September 13, 2012
On the Beat
The Shark vs. Strasburg Shutdown
The ace of the Nationals' pitching staff got shut down for the season, and it was the most-debated topic in baseball since the American League adopted the designated hitter rule for the 1973 season. The Cubs shut down their No.1 starter and seemingly nobody noticed or cared.
Of course, the Nationals have the best record in the major leagues, while the Cubs have the second-worst mark. And Stephen Strasburg was the most-hyped college pitching prospect in history at San Diego State, while Jeff Samardzija was better known for catching touchdown passes as a wide receiver at Notre Dame.
Every angle of the Nationals' decision to end Strasburg's season at 28 starts and 159 1/3 innings in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in September 2010 has been examined. Most baseball executives and scouts I've spoken with say they either would have let Strasburg keep pitching or set up his schedule at the beginning of the season so he could have pitched through October. However, general manager Mike Rizzo—with a lot of nudging from agent Scott Boras—made his decision and it is old news now, at least until the Nationals are eliminated from the postseason.
However, it is instructive to see what went into the Cubs' decision to shut down Samardzija, who transitioned from reliever to starter this season. Samardzija carried a heavily workload as a reliever in 2011, appearing in 75 games and pitching 88 innings. The Cubs also had the 27-year-old begin an aggressive throwing program a month before spring training opened in order to build up enough stamina to get through a full season—or close to it—as a member of the rotation.
There has been a sea change in how the Cubs make decisions this year with club president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer in their first season on the job. Epstein, of course, was famous for relying on statistical analysis to make decisions with the Red Sox and being the brains behind their Carmine computer system. Meanwhile, under former GM Jim Hendry, the Cubs relied more on gut instinct and scouting acumen than processing numbers.
In Samardzija's case, the Cubs used a little bit of statistical analysis and a little bit of scouting to figure out how long to let him pitch. Last Saturday, they decided to wrap his season up at 28 starts and 174 1/3 innings.
"Basically, it was common sense," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "We didn't have a magic number of innings in mind. We knew at some point we had to limit his innings, but we didn't have a hard limit on how many innings that would be. We kept an eye on him and watched how we was throwing. When it got to the point where he had almost doubled his innings from last year, it just made sense to shut him down."
Samardzija finished on a high note; he pitched his first career complete game, holding the Pirates to three runs—two earned—and four hits while striking out nine. He ended the season with a solid 3.60 FIP.
"I knew what I needed to do, and I knew I had a lot of question marks around myself coming into the year," Samardzija said. "I knew where I was going as a pitcher and the direction I was going, and wanted to keep improving and get that experience late in games. You really want the staff and everyone to know they can trust you and keep giving you the ball."
"He's a guy we can definitely count on for next season, someone who would be in the mix to be the Opening Day starter depending on what our roster looks like," Sveum said. "He pitched very well and showed at times he can be dominant. I think he can develop into a No. 1 or a No. 2 starter."
However, one question remains. If the Cubs were in the Nationals' position, would they have shut down Samardzija on Labor Day weekend? "I don't know, I honestly can't answer that question," Sveum said. "I just hope we're in that situation some day."
A few minutes with Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco
On being promoted from manager at Triple-A Oklahoma to interim manager when Brad Mills was fired on Aug. 18: "I've been in the minor leagues a long time, so it was a dream come true for me. Every day that I’m here, I count my blessings and am thankful for the opportunity. At the same time, I haven't lost sight of why I'm here, and that's to win as many games as possible. I've told our guys that the novelty is over now and I'm just like any other manager because I'm trying to win ballgames, motivate the players, and find some consistency."
On if he would like to get the job on a permanent basis: "Absolutely. It's the dream of any manager to manage in the big leagues. A young manager with young players, I think it would be a really good fit. Hopefully, looking forward, I'll get the opportunity. For now, though, I’m taking business day in and day out and making sure to motivate the players and keep them playing hard. I think the attitude has changed since I got here. I know these guys have given their best effort every day."
On if he believes working for a stat-savvy organization like the Athletics for many years might make him an attractive candidate to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who relies heavily on statistical analysis: "I grew up with that system; we implemented it in the minor leagues, and I believe in it 100 percent. I hope we can translate it to the young players. The reason we're making outs is that were chasing balls out of the zone and not being selective. If we can increase our on-base percentage, work the count, get the starting pitcher out of the game, that comes into play when trying to win games."
On the difficulty of the Astros, who have the youngest roster and worst record in the major leagues, competing on a daily basis: "We've got guys in our lineup with less than 100 major-league at-bats, and we're playing against teams with guys who have 3,000 big-league at-bats and many with more than that. It's tough to match up that way. We have young players with talent, but what they lack is experience and the confidence that comes with having some experience at this level. It's especially hard for the young hitters. They are trying to adjust to major-league pitching. You don't have the type of velocity and movement on the pitches in Triple-A like you do here. They're throwing 88 mph in Triple-A and they're routinely throwing 91-92 mph up here. It's a big difference."
Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki: "I saw him play in Japan and I didn't think he would be able to consistently hit major-league pitching. He's proving me wrong, though. He's a smart hitter and he's made the necessary adjustments this season to succeed in the big leagues."
Mets left fielder Jason Bay: "It's just painful to watch him play now."
Athletics left-hander Jerry Blevins: "You know what I love about this guy? He has guts. He doesn't have the best stuff, but he pitches with a whole lot of confidence."
Tigers left fielder Brennan Boesch: "He has the raw ability to put up some very big numbers, but if he hasn't been able to find the necessary consistency to do so by now, then it's doubtful he ever will."
Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner: "If, heaven forbid, something ever happens to his arm, I think he could handle being an everyday player. He can really rake. He's got plus power and a pretty good swing. He could be another Rick Ankiel if it ever came to that."
Reds closer Aroldis Chapman: "I think he'll be fine with a little bit of rest. It's almost laughable to think a guy is throwing 96 mph and his velocity is down three or four mph."
Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia: "He's really good at what the Padres ask him to do: play against lefties and be the fourth outfielder. Not everyone is a star, and you need solid role players like him."
Twins left-hander Scott Diamond: "The league has started to figure him out, particularly that a big part of his success is getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. Now, he needs to adjust back."
Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury: "He's had a tough year, but he's starting to show signs of the guy who was the best player in the American League last season. I have a feeling he's going to come back really strong in 2013."
Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi: "He's not ready to be pitching in the big leagues yet, and he's not going to be effective until he learns how to throw an effective changeup. Left-handers kill him, and he needs the change to keep lefties honest."
Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon: "Unless they move him to second base, I don't see how he is going to play much with Hanley Ramirez signed for the next two years. He's an exciting player, but I really think he could benefit from some more time in the minor leagues."
Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison: "I think he's going to be a breakout star in the postseason. He's grown as a pitcher this season. He's much more confident than ever before."
Nationals left-hander John Lannan: "The one thing I think a lot of people forgot about the whole Strasburg thing was that the Nationals had a quality major-league pitcher sitting in Triple-A. This guy would have been in the rotation for at least two-thirds of the major-league teams this season, probably more."
White Sox left-hander Francisco Liriano: "At some point, you have to start believing he isn't fixable. He shows flashes of greatness, but it's been six years now since he's been a top-of-the-line pitcher. That was a long time ago."
Rays left-hander Matt Moore: "He's become so conscious about not tipping pitches that he's concentrating more on that than executing pitches."
Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow: "He's frustrating for me. He has the stuff to be a No. 1, and every time it seems like he's ready to take that step forward he falls back."
Rockies third baseman Jordan Pacheco: "I really like the way he's handled himself as a rookie. I thought he profiled more as a utility man in the minor leagues, but he's proven to me he can be a productive everyday player."
Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak: "His swing is just a mess. He does just about everything wrong mechanically that a hitter can possibly do. He needs a total overhaul."
Front-office types’ views
Angels: "You've got to believe some heads are going to roll if they don't make the playoffs. There is no way you lay out the type of cash they did in the offseason and not get to the postseason. It just shouldn't happen. There is no way the Athletics should be ahead of them in the standings."
Braves: "I can't see them staying around long in the postseason with that lineup. They just don't score enough runs, and they're too inconsistent."
Cardinals: "It's a complete opposite of last September when they turned it on and went on to win the World Series. They're falling apart, and Mike Matheny hasn't figured out how to stem the negative tide."
Diamondbacks: "I like the fight in that team. I just can't totally count them out of the postseason. I think they've got one more run in them."
Indians: "It's going to be interesting to see what they do this offseason. Do they blow it up and start over again? They don't have enough impact players in their farm system to build from within. They're almost going to have to make some trades for prospects, because they're not going to spend the money to add impact veterans."
Orioles: "Sometimes you can analyze a team frontward, backward, and sideways and not come to a logical conclusion. That's how it is with the Orioles. I don't know exactly how they're winning, but they are. Sometimes, it's just your year."
Phillies: "You've got to give Charlie Manuel a lot of credit. It would have been really easy to give up on this season, but he kept his guys playing, and now they've got a shot to get to the postseason."
Pirates: "This is the second straight season they've gone into a total freefall in the final third of the season. I think they need to take a long and hard look internally to figure out the reason why they keep collapsing. There has to be an underlying reason."