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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Major League Baseball Fan: Living With Perennial Heartbreak

Like a horribly dysfunctional romance, my heart was shattered five months ago. Yet here I am, begging for another chance. And like clockwork, every April, I’ll get it. Such is the life of the loser.

In the waning weeks of fall, a champion is crowned in Major League Baseball. One team out of 30 will host a parade, and the others are sent packing.

Sometimes it’s in the end of October, sometimes it starts off November. But one thing is certain for the other 29. Winter always hits just a little too early.

As a lifelong fan of the Tampa Bay Rays, I haven’t tasted a World Series Championship yet, but I really do think this is our year. So do the Cubs though. And the Braves. And the Rangers. That’s always struck me as funny.

There are Las Vegas baseball experts somewhere right now coming up with fancy formulas and equations to guess the next champion. Sometimes they are even right.

An online betting site, http://www.BetEd.com, has the Pittsburgh Pirates listed at 20,000/1 odds to win the championship (a bit generous if you ask me).

Yet there is a Pirates fan somewhere knowing that this is the year that Paul Maholm is going to win 24 games and Pedro Alvarez is going to hit 40 homers and the Pirates are going to win 99 games and they’re going to win the pennant.

“If it were not for hopes, the heart would break.” Wrote Thomas Fuller, an English historian. If every year, the losers didn’t hope that they could win, then they would cease to be fans, and they would cease to love baseball.

Baseball is perfect because there are 162 games. Every team will win at least one of them. And every team will lose at least one of them. Baseball is perfect because perfection is impossible. This sport values a man with a .300 batting average. This means that he is doing well if he is bad 70 percent of the time. Any given day the loser could win, and the winner could pull a hamstring. This keeps us coming back for more heartbreak, because one day, we’ll be Cinderella.

Baseball is perfect because it reflects real life. We love our losers because we’re losers too.

When the Mariners went and got Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins last year, people were expecting big things. They lost 101 games and embarrassed themselves. The embarrassment was felt by fans as well.

Sometimes, it looks good on paper, but things just don’t go as planned. But they re-evaluated things in the offseason, and they think they made themselves better.

They hope they made themselves better. The real Seattle fans still love their team. You can’t lose faith because they fail, or else they’ll never ever win again. That’s true for life too.

Nothing and nobody is ever perfect but it’s about being perfect enough for nine innings, for seven games, for a few months.

But this is a trying relationship. Ideals aside, it’s just plain harder to love the loser, because it’s a lot more work. When the Rays were still the Devil Rays and they were still awful, I would read through countless stats, trying to find optimism.

I’d find it in the little things, like in their sacrifice hits and batting average against middle relievers and three or four wins against the Yankees.

Baseball is perfect because the losers are the real soldiers and their fans are the real diehards.

Baseball is perfect because the losers always have their hope.

This article was originally published here in The Minaret.