New Baseball Format Sparks Debate

Tampa Bay players Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce celebrate as B.J. Upton and George Hendrick look on. The Rays made the postseason last year with a wild-card spot not a one-game playoff. | Photo courtesy Keith Allen/Flickr.com

For the first time in the history of Major League Baseball, there will be 10 playoff teams come this October. Only, not really.

We’ve been shammed! Can’t you see right through it? You can’t? You mean you’re actually excited by this two wild card business? Alright. I understand your initial reaction, but I’m going to talk you through this. Please don’t do anything rash, like buying an Angels’ playoff ticket. Not a good idea.

Tampa Bay players Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce celebrate as B.J. Upton and George Hendrick look on. The Rays made the postseason last year with a wild-card spot not a one-game playoff. | Photo courtesy Keith Allen/Flickr.com

The first thing I want you to know and understand before we move on is that everyone involved in owning or running a major sports organization has money. Lots of it. Only they’re not satisfied with this amount of money and they want more of it. And no matter how much you or I want to believe that winning is the main goal of any franchise, realize that mostly, winning is the main goal because it brings people to the stadium and it sells shirts and it makes money. Winning makes money. Ok, now that we’ve established that, we can move on to this whole playoff thing.

Back in March, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the league had expanded its playoffs for the first time since 1994. Both the American and National League will send their two best non-division winning teams to a one game playoff to determine which team will make it into their respective Division Series.

“This change increases the rewards of a division championship,” Selig said, to MLB.com, “and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports.”

I will admit, the first part of what he said is great. Winning your division should carry more weight than it did. It’s the whole next bit that doesn’t sit so well.

The rest of this article can be found here where it was originally published in The Minaret.

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They’re Young and Talented

James Shields anchored the Rays’ pitching staff by leading the MLB in 2011 in complete games. | Photobucket.com/holymarble

Intimidating and charming. Fun-loving killers. The Rays 2012 rotation is nasty and people are starting to take notice. “If you thought they were good last year, then watch out,” writes ESPN writer Jayson Stark. “Now that you’re looking at it without bias,” said former Red Sox manager, Terry Francona, as quoted by the Tampa Bay Times, “my goodness, they’ve done some tremendous things.”

Things are looking up around the Rays clubhouse these days. Gone are the nights of Victor Zambrano and Steve Trachsel. Bye-bye Dewon Brazelton, hello David Price. It was nice knowing you Casey Fossum, but it’s Matt Moore time.

At this point, there’s really no question; this is the best starting pitching Tampa Bay has ever seen. Here’s a quick refresher course on the five Rays starters as the season is beginning to build some momentum.

James Shields: Mr. High-roller. On a team perennially strapped for cash, Shields is the highest paid player on the roster. Raking in $8 million (almost double the salary of Evan Longoria,) the Rays expect Shield to make a difference from Opening day through October. The talent isn’t really Shields’ main draw: it’s the consistency. This is a pitcher who hasn’t thrown less than 200 innings in a season since 2006. That means going five innings even on a bad day, it means staying off the disabled list, it means carrying the team from game one through game 162.

Shields’ key pitch is his change-up. As a pitcher who sits in the low-90s with his fastball, Shields relies on deceptiveness from the rest of his repertoire to put hitters away. That’s where his “half-circle” change-up comes in. Having developed the grip of the pitch in 2004, Shields has tweaked it to become one of one of the most unique and untouchable pitches in baseball. In 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Shields threw off-speed pitches to hitters in two-strike counts 77 percent of the time: 35 percent of swings on those pitches were swings and misses. Opposing hitters know what’s coming on 0-2 or 1-2. That doesn’t mean they can hit it.

David Price: Two season ago, David Price finished second-place in the A.L. Cy Young race. One season later, as his team’s record improved, he finished the year 12-13 with an ERA almost an entire run higher. What went wrong?

First off, it’s important to establish that although his large stats took a nose-dive, quite a few of his peripheral stats actually improved. He pitched 16 more innings in 2011 compare to the season before while striking out 30 more batters and walking 16 less. His WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) slightly improved as well.

How does all this add up to a losing record? Simple: The long bomb and some bad luck. Price gave up seven more homers than he did the previous year which will tack on runs to your average quite quickly. He also allowed an opponent’s batting average almost 10 points higher than he did the year before (but which was consistent with the rest of his career norms.)

Put simply, David Price is an elite pitcher with an electric fastball. 2010 might’ve been a career year for him: he may repeat it, he may not. But either way, with some run support, he is at the very least a 15-win pitcher.

The rest of this article can be found here as originally published in The Minaret Magazine.

This Diamond’s Lost its Luster

Although MLB attendance was respectable during the early part of the 2000s, it's been on a slow decline since the 2007 season. Whether this is a result of the economy, the steroid era, or an overall lack of interest in the sport is debatable, though either way, it doesn't bode well for America. | Christopherkh/Flickr.com

You should love baseball. You really should. And the fact that you don’t? Well it sucks for you and it sucks for our country.

I’ve been reading a lot of stories over the past year about TV ratings, attendance and overall interest in “America’s pastime.” (That I have to put that phrase in quotations makes me sick.) The bottom line is this: unarguably, baseball has been slacking. It’s not dying, but it isn’t thriving like it has for the past 100 years, either.

After 2001’s emotional World Series between the Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, which took place just over a month after Sept. 11, World Series viewership has been way down. The best TV results since came during Boston’s 2004 World Series victory when they averaged over 25 million viewers. Although this seems like a nice number, it pales in comparison to the monster popularity of the ‘70s and ‘80s when the Series was regularly averaging over 35 million TV viewers, according to the Baseball Almanac.

In terms of attendance, not only is baseball not as successful as other sports in pulling a live audience — this is based on stadium size alone, though the 162 game schedule versus other sports’ 16-game and 82-game schedule surely plays a factor in attendance density– but baseball’s attendance has been lacking even by its own standards. CBS Chicago released a report last fall, noting that the MLB was facing a fourth straight year of total attendance decline. In other words, since 2007, baseball attendance has been subtly dwindling every season since.

To me, this wouldn’t be such a problem if baseball’s beauty wasn’t being replaced by the odor-ridden, muscle-building concussion freak-show that is American football. Truly, I say this as a football fan. But mostly I say it as a fan of all sports: Give civility back. By making football the most popular sport in America, you took civility, stomped it and ran half the country’s virtues into the ground.

Again, to emphasize, I like football a lot. I like playing it and watching it and writing about it. But to stand by and watch while it murders baseball? Would you stand by and watch a good friend try to kill your mother?

According to a recent Harris Poll, also reported by CBS, in 2010 when 2,200 adults were asked what their favorite sport was, 31 percent chose football at first place and 17 percent chose baseball. In just a year, though, the divide gaped. In 2011, 36 percent chose football compared to 13 percent for baseball.

I see the appeal. Similar to the circus, our minds are stimulated by the possibility of injury: the big hits and the 350-pound mammoths. The strategy in football is in no way simple, blocking schemes, hitch-and-go routes and five step drops litter the sport. I would argue, though, that a reason it has overtaken baseball is a lower common denominator of fan interest and intelligence. To sit down and watch a baseball game and enjoy it, you have to have a basic understand of the rules: balls and strikes, stolen bases and fielding. If you sit just to watch them hit the ball far, it may be a long night.

In football, though, you can be base. This isn’t to say all football fans are base or even that most are, but an appeal over baseball is that you can be stupider. All you have to know is to run straight and stay on your feet. If you do that long enough, or you decide to kick the ball through some poles, you get points.

Whoever has more points wins in both sports, but the way you get those points is a bit more complex in baseball.

Baseball isn’t the only sport affected by our desire as a country to enjoy something while understanding as little about it as possible, though; lacrosse is surging in colleges and high schools (places of education) but it isn’t making much of a dent in the professional world. Cricket, a game enjoyed internationally, has never been embraced. Both games require some work to comprehend.

There is a scoring dilemma that has led people away from baseball that might be the most representational of our country’s biggest issue. For the record, bigger isn’t better. A common joke about low-scoring football games is that the scoreboard resembles a baseball final score, such as 7-0 or 10-6. Bobby might turn to his friend in the middle of his son’s football game which is tied 6-6 and remark, “Hey! I didn’t know I was coming to a baseball game today!”

This notion that football is more exciting because it’s a higher scoring game is a complete misconception. Every time someone scores in football, they’re rewarded with two, three, six or seven points. This system was created to differentiate which form of scoring should be most valuable to the final score, but it’s turned into a cheap complement of the sport. The bottom line is that in a 5-3 baseball game, eight people scored. In a 28-21 football game, there were seven scores (extra points notwithstanding.) We as a culture, though, have decided that bigger numbers mean better sports and more excitement, more glory. But really people, what’s wrong with 5-3? Why’s everything got to be so big?

The most disturbing topic about interest in baseball dwindling is that it’s the least racist sport. Though this is a huge, broad, charged statement, I honestly believe it.

The rest of this article can be found here as originally published in The Minaret Magazine.

Spartans Battle Grand Canyon, Time Change

Andruw Jones is batting .400 this season. | Samantha Battersby/ The Minaret

An eleven-inning win that stretched deep into Saturday night ended, daylight savings time stole an hour, and before they knew it, Sunday morning was upon them.

The NCAA top-ranked University of Tampa baseball team won two games in just over 14 hours last weekend, separated by a few precious winks of sleep. UT Head Coach Joe Urso was frank about the challenge.

“It was a tough turnaround,” he said. “The alarm went off real quick.”

The Spartans took two of three from the Grand Canyon Lopes, losing the opener of the series 3-1 on Friday before sweeping the final two.

Saturday night was the kind of evening that can build a team’s momentum heading into conference play.

Tampa starter Sean Bierman threw six innings while walking just one and striking out six. The Spartan defense though, wasn’t as prepared as he was. They committed six errors in the game leading to three unearned runs, all charged to Bierman’s line.

Tied 6-6 through nine, the game went into extras. In the top of the eleventh, Grand Canyon managed a pair of runs off Mike Adams sending the middle of Tampa’s order up in the bottom of the inning with the task of crossing a pair of runs; they found themselves more than up to the challenge.

Jake Schrader hit a tying two-run double after a walk and a hit batter, and Adam Pendleton knocked a single into rightfield to help the Spartans walk-off.

“It showed a lot of character on our part,” said outfielder Andruw Jones, who scored the winning run. “But if we play a better game, don’t make as many errors, we should never even be there.”

The rest of this article can be read here as originally published in The Minaret.

More Sad Than Anything

Josh Lueke, who’s been the subject of rape accusations, was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays in November. | Babbaloie/ photobucket.com

On November 27, 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays acquired minor league pitcher Josh Lueke from the Seattle Mariners, in exchange for 28-year-old catcher John Jaso. The trade didn’t make much of a splash; it was essentially the swapping of someone with higher upside and less experience for a veteran catcher.

This column was going to be about a few players. Luke Scott and Taylor Guerrieri. It was going to look back at Josh Hamilton and Elijah Dukes and even Delmon Young. But the Internet is a crazy thing. I was going to write about quite a few players who have made me question the commitment to character this organization holds itself to. But after Googling Josh Lueke, I decided he deserves a column all to himself.

——

Rape is a sensitive thing. It’s sometimes hard to determine and almost always hard to prosecute. When it comes to Lueke’s case, there are a few facts; According to the Tampa Bay Times, in 2008, while pitching for a minor league affiliate of the Texas Rangers, Lueke went out drinking with some teammates and a woman whom he later brought back to his apartment.

The rest of the story, as reported by Bakersfield Now, a news source affiliated with Fox and CBS:

“The woman told police she remembered vomiting into the toilet at the apartment. While doing so, the woman told police someone she could not identify was standing at her side masturbating on her. She said she passed out, and when she awoke at around 8:45 a.m., she told police she was lying on a couch with her pants down and other parts of her clothing were missing.

She told police she felt violated and that she never agreed to have sex with anyone. Investigators later obtained DNA samples from semen found on the woman’s jeans and white tank top and from an anal swab.
A report from the Kern County Crime Lab states, “Josh Lueke matches this DNA” from the anal swab, tank top strap and hair of the alleged victim.”

Due to the role alcohol played in the scene as well as the woman’s unconscious state, prosecution was going to be difficult. Rather than press on, a no contest plea was accepted on a charge of false imprisonment with violence, and Lueke was sentenced to three years of probation as well as 62 days in jail. After 42 days, the final 20 were waived for good behavior.

——

I could write all day about the legal system and how sad it is that rape goes unpunished and unnoticed so often in this country. But this is a sports column. And as a sports columnist, I’m left to wonder this; the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Josh Lueke.

In 2010, when the Mariners acquired Lueke from the Rangers, they denied knowledge of his history with the law. The Rays seem accepting. They’ve bought into the idea that they’re willing to take on high-risk players to potentially reap the high rewards. They’re willing to sign a player coming off major surgery (Luke Scott) or a former star trying to regain some momentum (Fernando Rodney).

Lueke has a high-90s fastball and boasted an earned run average under two in the minors in 2010. They acquired his talent for almost nothing, and guess what? As a baseball fan, a Rays fan and a human being, I do not care. Call me soft, but I don’t care that it was three years ago. I don’t care that he hasn’t been in trouble with the law since. I care that a woman dropped rape charges and all she requested was a public apology.

“I understand that my actions hurt you and made you feel violated,” Lueke read in the courtroom. “I’m sorry for that.”

This is someone who the Rays didn’t have to deal with. They saw a bargain and jumped on it, and they’re hoping their fan base is too stupid to read a newspaper or scan the Internet. When you Google “Tampa Bay Rays Rape”, nine out of ten results deal with a player on their payroll. I’m fairly certain that they’re among the only ball clubs with that distinction.

There is a story here unlike anything we’ve seen from good guys Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman. I’m a lot of things, but mostly disheartened.

For so long this has been a club built on lovable underdogs. It just has so little moral upside. So what if he becomes our closer? Maybe he wins 20 games. No matter the success, you will never be able to make him a true superstar. He gave that away. I don’t care if he wins the Cy Young – you can never let a kid wear his jersey.

Some people will forget, but some of us won’t.

I don’t think that woman in Texas ever will.

This article was originally published in The Minaret.

Q+A With Yankees’ 4th Round Draft Pick, Matt Duran

Q: Being from New York, can you just tell me how it felt being selected by the Yankees?

A: Being from New York, it’s like the hometown team, so it’s a dream come true.

 

Q: Were you surprised when the Yankees selected you for the draft or had you talked?

A: I mean, we had talked a lot before the draft, I had been talking to scouts for a couple years, but I was still surprised cause I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I was very excited when I saw my name called.

 

Q: Can you describe yourself as a player?

A: Well I’m a third baseman. I hit for average, I’m going to hit for power. I’ve got a pretty good arm and I just gotta take a couple more ground balls and get better as an all-around player.

 

Q: Do you see yourself staying at third base throughout your professional career?

A: They haven’t told me anything otherwise, so I would assume, yeah. But I could play the other corner easily.

 

Q: Can you talk about just your hitting? What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses at the plate?

A: My biggest strengths are, I’m a great fastball hitter. I can adjust to the off-speed stuff and I can hit the ball to all fields. I’ve got some pop. I think an adjustment I’m going to have to make is from hitting high school pitchers to hitting professional pitchers. I’m gonna have to be a little more compact and quick.

 

Q: Who’s been your favorite team growing up?

A: Originally I was a Met fan but a couple years ago I started rooting for the Yankees.

 

Q: Is there anyone you can compare yourself to at the MLB level? Style-wise is there anyone you model yourself after?

A: Well I model my swing after A-Rod, to the cue actually. I studied him with my Dad and we’ve been looking at his swing for years now.

 

Q: How similar do you think your swing and his are now?

A: They’re pretty similar. You know, he has the great resume but it’s been working well for me lately so I’m going to stick with it.

 

Q: What’s been your best moment in baseball so far?

A: My best moment, well aside from Tuesday, would be playing in Yankee Stadium last summer and we played Mariano’s kid’s team and I hit a double off him. I always say I got a hit off Mariano Rivera, even though it was his son.

 

Q: Can you talk about your high school career [at New Rochelle H.S.] a little bit?

A: My high school career, I started off on the varsity as a freshman and I played four years. I started off at the bottom of the order my freshman year but I kept hitting and I moved up to fourth by the end of the year and I never looked back. The past two years have been really good.

 

Q: Talk about the coaching staff and teammates. How have they helped you as you improved a lot over the past couple years?

A: All my coaches would always stay after and help. I mean, extra B.P. and ground balls. And my teammates have always been supportive, especially this year.

 

Q: You have a commitment to Fordham University. What impressions have you gotten from the school?

A: Well it’s a great program and it’s a great school as you know, it has great academics. They have a competitive team and it was definitely a good school to commit to. It’s close to home.

 

Q: How much is Fordham going to come into play when it comes to signing? Is that going to be a quick process? What does it look like for this summer?

A: That’s a good question. I have no idea what it’s looking like. I haven’t talked about it with them or anybody yet. I’m still trying to let the glamour wear off from Tuesday cause it’s been a crazy couple days but I’m excited to be a Yankee right now.

 

Q: How does your family feel about this whole thing?

A: They’re excited. My Dad’s been training me since I was like seven. This is all he’s been talking about for years and it finally came true.

This article was originally published here at pinstripesplus.com

Kuo More Confident in Second Season

A self proclaimed shy 19-year-old, Fu-Lin Kuo signed with the Yankees in 2010. He had a great first extended spring training, lost his way when he started the Gulf Coast League, then found his swing again in August. Kuo had a busy winter and comes into the 2011 season with some improvements ready to show.

Signed a year out of high school, Kuo was in the midst of his first year at the National Taiwan College of Physical Education when he chose to play overseas. A native of Guiren Township, Taiwan, Kuo says his first year in America was different to say the least.

“Last year, I was really shy because everything was new to me,” Kuo says through a translator. “I kind of closed myself off and didn’t want to bother anyone.”

At the Yankees’ minor league complex, you would never guess it. Kuo can be seen socializing with teammates, aided by his personal translator, and working with coaches. He says it’s due to a change in his attitude coming into his second year playing in the U.S.

“This year I’m more open-minded,” says Kuo. “I want to know my teammates and be more Americanized and know the culture of Americans.”

From a baseball perspective, Kuo is fitting in just fine. He had an up and down year last season, but his coaching staff and teammates see how hard he works and can see the constant improvements. Staten Island Manager Tommy Slater says that the up and down quality carried into this year, but he’s starting to find his groove again.

“He had a really good extended [spring training] but he had a rough start to the GCL but then he had a good August,” Slater says. “In August he got back to using the whole field. In the past week he’s started using the whole field again, and that’s really great to see.”

Slater alluded to a recurring problem for Kuo. He has a quick stroke to the ball and can generate some power (four home-runs and four doubles last season), but when his swing isn’t working, he focuses too greatly on pulling the ball. This leads to his front side pulling off the ball and missing good contact. By focusing on putting the ball up the middle or into right field, it focuses Kuo’s swing, making it more likely that he’ll have harder hits.

The coaching staff is key in helping Kuo improve his swing. He says they’re a constant positive even when he’s going through a rough stretch.

“The coaching staff encourages me a lot,” Kuo says. “They tell me the same things every day. They push me really hard and tell me to never give up.”

Kuo’s fielding is also an interesting topic. Last year, his foot work needed help and he committed 16 errors in 36 games. But coming into this season, he looks like an above-average defensive prospect. The coaches have him attacking ground balls and playing with a recklessness that he said is important.

“I’m playing very aggressive. I’m never passive,” says Kuo. “I’m not afraid of making errors this year so if it’s a high hopper or anything, I just go for it. I don’t think too much.”

In an extended spring training game on May 19th, Kuo had three hard hits at him in the 6th inning. His improved footwork was apparent. He fielded a couple very tough short-hops and also a hard sinking line drive. His fielding doesn’t look to be much of a weakness right now, though consistency, Coach Slater said, is the key.

“I think what we’ve seen [in his hitting and fielding] have been improvements,” Slater added. “And now we just need to see it consistently, day after day.”

For Kuo, the consistency is linked unto his mindset. The Taiwanese 20-year-old has a bright future if he can continue to improve at his current pace.

“If I have a strong confidence then everything’s easy for me,” Kuo says. “I know I’m a good player, so I’m not scared. Everything’s mental in this game.”

This article was originally published here at pinstripesplus.com