young team. "Even though we were through a pennant race and the playoffs last year, we still have a lot of youth on this club and guys who are still kind of feeling their way at major-leaguers," Melvin said. "I think our youth could definitely part of the reason we've been so up and down this season. There are a lot of ups and downs that come with a 162-game season, and I'm sure some of our guys are still learning to deal with that. I think it could be a case of where we've started to struggle and some of the young guys have tried to put too much on their shoulders to be the one to try to turn it around."

The Diamondbacks have five regulars who are 26 or younger: first baseman Conor Jackson (26), shortstop Stephen Drew (25), third baseman Mark Reynolds (24), center fielder Chris Young (24), and right fielder Justin Upton (20). Left fielder Eric Byrnes is one of only two Diamondbacks regulars, along with second baseman Orlando Hudson, who is at least 30. Byrnes is currently on the disabled list with slight tears in both hamstrings, and has been ineffective this season with a .225 EqA.

Byrnes was unquestionably the Diamondbacks' leader last season, both on and off the field, as he had a .285 EqA. Melvin believes his injury had had a big effect on his club. "Eric is a really high energy guy and our entire team feeds off him," Melvin said. "There's no question we've missed what he brings to the lineup the past two weeks. Really, he hasn't been himself all season and we really miss that spark he provides. I think if we can get him healthy that it would make a big difference."

At least the Diamondbacks' pitching has been solid. They are allowing 4.2 runs a game, fifth in the NL, led by Brandon Webb (2.8 SNLVAR) and Dan Haren (2.1). "We've wasted a lot of good pitching and that's been the tough part for us," Snyder said. "In April, we were getting the hitting and pitching, were really firing on all cylinders. Now, we're not."

---

Plenty of statistical studies have borne out the fact that home-field advantage has the least impact on baseball than any of the major professional sports in this country. However, that would be hard to believe this season. Home teams have been winning with great frequency through this point in the season. In fact, 23 of the 30 major-league clubs have records over .500 at home and the home team is a combined 561-414 this season for a .575 winning percentage. The last time the home winning percentage was that high in a major-league season is 1931, when it was .582.

"I think there is definitely an advantage to playing at home," Pirates manager John Russell said. "There's something to be said for sleeping in your own bed, being around your family and getting into a normal routine. You have the fans rooting for you instead of booing you and that's always worth something, too. There's just a comfort level at home that you can't duplicate on the road."

Leading the way in home winning percentage this season are the Red Sox at .788 with a 26-7 record. Manager Terry Francona says there are definitely reasons why his team wins so frequently in Fenway Park. "We take our home ballpark into account, all the different quirks that make Fenway the great place that it is," Francona said. "We've really tried to take advantage of it and I think we have over the years. I'm sure a lot of other clubs think along those same lines and try to take advantage of their ballparks when they build their rosters."

The Brewers are 19-10 at Miller Park, yet manager Ned Yost doesn't have a cut-and-dried explanation. "I know it's just natural to win more games at home than on the road but the numbers are really tilted this season," Yost said. "I have no idea why, though. I've thought about it and I just don't have an answer."

Regardless, the home/road split is one area in which Major League Baseball can do nothing to bring about parity. "What do you do? Send teams on the road more?," Katy Feeney, MLB's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations, kidded the New York Daily News.

---

Ken Griffey Jr. kept downplaying the significance of his 600th career home run as he struggled to reach that plateau. However, once the Reds right fielder hit the historic homer Monday night off Marlins left-hander Mark Hendrickson at Dolphin Stadium, he admitted it was a special moment, especially when he reached home plate and his 14-year-old son Trey was waiting for him with the rest of his teammates. "I don't think I touched a base," Griffey said. "I floated around. It didn't hit me until I saw my family and Trey."

Griffey became the sixth member of the 600-homer club, joining Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), and Sammy Sosa (609). Griffey got phone calls from Aaron and Mays in the days leading up to his historic blast. "Willie called me about 10 days ago," Griffey said. "Hank called the next day. They told me to relax and keep having fun. I think that helped me a little bit."

One can't help but think Griffey would be at the top of that list is he wouldn't have missed so much time with injuries since the Reds acquired him in a trade from the Mariners prior to the 2000 season. Griffey has missed 458 of a possible 1,361 in his nine seasons with Cincinnati and been on the disabled list eight times.

Griffey, for his part, has hard time believing he has reached 600. "My dad hit 152 home runs," Griffey said of his father Ken, Sr., a major-league outfielder for 19 seasons from 1973-91. "That's who I wanted to be like. I never thought I'd hit 200 or 300 or 600."

---

The Mariners are 13th in the AL in runs scored with a 4.00 average and have the worst record in the major leagues at 23-42. For that, hitting coach Jeff Pentland paid the price, as he was fired Monday and replaced by Mariners special assistant Lee Elia. "We kept hoping that sooner or later, we were going to turn the corner," said Mariners manager John McLaren, who has been told by general manager Bill Bavasi that his job is safe. "We kept thinking that. We kept at it, but it didn't happen. Sooner or later, you have to do something."

How much the 70-year-old Elia can help the Mariners hitters remains to be seen but Bavasi figures it can't hurt. "We hope a lot of the good work that Jeff did can be added to by Lee talking in a different voice," Bavasi said. ""A lot of their beliefs about swing and hitting theory are similar. But they come at it in different voices. Lee is not going to work harder than Jeff. No one works harder than Jeff. But we're looking for better results."

The Mariners are hoping Elia, still (in)famous for his post-game harangue against Cubs fans 25 years ago when he was managing in Chicago, can bring some fire to a club that has been criticized for lacking in that department by Bavasi. "Lee shows his emotions a little more," McLaren said. "He can pat you on the back, and if it's needed, he can get in your face."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Tigers have started alternating Ivan Rodriguez and Brandon Inge behind the plate, and some inside the organization see that as a sign that Rodriguez will not be re-signed as a free agent in the offseason, and that Inge will be starter in 2009. Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis is eligible for free agency at the end of this season, but wants to stay in Oakland even if it means taking a significantly lower contract. Right-hander Ian Kennedy is likely headed to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre once he comes off the disabled list now that the Yankees have converted Joba Chamberlain from reliever to starter. The Indians will wait right up until the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline to decide if they are buyers or sellers. The Red Sox turned down overtures from Vero Beach, Florida, to move spring training, and instead would rather get a larger stadium built in Fort Myers or move to Sarasota.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cardinals are considering converting rookie reliever Kyle McClellan into a starter, if not this season then next year in spring training. Yost says that Mike Cameron is still his center fielder, though Gabe Kapler has been getting more starts there recently. The Astros are at least considering the idea of signing right-hander Sidney Ponson, who was released by the Rangers last weekend after a run-in with manager Ron Washington.

---

In a feature new to On The Beat this week, scouts give their takes on various major-leaguers they have watched play recently:

  • Marlins third baseman Jorge Cantu: "He's had a nice comeback season with the bat, but he's in the wrong league. He needs to get back over to the American League where he can DH, because he's absolutely brutal in the field."
  • Phillies right-hander Adam Eaton: "He's always had good stuff, but he's trusting it again for the first time in a long time. He's been aggressive in the strike zone and attacking hitters, and that's made a big difference."
  • Brewers third baseman Russell Branyan: "He rebuilt his swing when he was in the minor leagues. His hands are lower, and it's helping him get to the ball a lot quicker than last year. He's still pretty much an all-or-nothing guy, but is at least giving himself a chance now."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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