April 29, 2009
On the Beat
North Country Thunder
Cito Gaston was certain he was never going to manage again. He was so sure that he politely declined a chance to interview for one of baseball's plum managerial jobs. That was after the 2005 season, when the Dodgers were searching for a replacement for Jim Tracy. When the Dodgers called, Gaston said he wasn't interested. "I had been interviewing for jobs, and gotten the impression that teams were interviewing me just for the sake of interviewing me," he observed, certainly aware of Major League Baseball's policy that a minority must be interviewed for each manager's opening. "I figured there was no sense in going through the whole process again just to get turned down. What was the point? I was happy with my life just the way it was." Gaston was doing a lot of traveling with his wife, fishing, and keeping his hand in the game as a special assistant to the president with the Blue Jays, the franchise that he managed to back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993 before being fired in 1997.
But when the Blue Jays were looking for a manager last June after firing John Gibbons, they called Gaston and offered him the job, along with a contract that takes him through the 2010 season. Just like that, he was a major league manager again after a 10-year absence. "It caught me by surprise," Gaston said. "There was no inkling from [general manager] J.P. Ricciardi or anyone else with the Blue Jays, but I couldn't say no to an organization that has been so good to me for so many years. It's good to be back again. It's been fun. There are some hassles, like getting up at the crack of dawn every morning in spring training, but I'm glad I took the job."
It would be hard not to be happy; the Blue Jays' 15-7 record is the best in the major leagues in a season during which they appeared certain to take a step backwards after going 86-76, in no small part because of a starting rotation ravaged by injury. "Last year the pitching staff really picked up the hitters," Gaston said. "This year, we've asked the hitters to pick up the pitchers. So far, it's worked out very well."
The Blue Jays led the major leagues in run prevention last season, allowing 3.8 runs per game, but they were 21st in runs scored with a 4.4 average. That led to 86 wins, which was only good for a fourth-place finish in the tough American League East behind the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees. The hitters have fared much better this season as they are third in the majors in runs scored with 5.9 a game, and third in the majors in team Equivalent Average (and leading the AL) with a .281 mark. In this, they are almost certainly aided by Gaston, who was considered one of the game's top hitting coaches before becoming a manager, and hitting coach Gene Tenace, who was also Gaston's hitting coach during the Blue Jays' World Series years. First baseman Lyle Overbay has led the way with a .327 EqA, and second baseman Aaron Hill, coming back from an injury-shortened 2008 season, has a .324 mark.
The Blue Jays' pitching has still been quite good, despite missing three of the five primary members of last year's starting rotation. That's because A.J. Burnett left for the Yankees as a free agent, while both Shaun Marcum (elbow) and Dustin McGowan (shoulder) could possibly miss the entire season while recovering from surgeries performed last year. Furthermore, rookie left-handed starter Ricky Romero (oblique), right-handed starter Jesse Litsch (forearm), and closer B.J. Ryan (trapezius) are on the disabled list and likely out until at least mid-May.
None of the Blue Jays' starters have been dominant to this point, as Roy Halladay and Romero lead the rotation with 1.0 SNLVAR. However, left-hander Scott Downs (1.22 WXRL) and Jason Frasor (0.87) have picked up the slack for Ryan in the bullpen as they rank sixth and 10th in the majors in WXRL. While Halladay isn't atop the SNLVAR leader board yet, history says he will be; he's unquestionably the staff leader, with 287 career starts coming into the season. The other four starters had combined for 64, 48 of which were made by Litsch.
"We lost three quality starters from our rotation, and certainly we couldn't have expected to be able to pick up the slack this quickly," Gaston said. "These guys are still young and they are going to have some tough times. That's why Doc is so important. He's the anchor, the rock of the pitching staff. You know he's going to go out there every five days and almost always give you a dominating performance. The other great thing about Doc is he is such a great role model for all our young pitchers. Doc beats me to the ballpark every day. No matter how early I get here, he's already here, working out, studying film of the opposing hitters, or doing something to improve himself. He's relentless."
If Halladay is the Blue Jays' most important player, then perhaps center fielder Vernon Wells is second on that list. Despite the Blue Jays' early-season offensive surge, Wells' EqA is .274, down from .289 last season. "He's a guy you can count on for 30 home runs and 100 RBI if he's healthy, and there aren't a lot of those guys around," opined infielder John McDonald. "He's a dynamic player who can really turn our offense up another notch when he's playing at his best. If Vernon has the kind of year he's capable of having, we can score runs with just about anybody."
The rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox makes for great theater, and perhaps that's why it captures the imagination of the television networks; seemingly every meeting between the superpowers is aired by either Fox or ESPN. However, as the New York Times' Harvey Araton learned last weekend when the Red Sox swept the Yankees at Fenway Park, the hatred between the two franchises is not nearly as strong as it would seem. As Red Sox DH David Ortiz told him, "When I first got here, I had no clue about it, but I got into it. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't feel like it used to. It gets old. Everything gets old."
If Papi's exhaustion weren't enough, Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis and second baseman Dustin Pedroia made no secret of their admiration for Yankees shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter after the three were teammates for the United States in the World Baseball Classic last month. Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell came up through the Yankees' farm system before being traded to the Marlins, and also doesn't hide his affection for Jeter. "He treated me exceptionally well when I was a young guy," Lowell said. "Whenever I see him, I'll always say hello, but it's not like I'm going to give him a hug if I'm standing on second base. I wouldn't do that out of respect for what these games mean to the fans and the media."
Perhaps the fans and media have puffed up the games between the Yankees and Red Sox to such a degree that the two teams have bonded in an odd sort of way because of it. "It's two highly competitive teams expected to get to the playoffs every season," Lowell said. "So that creates two high-pressure situations, which means our games are always going to be intense. As competitors in those similar situations, we also have a lot more in common than people think."
The Pirates are second in the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 3.6 per game, a stunning turnaround for a club that was 29th in that category last season with a 5.5 average, ahead of only the Rangers. Furthermore, the Pirates went to spring training this year with only four pitchers assured of jobs on the 12-man staff: left-handed starter Paul Maholm, closer Matt Capps, and set-up relievers John Grabow and Tyler Yates.
Getting credit for the turnaround is pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, the third man to hold the job in as many years after Jim Colborn was fired after the 2007 season, and Jeff Andrews was let go at the end of last season. Kerrigan has also had stints as a pitching coach with the Expos, Red Sox, and Phillies. "I expected our pitching to be a lot better this season," Pirates manager John Russell said. "One thing is you have the law of averages. It couldn't be any worse than it was last season. But I also saw how well Joe prepared this staff throughout the winter and spring training to get ready to compete for this season. I knew our pitchers would be ready to go, and they've done a great job."
Kerrigan is noted for always being prepared and using statistical analysis to scout opposing hitters. "I'm glad Joe brings all those charts out to the dugout with him, because he gives us so much information I can't remember it all," said starter Jeff Karstens.
Catcher Ryan Doumit is also impressed by the amount of data Kerrigan sifts through before each game, much of it generated by former BP contributor Dan Fox, now the Pirates' director of baseball information. "Joe has a stat for everything," Doumit said. "If a guy is 1-for-27 against curveballs with two strikes then you can be sure we're going to throw that a guy a curveball with two strikes."
Kerrigan, though pleased, is downplaying his staff's success. "Our guys are doing a great job, throwing strikes, avoiding the big inning, all the things they didn't do last season. There are going to be bumps in the road, though. We've barely played more than one-tenth of the season, so let's not get too carried away."
Jimmy Rollins is a pretty good prognosticator. The shortstop said that the Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East in 2007, and they rallied from seven games down with 17 games remaining to win the division title, passing a collapsing Mets team at the wire. Then Rollins said the Phillies would win 100 games in 2008, and they ended up with 103 en route to the second World Series title in franchise history.
So when Rollins says he'll hit .400 in May, it's at least worth keeping it in the back of your mind, even if his season slash stats are a paltry .195/.232/.286 in 83 plate appearances, and his EqA is .171. "I feel pretty good, ready to rock and roll," Rollins told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury. The last time Rollins said he would hit .400 in a month was late in the 2005 season; he batted .402/.455/.648 in 135 plate appearances in September, and finished the season on a club-record 36-game hitting streak.
"Jimmy will get going," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's what you call baseball. You don't do good all the time. The game will always test you."
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups: