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May 8, 2012

Western Front

Three Days, Three Dingers

by Geoff Young

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Sometimes there is no obvious story. Sometimes there is just the beauty of the thing. Baseball's limitless capacity to surprise keeps those of us afflicted with fandom enthralled. This past week alone bore witness to three unexpected home runs, among other things. Such are the moments that define any given game, season, or lifetime of watching baseball.

Monday, April 30: Ransom vs. Buehrle
In the second inning of a scoreless game at Miami, the Diamondbacks' Cody Ransom stepped to the plate against Mark Buehrle. With Paul Goldschmidt on second and Gerardo Parra on deck, Ransom got ahead in the count, 3-0. Buehrle then grooved an 85 mph two-seam fastball down the middle, and Ransom drove it over the 386-foot sign in left-center for his second home run of the year.

Wait, Cody Ransom did what? If he doesn't fit your idea of a guy who gets the green light on 3-0, you are not alone.

The Giants picked Ransom out of Grand Canyon College in the ninth round of the 1998 draft. This was a surprisingly strong round, producing future big-league mainstays Ryan Madson, Jack Wilson, and Morgan Ensberg. The best was Mark Teixeira, who did not sign with the Red Sox out of high school. Nine of the 30 men taken in that round saw at least some time in the big leagues.

Ransom first made it to The Show for a handful of games in 2001, and a handful more the next year. After seeing limited action for the Giants in 2003 and 2004, he spent each of the following two seasons in the PCL. In a league that hit .278/.350/.442, Ransom hit .243/.302/.369 for Iowa and Oklahoma in 2005 at age 29. Bright future ahead, right?

Maybe, but surely not as a baseball player.

The next year he hit enough to get a September callup with the Astros. He started that stint 1-for-11 before knocking a three-run homer off Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm in the first inning on September 16, 2007. That was the only home run Ransom would hit for Houston, but his performance led to a job in the Yankees organization a year later. He again spent most of the season at Triple-A, making occasional appearances with the big club, which pretty well summarizes his entire career:

Year

Games

Minors

Majors

Pct in Maj

2001

134

9

6.3

2002

135

7

4.9

2003

112

20

15.2

2004

36

78

68.4

2005

89

0

0.0

2006

122

0

0.0

2007

135

19

12.3

2008

116

33

22.1

2009

31

31

50.0

2010

110

22

16.7

2011

101

12

10.6

This is a study in perseverance. Ransom is the chaser of implausible dreams, a man who has seen little big-league success but who has enjoyed a distinguished minor-league career. He has played in more than 1,400 games, hit more than 200 homers, and stolen more than 100 bases. If/when he returns to Reno, from which he was recalled on April 18 to replace the injured Geoff Blum, his next hit will give him 1,000 at the Triple-A level alone.

All that being said, Ransom's big-league track record is less than stellar. Coming into the season, he had hit .220/.304/.383 in 383 plate appearances. And although he has started strong in 2012, Ransom is hardly the poster child for swinging 3-0. In fact, in his big-league career, he is now 1-for-2 with 6 walks in 8 plate appearances resolved on that count. This isn't much of a sample, and maybe he fouled a pitch or two off, but the point is, he is no Justin Upton (who is 9-for-16 with 4 homers and 67 walks on 3-0 counts in his career).

Amusingly, Upton hit his second home run of the year off Buehrle two innings later. Which brings up something that should concern other NL West teams. The Diamondbacks are holding their own despite getting little production out of guys who were expected to contribute, such as Goldschmidt, Ryan Roberts, and the injured Chris Young. Even the pitching, beyond the surprising Joe Saunders and a few bullpen arms, hasn't been great. But with prospects Wade Miley and Patrick Corbin, who made his debut in Ransom's 3-0 homer game, helping out and even better reinforcements—Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs—potentially on their way, this team could be good enough to overcome the Dodgers' hot start.

If so, expect Ransom's home run—along with his RBI single in the eighth inning on Friday against the Mets that proved to be the game-winner—to become part of the narrative. If not, then the walk-off homer J.J. Putz surrendered to Washington's Ian Desmond on Wednesday night could get the blame for being a turning point. But this is a story revealed much later and told by someone who is better at framing disparate moments into a cohesive narrative that seems inevitable after the fact.

Tuesday, May 1: Gordon vs. Chacin
Everything wrong with the Dodgers only a few months ago appears to have been fixed. The team is off to a terrific start, and on the day the sale of the franchise was approved, an unlikely hero emerged at Coors Field.

Ben Lindbergh did a nice job of chronicling Dee Gordon's first big-league homer, but I would like to add a few thoughts.

Gordon does two things very well: run and throw. As Kevin Goldstein noted before the 2011 season, “his top-of-the-line speed makes him a danger to beat out any ground ball to the left side,” adding that “his thin, lanky frame has no power projection.” Gordon owns a minor-league line of .303/.355/.388 and didn't homer at any level in 2011.

It's a one-game sample and anecdotal evidence gathered by someone who is not a scout, but I did see Gordon play last May in Albuquerque. My game notes, alas, are less than helpful:

Ate Hebrew National beef frank, drank Sam Adams on draft. Two tickets in Sect 105, Row 7 cost $28... Game started out sloppy—three throwing errors by home team in first two innings—but picked up later in evening. Isotopes eventually won, 7-6, on a walk-off single in bottom of 10th inning.

See? Not helpful. Just consider this a public service announcement to go support your local minor-league team. It's cheap and fun, two things I like.

Anyway, back to Gordon. Aside from his speed and his arm, the one thing I remember about him was an at-bat where he worked the count full before chasing a pitch a foot off the plate, which is apparently a thing for Gordon. He battled until the pitcher got into a situation where he had to throw Gordon a strike and didn't, and Gordon let him off the hook anyway. My thought was that he needs to control the strike zone better. The numbers bear this out, as his walk rate in the minors was just 6.5 percent, and he struck out more than twice as often as he walked. In the big leagues, where the pitchers are better, those tendencies are even more pronounced.

Which is not to say that Gordon won't be a competent hitter one day, although I have my concerns. Still, if he can combine Juan Pierre's offensive game with shortstop skills, he has value. But power will never be a part of his repertoire, which makes the bomb he hit in Denver—off the second-deck facade in right field, no less—all the more baffling.

For a team that is so heavily dependent on two players for its offense (as of this writing, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier had hit 18 of the Dodgers' 24 home runs in 2012), any additional contributions would be most welcome. And although Gordon may not ever hit another homer, if he can beat the ball into the ground, draw a few more walks, and run like crazy, he could provide Kemp and Ethier with more opportunities to do their thing.

Gordon's blast also reminds us that even the weakest big-league hitters are pretty darned good. If you leave a 90 mph fastball out over the plate, as Jhoulys Chacin did to Gordon in the first inning on Tuesday, there is a decent chance that you will not see that ball again. And in the case of Chacin, you may find yourself back at Triple-A on the heels of what appeared to be a breakout 2011—not exactly how the Rockies or their fans want to see the young arms develop.

Wednesday, May 2: Giambi vs. Elbert
Jason Giambi hit 28 homers in 1,117 plate appearances in the minors during his ascent to the big leagues in the mid-'90s, which included stops in the hitter-friendly California League and PCL. Power wasn't really his thing back then, but in his first full season in The Show, Giambi knocked 20 homers. He would meet or exceed that total for eight straight years, first with the Oakland A's and then with the New York Yankees.

In 2002, his first season with the Yankees, Giambi launched a career-high 41 homers. He did the same a year later. Through 2003 he had hit .302/.415/.549 with 269 home runs. He was entering his age-33 campaign and appeared to be at the top of his game. Then came a disastrous 2004, when he hit .208/.342/.379 while missing half the season due to knee, back, and ankle problems, intestinal parasites, and a benign tumor, followed by the BALCO case and the world's most awkward apology.

He rebounded in 2005 and 2006, got hurt again (foot), saw his production start to fade, and appeared to be on his way out of baseball. Then a funny thing happened. After being released by the A's (to whom he had returned in January 2009), Giambi signed with the Rockies in August 2009 and turned into a useful role player. Since coming to Denver, which admittedly is a good way to extend a hitter's career, Giambi has hit .251/.376/.486 in 431 plate appearances. He may not be able to dial up his A-game every night the way he once did, but as we wrote in BP2012, “Giambi probably could turn on a big-league fastball into his fifties.”

The A's originally picked Giambi out of Cal State Long Beach, where he played alongside former big-leaguers Chris Gomez and Steve Trachsel, in the second round of the 1992 draft. Giambi went three picks after the San Diego Padres took the man he now backs up in Colorado, Todd Helton. The Padres failed to sign Helton.

Last week, in a game against the Dodgers at Coors Field, Colorado clung to a 2-1 lead headed to the top of the eighth. The Dodgers scored two in that inning, and the Rockies answered with three of their own to retake a 5-3 lead into the final frame.

After Adam Kennedy started the ninth with a single off of closer Rafael Betancourt, the next two batters struck out, bringing up the ever-dangerous Kemp. The Rockies intentionally walked him to face Gordon, who whacked a double to right-center that plated Kennedy and Kemp, retying the game.

Betancourt escaped without further damage, and the home team came to bat against Jamey Wright, a first-round pick of the Rockies in 1993. Eric Young Jr., whose dad was a teammate of Wright's, led off with a full-count walk. Marco Scutaro also walked, bringing up the light-hitting Jonathan Herrera, who bunted the runners over to second and third.

And if you are looking for the optimal time to lay down a sacrifice bunt, the ninth inning of a tie game at home—where one run wins the contest—would be it. A successful sacrifice in this situation increases the chance of scoring one run from 64.3 percent to 69.8 percent. Given that Herrera is a career .259/.327/.326 hitter and, unlike Maicer Izturis (whom we discussed last week), an adept bunter, the move made perfect sense.

With runners now at second and third, one out, and Dexter Fowler due up, Jim Tracy turned to the veteran Giambi, who just needed to hit a medium fly ball to drive the speedy Young home from third. Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly countered by summoning southpaw Scott Elbert, a core member of last year's bullpen who held left-handed hitters to a .191/.267/.250 line in 2011, with 0 home runs allowed in 75 plate appearances. In other words, despite a slow start in 2012, Elbert was an excellent choice in this situation.

With another left-hander on deck, Mattingly could have chosen to walk Giambi to load the bases, thus setting up a force play at any base. But that left-hander was Carlos Gonzalez, who is a greater threat than Giambi at this point in their respective careers, so Mattingly had Elbert pitch to the old man.

After missing way outside with a 91 mph fastball, Elbert fired the same pitch out over the plate, and Giambi hammered it to center field. The outfielders had pulled in close, in anticipation of throwing home on a fly ball, but the point became moot when the ball landed in the home bullpen. The Rockies had won the game, 8-5, on the eighth walk-off homer of Giambi's career.

Here's the fun thing about Giambi's walk-off homers. You would think, given how much time he spent in Oakland and New York, that he must have hit a bunch of them there. And yet, you would be wrong (through Saturday, May 5):

Team

PA

HR

Walk-off

Oak

4,411

198

1

NYA

3,693

209

3

Col

431

22

4

How is this not beautiful?

The Rockies are holding their own so far in 2012, although they aren't expected to compete in what is assumed to be a rebuilding year. Yes, this makes the off-season acquisitions of Michael Cuddyer and Jeremy Guthrie (33), Ramon Hernandez and Marco Scutaro (36), and Jamie Moyer (49) a bit puzzling, but the fact remains that this is a franchise whose fans are hoping for big things from its young starting pitchers and salivating over the thought of third baseman Nolan Arenado's eventual arrival in Denver.

In a season in which victories figure to be few and far between, a walk-off homer by Giambi against a team that looks to be serious about winning provides an early highlight. And at the end of the year, when the Rockies finish with their 75 or so wins, fans will have this night... this memory of Giambi swatting a ball into the seats and watching the Dodgers slowly exit the field. The memory will not be quantifiable in any meaningful way, but it will be enough to keep us coming back for more.

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Western Front: As a Ma... (05/01)
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