Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cold Weather Games

A record has already been set in MLB for the most postponements in April, and the northeast quadrant of the country seems in the grip of some weird global cooling. Griping, sarcasm, and panic have ensued, but one suggestion seems at least practical to me. That is to schedule as many April games as possible within each team's division, so that there will be series later on when postponed games can be made up. There are already several instances when teams making their only trip to a city will have to make a detour on a road trip to fill in a game on a much-needed off-day.

For a long time, I thought that the simplest thing would be to schedule the first ten days' or two weeks' worth of games in the warmer cities and domed ballparks. I have come around to the notion that this might put some decent teams in a hole if they go 4-8 before their home opener. It probably doesn't help the home teams either, glutting their home schedules before school lets out and the big summer crowds assemble.

I do think that there are enough teams with sunshine or domes to host games for the first week. This season, the Marlins opened with six home games, but the Rays, after four games at home to start the season, went on the road for eleven days. Their seasons so far tell us a lot, however.

Both Florida teams have played a dozen home games. Weather has not been a discernible factor in how baseball fans in Florida decide whether to attend games. On Opening Day, the paid attendance in Miami was 32,151, while in Tampa it was 31,042. That was Opening Day. The weather has been fine, but it turns out that when the baseball is awful, the proverbial fan stays away in droves.

In eleven home games each since Opening Day, the Rays' average attendance is 13,848, and that's the good news. In Miami, the average is 11,446. A recent three-game series with the Mets drew 19,669 -- for the whole series! It was more like a boycott as the word spread, with the Monday night throng of 7,003 thinning out to 6,516 the next night and 6,150 for the thrilling conclusion of the series.

Counting games of April 21, Tampa Bay's record is 7-13. Again, the good news. Miami is 5-15 in the wake of new owner Derek Jeter's eagerness to dismantle the game's greatest young outfield. He thought he was imitating Wayne Huizenga, who also got rid of his young stars all at once. But Jeter skipped the important first step -- winning a World Series title first, as Huizenga did in 1997. When Magic Johnson signed on as a Dodgers owner, he brought people with him who were ready to spend money to make him the face of a great team. What was Jeter thinking?

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I had to laugh at the headline the other day: "Yankees Will Drop Stanton". I knew they were sending him to Scranton-Wilkes Barre. No, they were demoting him from proximity to Aaron Judge in the lineup, his status plummeting to the midtown cleanup spot. Will he get over it? The way Didi Gregorius has been pounding the ball, it makes more sense to put him between the two right-handed boppers, no matter who's hot. 

Before the season, I played with some Judge and Stanton numbers to see which one is the more formidable, or perhaps the more exciting or productive or something of a pairing that makes old-time Yankees fans drool over memories of the 1961 Mantle-Maris chase of Babe Ruth's hallowed record of 60 home runs. That was the year I was first aware of the shape of a baseball season, and since I lived about ten miles from Yankee Stadium, that race was big news every day that summer. Nobody rooted for Maris, either. It was all Mickey back then. What about now?

These numbers are from 2017. If you take strikeouts, walks, and hit by pitches (i.e. plate appearances when the batter didn't put the ball in play), they took up 50.1% of Judge's PA but only 36.8% of Stanton's. That means that in every eight trips to the plate, Stanton hit the ball once more than Judge. Given the damage they do when they hit it, that tilts in Stanton's favor. 

Judge struck out in 38.4% of his at-bats, Stanton in 27.3%. Combined, they had a .399 on-base percentage and .629 slugging percentage. That'll get it done. But going on form, there's more reason to think that Stanton will be the big gun this season in the Bronx. He's a more experienced hitter, he doesn't strike out as often, and even left field is bigger than right field at Yankee Stadium, it will still look inviting to him compared to what he faced in Miami. 

So, going by form, 43.4% of the time they go to the plate, they'll reach their next destination by walking, not running. I haven't looked at the numbers so far this year, but clearly Judge has been a stud so far, while Stanton has -- well, the man was dropped just the other day. What do the numbers say?

In 19 games, Judge has 6 home runs and 15 RBI. In 89 PA, he has put the ball in play 49 times, up from 50% to 55%, and his strikeout rate is lower at 31%. That explains why his average today is 54 points higher than last year's. Stanton, meanwhile, has been awful, with two five-strikeout disasters at Yankee Stadium which have endeared him to the Bronx faithful in a very special way. Stanton has 4 home runs and 12 RBI -- "on a pace" for 32 and 103 for the season, which would be respectable for anyone except a giant getting a gazillion dollars to drive in Aaron Judge every time he walks. 

It's only 19 games, of course, and players tend to regress to their own normal performance, and once Stanton recovers from the shame of batting fourth, he'll hit the ball more often. That .194 average won't last, and I don't think he'll keep striking out in 40% of his at-bats all season. At that, he has put the ball into play almost as often as Judge, 52.3%. The difference is that when he doesn't, Stanton is striking out instead of taking walks. Only people willing to watch all the Yankees games can say how many times the opposition pitched around Judge to get to Stanton, and how often it worked. I can tell you that Judge was walked intentionally once to get to Stanton, in the 11th inning with the potential winning run at second base. Stanton grounded out to end the inning.

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Like many of you, I have strong jinxing powers. When I was a little kid listening to games on the radio, I felt strongly that the degree of fervency I put into rooting for my team had a tangible effect on the outcome. Long after I outgrew that childish notion, long after I realized that my fervor was chiefly for my own benefit and not the team's, I became aware of a strong jinxing power, but only after its effect had occurred.

This power manifests itself most often in the matter of no-hitters. This would not have been possible in the old days, when a fan could follow only one or two games at a time. It is a byproduct of the mega-network, internet era, when you can be closely following a couple of games, get an alert that a no-hitter has progressed to the late stages, and switch over to watch history happen. 

Except that, in my case, almost every time, my sudden vigilance is enough to bring a quick base hit. Usually, it's the next batter. Last week, it was the first pitch I watched after switching networks. So I was pretty wary last night when the alert came that Seth Manaea had a no-hitter through seven innings. I was watching Bartolo Colon, which was quite entertaining in itself. In one inning, the corpulent 44-year-old had to race to first to take a throw after the leadoff batter grounded a ball behind the bag. He made the out and puffed his way nonchalantly back to the mound, suggesting a beer executive at the company picnic.

Dee Gordon batted next, and he also hit a bounder behind the first base bag. Colon raced off the mound, taking the shortcut while Gordon dashed down the line. He took the throw and pounced on the bag a split-second ahead of Gordon. This time, he had a little grin as he trudged back to the mound. I wondered how the wind-sprints would affect him; he got the last batter on the second pitch.

Meanwhile, there went Seth Manaea to the mound for the 8th inning, facing a Red Sox lineup which had battered the opposition to a 17-2 record. He had thrown only 85 pitches and thus wasn't a candidate for arbitrary removal by his manager. He might actually pitch that no-no! On, I went to Gameday and turned on the Oakland broadcast. Manaea already had two outs by the time I caught the announcer, and that inning ending quickly. The A's didn't dawdle in their half of the 8th inning, and now came the 9th.

I knew that MLB Network's "Quick Pitch" would show the 9th inning. Just press one more button, and I could watch history unfold. Or, more likely, jinx the man. So I stuck with the Mariners-Rangers game on tv and listened to Manaea polish off the Red Sox with only a two-out walk delaying his moment of glory. As soon as I heard the final out, I pressed that button in time to see the celebration and a replay of the final out. I was very happy to watch that replay after sparing Manaea. 

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