Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Where would 2016 World Series Game 7 rank historically?

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Zobrist's  hit won it for the Cubs, and won him the series MVP award.  Photo via bleachereport

Zobrist’s hit won it for the Cubs, and won him the series MVP award. Photo via bleachereport

So, we just saw a pretty darn good World Series, culminating in a very good Game 7.  The Cubs win was obviously historic; no need to repeat all the other post-game analysis going on to that end.

The question here is; where does Game 7 rank historically?  We all suffer from recency bias, and many (most) of us were not around for such other classic games (1924 World Series game 7 going 12 innings and Walter Johnson pitching 4 innings on one day’s rest, 1960 game 7 featuring Mazeroski‘s famous walk-off homer, or Bobby Thompson‘s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the 1951 NL Pennant).  The normally sane Jayson Stark just posted that 2016’s Game 7 was “the Greatest ever game” in the long history of the sport.

However, I’m skeptical of calling *anything* that just happened, the best ever, so quickly after it ended.

On the “plus” side for its lofty status; Game 7 featured two long suffering franchises and was historic just on its own because of it.  It was a Game 7, which only happens about one in every four Series.  It went into extra innings, only the fifth time that’d ever happened.  It featured a clutch and improbable late inning comeback to tie a game that seemed out of reach (Rajai Davis‘ 8th inning homer off of Aroldis Chapman), and it ended with the tying run on base and the winning run at the plate for nail-biting.

On the “negative” side; it was a sloppy game (4 errors, 3 by the winning side) that featured decidedly “un-clutch” pitching performances by the two marquee relievers (Chapman and Andrew Miller), both patently exhausted from their workloads this post-season.  Neither starter even qualified for a decision.  The pitching in general was substandard; the teams combined for 24  hits and 15 runs; this is a far cry from Jack Morris‘ 10-inning shutout in the 1991 Game 7.  And thanks to the continuing trend of endless delays caused by interminable mound visits and bullpen switches, the game time (not even accounting for the rain delay) was nearly 4 and a half hours.

So, for me, no this wasn’t the greatest ever game.  But it was still darn good.  How good?


In 2011, just after the epic Game 6 between St. Louis and Texas, I posted a similar analysis; where did that game stand?  I put it into the context of the MLB TV’s 20 Greatest games of the last half century series, which ranked the best games since 1960 (but specifically NOT including the Mazeroski game, which may have been #1) as follows:

  • No. 20: May 17, 1979: Phillies @ Cubs; Phils, Cubs combine for 45 runs.  This is the only regular season game on the list and for good reason; the first inning alone had 13 runs scored.
  • No. 19: Oct. 4, 2003: Giants @ Marlins; future Nat Ivan Rodriguez tags out Eric Snow as he tries to bulldoze Pudge at the plate to end the game and send the Marlins to the World Series.
  • No. 18: Oct. 12, 1980: Phillies @ Astros; Phils win battle in 10th to win the NLCS with an epic comeback over Nolan Ryan.
  • No. 17: Oct. 17, 2004: Yankees @ Red Sox; Dave Roberts‘ stolen base and David Ortiz‘s walk-off homer cap the Boston win, an epic part of the Boston comeback from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS.
  • No. 16: Oct. 6, 2009: Tigers @ Twins; Twins win a game 163 sudden death playoff game for the AL Central title.
  • No. 15: Oct. 8, 1995: Yankees @ Mariners; Edgar Martinez hits “The Double” to get a walk-off win in the ALDS, capping a 10th inning comeback as a young Ken Griffey Jr absolutely flies around the bases to score from first.
  • No. 14: Oct. 23, 1993: Phillies @ Blue Jays; Joe Carter‘s walk-off WS homer foils a great Philly comeback.
  • No. 13: Oct. 26, 1997: Indians @ Marlins; Edgar Renteria wins it for Fish in a World Series game 7 classic.
  • No. 12: Oct. 31, 2001: D-backs @ Yankees; Tino Martinez ties it with a 2-out, 2-run homer in the bottom of the 9th and Derek Jeter hits first November homer and earns himself the nickname for which he’s continued to be known.
  • No. 11: Oct. 2, 1978: Yankees @ Red Sox; Bucky Dent‘s improbable 3-run homer caps a massive October collapse for Boston and continues the legendary rivalry between the teams.
  • No. 10: Oct. 15, 1988: Athletics @ Dodgers; Injured slugger Kirk Gibson hits a pinch hit walk-off home run off of the dominant Dennis Eckersley for one of the most magical home runs in baseball history.
  • No. 9: Nov. 4, 2001: Yankees @ D-backs; Luis Gonzalez floats a ball over the drawn-in infield against Mariano Rivera to win a classic Game 7.
  • No. 8: Oct. 12, 1986: Red Sox @ Angels; Dave Henderson hits an improbable 3-run homer in the 9th to help Boston come back from 1-out away from elimination to eventually beat the Angels in the 86 ALCS.
  • No. 7: Oct. 14, 2003: Marlins @ Cubs; The infamous Steve Bartman game, which overshadowed an utter collapse by Mark Prior, Alex Gonzalez, the Cubs bullpen AND Kerry Wood the following day to continue the Cubs curse that lasted … until this week.
  • No. 6: Oct. 16, 2003: Red Sox @ Yankees; Aaron Boone suddenly homers off Tim Wakefield in extra innings to end a classic ALCS game 7 between the bitter rivals.
  • No. 5: Oct. 15, 1986: Mets @ Astros; Mets win in 16 as Jesse Orosco put in the relief performance of a lifetime.
  • No. 4: Oct. 14, 1992: Pirates @ Braves; the injured Sid Bream barely beats Barry Bonds‘ throw to score the series winner and effectively send the Pittsburgh franchise into a 20 year tailspin.
  • No. 3: Oct. 25, 1986: Red Sox @ Mets; Probably the most “infamous” game of all time, especially to Boston fans, as Bill Buckner‘s error follows a series of mishaps by the Red Sox pitching staff to turn a 10th inning 2 run lead into a game 6 loss.
  • No. 2: Oct. 27, 1991: Braves @ Twins; Jack Morris‘  seminal performance; a 1-0 10 inning shutout over the Braves in perhaps the best Game 7 of any World Series ever.
  • No. 1: Oct. 21, 1975: Reds @ Red Sox; the game forever known for Carlton Fisk waving his walk-off homer fair, but which should be known for the unbelievably clutch Bernie Carbo 8th inning homer to tie the game and enable the extra inning fireworks.

I put 2011 Game 6 fourth, just after the top 3 games above.  I think I rank 2016’s Game 7 slightly behind it, perhaps (and this would be rather ironic) just before or just after the Bartman game.  I think the top three games on this list are so iconic that they’d be hardpressed to beat, and we quickly forget just how amazing the 2011 game 6 was in terms of multiple improbable comebacks.

What say you?  How great do you think Game 7 was earlier this week?  Am I under-rating it?  Over-rating i?

Player Killers: what college programs are known for hurting pro prospects?

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Did TCU destroy Purke's arm? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Did TCU destroy Purke’s arm? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Player Killers.  Arm Shredders.  Arm Abusers.  There’s more than a few college coaches/programs out there who are known for it.

Its always dangerous to make a blanket statement in baseball.  If I say that “CollegeX is known for killing pitcher arms” then there’ll immediately be people who cite players who are exceptions to such a rule.

Nonetheless, while reading a ton of prospect-driven content on the web over the years, some common themes pop up.  And the crux of it is this: there are some college baseball programs out there that are accused of hurting their players’ professional prospects and draft statuses by virtue of the misguided or (in some cases) outdated coaching and usage of players.

Grantland’s Michael Baumann wrote an excellent article summarizing some of the “danger programs” in 2013, citing work done by Rany Jazayerli and Baseball Prospectus.  Some of this also comes from Keith Law‘s freely offered opinions on the topic, and he offers up plenty of supporting evidence in his columns and chats.  Some of these are “arm shredder” programs, others are places that are thought to change player’s swings.

Here’s some trouble-maker programs (and by “programs” often times by implication you’re blaming the head coach as the decision maker):

  • Stanford: Law calls it the “Stanford Swing.”  Per Law, Stanford coaches emphasize going away, altering hitters’ swings to de-emphasize pull hitting, to the point apparently where players are outright benched for pulling the ball.  Now, there’s quite a few Stanford grads in the Majors right now, and the  hitters listed aren’t exactly an honor roll of top-hitting guys.  Jed Lowrie might be the best active hitter.  The career Stanford grad homer leader is the recently retired Carlos Quentin, out of baseball at 32.  So maybe there’s something to it.
  • TCU: Jim Schlossnagle is not well known for its handling of pitchers.  The Nats are well aware of this, having drafted damaged goods in Matthew Purke, who was 15-0 as a freshman and basically hasn’t been the same since.
  • Rice’s Wayne Graham: Law has provided an exhaustive list of pitchers who he accuses the Rice coaches of blatantly over-working and has flat out suggested that pitchers considering attending Rice should go elsewhere.  In fact, the most blatant example of this was the 2004 draft: Rice had three starters drafted in the first 8 picks (Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Townsend) and ALL three of them suffered shoulder injuries soon there after.
  • UNC‘s Mike Fox so over-used a reliever a few years back that the New York Times of all papers wrote about it.  And he had Matt Harvey, don’t forget, allowing Harvey to throw an astounding 157 pitches in a 2010 outing and 5 other instances of 120+ pitches.  Is it a coincidence that Harvey blew out his UCL just a couple years later?  Causation or Correlation?
  • South Carolina‘s Ray Tanner: won back to back CWS’s … on the backs of his pitching staff.
  • Texas‘ legendary coach Augie Garrido already had a reputation for overuse before the infamous Texas-Boston College regional game in June of 2009.   Texas’ Austin Wood, a reliever, came out of the bullpen to throw 13 innings and 169 pitches in the 25-inning game.  Garrido really took a lot of heat for that … but his BC counterpart might have only been slightly less culpable.  BC threw its own guy Mike Belfiore for 129 pitches and 9 2/3 innings.  In Wood’s case, it was made even worse by the fact that he had thrown two innings *the day before.*  It is no surprise to report that Wood had to undergo Shoulder Surgery the next season, nor is it a surprise that the crusty Garrido disclaimed any responsibility for the injury by Wood’s usage in that game.  Belfiore, it should be noted, has never shown any evidence of injury, was a 1st round draft pick just prior to his appearance, and looks like a 4-A pitcher who is now in the Detroit organization but who had a cup of coffee in 2013.  Perhaps its because Belfiore was a starter and basically threw a start instead of Wood, who was clearly a reliever.
  • UCLA: Look at the usage in college for guys like Trevor Bauer and Canning Griffith; is it any shock that these guys end up with injuries?
  • Notre Dame: Not a good track record (per Keith Law) of developing or protecting pitchers.

Pitch count guidelines: there’s research out there that basically shows that anything above 120 pitches in an outing is an indicator of fatigue-induced regression their next time out, and 130+ pitch outings might as well be prescriptions for injury.

Times have changed: no longer are A-1 pitching prospects left in games to rack up ridiculous pitch counts.  Mark Prior had at least 6 starts the year he was drafted where he threw 120-130+ pitches.  Ben McDonald was famously started in back to back CWS games, getting clobbered in the second game … all while having *already* been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, who must have been screaming at the television set watching what was  unfolding as legendary LSU coach Skip Bertman set about destroying the best arm in the nation.

But then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  NC State, in a mad dash to make the post-season in 2014, let their Ace starter Carlos Rodon throw 120+ pitches seven times.  Rodon’s usage was also discussed in Baseball America.  Did that lead to Rodon’s diminished stuff and subsequent drop in the 2013 draft?  Maybe.  I’m sure the White Sox are ok with it, since he doesn’t seem to have suffered any ill effects and is in their rotation 2 years later.  Trevor Bauer, while at UCLA, *averaged* more than 120 pitches an outing the year he was drafted … but he seems like such an outlier because of his warm-up technique (which involves extreme long toss and clearly has built up his shoulder strength over the years).  Are NC State and UCLA trouble-programs?  I havn’t heard much since so i’m leaving them off for now.

Did I miss anyone?

Post Publishing update: we’re starting to hear more and more about UVA’s Pitching program being problematic;  Per baseballdraftreport.com, only 3 of the 22 UVA pitchers drafted since 2009 have even made it to the majors, and the career UVA bWAR leader among all UVA players is a lefty reliever in Javier Lopez.  UVA has had 42 players reach the majors and is one of the leading colleges for active players as we speak, but has had an awful track record of arms drafted recently.  Just take a look at some of the recent top-end UVA arms drafted (from recent to older):

  • Conner Jones: 1st round talent out of HS, slipped to 2nd round in 2016 thanks to regression during college career but no injury issues thus far in pro career.
  • Nathan Kirby: supp-1st rounder in 2015: after just 5 pro games he needed Tommy John.  Missed all of 2016 with injury, still not on an active roster as of Apr 2017.
  • Josh Sborz; supp-2nd rounder in 2015: 2016 High-A all-star and 2017 NRI to Dodgers MLB camp.  Starting in AA.  One minor D/L trip.  Was UVA’s closer/long reliever but starting in pro ball.
  • Brandon Waddell: 5th rounder in 2015: quickly pitched his way to AA, where he spent most of 2016, suffered a forearm strain early in 2017.
  • Nick Howard: 1st rounder in 2014, missed half of 2015 and 2016 with shoulder injuries, still in XST to start 2017.
  • Artie Lewicki: 8th rounder/senior sign in 2014: missed parts of 2014 and 2016 on the D/L but active and in AA in 2017.
  • Whit Mayberry: 21st rounder in 2014, already released by his drafting team (Detroit) and signed as a MLFA by Washington for 2017; currently in High-A.  No injuries.
  • Kyle Crockett: 4th rounder in 2013, raced through the majors and debuted for Cleveland in May 2014.  No injuries.
  • Scott Silverstein: 25th rounder in 2013, hurt in May 2015 and released after that season.
  • Branden Kline: 2nd rounder in 2012, has been on the D/L since May of 2015.
  • Danny Hultzen: #2 overall pick in 2011: massive shoulder issues, out of the game after throwing just 169 minor league innings in 6 pro seasons.
  • Will Roberts: 5th rounder in 2011, has had a long minor league career; in AAA to start 2017.
  • Tyler Wilson, 10th rounder in 2011, is currently Baltimore’s #5 starter.

So a couple of high profile injuries, but also some successes.  I suppose the issues that their marquee 1st rounders has led to this reputation.

Mitch Williams on 106.7 inre Strasburg Shutdown, Mechanics

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Would you listen if this guy was criticising your pitching mechanics? Photo unknown via insidesocal.com

I just happened to catch former MLB pitcher and current MLB.com analyst Mitch Williams calling into the morning show on 106.7 this am.  And I felt compelled to immediately call into the show to rebut some of the more arguable statements he made.  Of course, this being Washington DC they only took 2 calls (one of which immediately changed the subject to golf; nice screening there WJFK) before moving onto a football-related segment, so I’ll exhaust my need to speak up in this space.

Williams had lots to say about Stephen Strasburg‘s mechanics, Mike Rizzo‘s decision to shut him down, and other fun stuff.

First off, I find it ironic that a guy with some of the worst mechanics in the last 25 years has the audacity to question Strasburg’s mechanics.  Williams nearly dislocated his left shoulder on every delivery and fell off to the 3rd base side so badly that he nearly hit the ground on each pitch (as is displayed in the photo above).  Strasburg, on the other hand, was considered to have impeccable mechanics upon hitting the draft and you really had to squint to find flaws in his delivery.  Google searches on the topic are so muddied with opinions that its hard to find actual scouting reports from his amateur days versus “hindsight is 20/20” pieces that look for flaws to explain his 2010 injury.  But its ironic that Strasburg suddenly has all these mechanical issues according to pundits, because he got injured.

Speaking of that 2010 injury, Williams intimated that the infamous “Inverted W” was the reason Strasburg got hurt.  I just have an awful hard time with that theory.  First, its a THEORY and is merely a coincidental piece of evidence in pitcher injuries.  You can find examples of pitchers who get into this position pre-delivery who have never had any injury issues just as easily as you can cherry-pick guys like Strasburg or Mark Prior who have suffered injuries.  More importantly, the Inverted W is more indicative of SHOULDER injuries in pitchers, not elbow ligament tears.  Shoulder injuries in pitchers are by and large wear-and-tear injuries, caused by over use and over-throwing over hundreds and thousands of pitches.  You don’t generally throw one pitch and tear completely through your labrum or rotator cuff.   However, elbow injuries to the UCL are almost entirely singular, acute injuries caused on a specific pitch.  We all can remember the exact pitch Strasburg threw to injure his arm and the grimace on his face after he threw it (as well as the blowhard Rob Dibble comments …. but we’ll choose to ignore those).

I wrote at the time my opinion on why Strasburg got hurt, and it had nothing to do with his pitching mechanics (my pet theory: Ivan Rodriguez fell in love with Strasburg’s change-up, had him throwing too many of them, and the vastly increased stress on his elbow caused the injury.  See the Aug 2010 post linked above for more detail).  I think its irresponsible for Williams to get onto a local radio show and opine that Strasburg “needs to change his mechanics” because of the injury, or else he’ll always be an injury concern.  Because in reality, nobody knows.  Personally I think teams trying to “change mechanics” in pitchers is a mistake; you throw one way your entire life, from age 5-6 onwards, and your entire shoulder/arm combination becomes inured to that method of throwing.  How can anyone think that suddenly as a 25 yr old you can even change the fundamental way you throw a baseball and be successful?  Adjustments, no problem.  Fix slight timing issues or slight changes to your wind up?  Sure.  Core changes to arm slots and arm loading?  Problematic.

Williams continued with the same tired themes we’ve been hearing from National writers (i.e., the Veterans aren’t going to like this, its a team game, the Nats should have managed this better, the Nats are foolish not to go for it, etc).  But he fails to mention what most fail to mention; Rizzo arrived at this shutdown decision with Strasburg the SAME way he did with Jordan Zimmermann last year; he talked with the surgeon who performed the surgery (Dr. Lewis Yocum in LA, the same doctor apparently about to pronounce the same fate on our 2012 #1 draft pick Lucas Giolito) and arrived at a prescribed, pre-defined innings limit.  You notice we’re in the EXACT same position as we were with Zimmermann in 2011, yet without any of the national media interest.  (And so far, that limit has worked out pretty darn well for the Nats and Zimmermann; right now, he’s 2nd best in the NL in several macro pitching categories; bWAR, ERA and ERA+, while being top 10 in WHIP, K/BB, and BB/9).

The way I look at it is thus: if you or I had Heart Surgery, your Cardiologist probably would recommend a course of recovery.  For the first X months, avoid any activity, then ease your way back to vigorous activity over a period of Y more months.  And you’d follow that advice, right?  Well, the pitching arm of a Major League Starter pretty much is equivalent to the heart of a normal person; without that arm, you’re not a major leaguer any more.  So when you get surgery on it, you listen to your doctor and do exactly what he says.  If someone told that same heart patient that, well because we’re really close to the World Series, you should really ignore your surgeon and just go for it for the betterment of the team, what would you say?  You’d probably say, “well, this may help the team make this one short term goal but I may be dead a lot sooner because of it.”  In my mind, that’s what Strasburg/Rizzo are doing; they’re following the same advice that has now led to Zimmermann having a fantastic (and healthy) 2012 season.

And one caller, to his credit, did point out a very important fact: the story on Strasburg hasn’t really changed all year.  There was a communicated shutdown expectation to Strasburg and the team in spring training.  Its only the National media that is now catching onto this and thrusting microphones into our players’ faces and asking for reactions that are getting over blown and taken out of context.   I guess this is what its like day in, day out in New York and Boston…

There are no absolutes in life; Strasburg could absolutely re-injure himself in 2 years time and turn into this generation’s Mark Prior.  Or he could be like Chris Carpenter, who had the TJ surgery in 2007 then recovered to a 17-4 record in 2009 as a guy in his mid 30s.  But anyone who thinks they know otherwise is just stating an opinion.  And everyone has an opinion.  I support the shutdown, I think its prudent for the longer term position of this team, and I don’t think 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime shot for this franchise.  Of the “core 15” of the Nats (8 positional players, 5 starters and 2 relievers) exactly ONE guy is a free agent or not presented with at least an option for 2013.  Most of these guys are either signed long term or under team control for at least another FOUR seasons.  So this team isn’t going anywhere.  You play it safe and get ready for a 4-5 year run.

That’s MY opinion.  :-)

Where would 2011 WS Game 6 rank all time?

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David Freese's name will go down in history for his historic Game 6 performance. Photo AP/Jeff Roberson via foxnews.com

(This post was inspired by the very last question in David Shoenfeld‘s 12/20/11 chat, asking where this game ranks among the greatest ever games played).

For those of you with the MLB network (channel 213 on DirecTV), the series they featured this year profiling the “Greatest 20 games of the last half century” was my favorite bit of sports programming since the 30-for-30 series on ESPN debuted.  Bob Costas and Tom Verducci hosted and did 1-2 hour reviews of these 20 games and brought in guest hosts for each game in the form of actual players and managers who participated in the games themselves.  These guest hosts provided fantastic commentary on the state of the dugouts at each critical juncture as well as first hand knowledge of their own thought processes throughout.  If you haven’t seen the series, I highly suggest setting your DVR and watching them.

Now the interesting question: where would Game 6 of our most recent World Series have ranked, if it were a candidate to be included?

For me, game 6 was absolutely the most entertaining game I’ve ever witnessed, in person or on TV.  It wasn’t the best played game (with errors and questionable manager decisions and no less than three blown saves) but it was amazingly entertaining, suspenseful, and with a story-book ending that was almost out of a movie script.  But does it rank with the best game list that MLB network came up with?

First, here’s their list, counted down from 20 to 1 (with captions borrowed from the MLB link above and augmented by me):

  • No. 20: May 17, 1979: Phillies @ Cubs; Phils, Cubs combine for 45 runs.  This is the only regular season game on the list and for good reason; the first inning alone had 13 runs scored.
  • No. 19: Oct. 4, 2003: Giants @ Marlins; Ivan Rodriguez tags out Eric Snow as he tries to bulldoze Pudge at the plate to end the game and send the Marlins to the World Series.
  • No. 18: Oct. 12, 1980: Phillies @ Astros; Phils win battle in 10th to win the NLCS with an epic comeback over Nolan Ryan.
  • No. 17: Oct. 17, 2004: Yankees @ Red Sox; Dave Roberts‘ stolen base and David Ortiz‘s walk-off homer cap the Boston win, an epic part of the Boston comeback from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS.
  • No. 16: Oct. 6, 2009: Tigers @ Twins; Twins win a game 163 sudden death playoff game for the AL Central title.
  • No. 15: Oct. 8, 1995: Yankees @ Mariners; Edgar Martinez hits “The Double” to get a walk-off win in the ALDS, capping a 10th inning comeback as a young Ken Griffey Jr absolutely flies around the bases to score from first.
  • No. 14: Oct. 23, 1993: Phillies @ Blue Jays; Joe Carter‘s walk-off WS homer foils a great Philly comeback.
  • No. 13: Oct. 26, 1997: Indians @ Marlins; Edgar Renteria wins it for Fish in a World Series game 7 classic.
  • No. 12: Oct. 31, 2001: D-backs @ Yankees; Tino Martinez ties it with a 2-out, 2-run homer in the bottom of the 9th and Derek Jeter hits first November homer and earns himself the nickname for which he’s continued to be known.
  • No. 11: Oct. 2, 1978: Yankees @ Red Sox; Bucky Dent‘s improbable 3-run homer caps a massive October collapse for Boston and continues the legendary rivalry between the teams.
  • No. 10: Oct. 15, 1988: Athletics @ Dodgers; Injured slugger Kirk Gibson hits a pinch hit walk-off home run off of the dominant Dennis Eckersley for one of the most magical home runs in baseball history.
  • No. 9: Nov. 4, 2001: Yankees @ D-backs; Luis Gonzalez floats a ball over the drawn-in infield against Mariano Rivera to win a classic Game 7.
  • No. 8: Oct. 12, 1986: Red Sox @ Angels; Dave Henderson hits an improbable 3-run homer in the 9th to help Boston come back from 1-out away from elimination to eventually beat the Angels in the 86 ALCS.
  • No. 7: Oct. 14, 2003: Marlins @ Cubs; The infamous Steve Bartman game, which overshadowed an utter collapse by Mark Prior, Alex Gonzalez, the Cubs bullpen AND Kerry Wood the following day to continue the Cubs curse that lasts til today.
  • No. 6: Oct. 16, 2003: Red Sox @ Yankees; Aaron Boone suddenly homers off Tim Wakefield in extra innings to end a classic ALCS game 7 between the bitter rivals.
  • No. 5: Oct. 15, 1986: Mets @ Astros; Mets win in 16 as Jesse Orosco put in the relief performance of a lifetime.
  • No. 4: Oct. 14, 1992: Pirates @ Braves; the injured Sid Bream barely beats Barry Bonds‘ throw to score the series winner and effectively send the Pittsburgh franchise into a 20 year tailspin.
  • No. 3: Oct. 25, 1986: Red Sox @ Mets; Probably the most “infamous” game of all time, especially to Boston fans, as Bill Buckner‘s error follows a series of mishaps by the Red Sox pitching staff to turn a 10th inning 2 run lead into a game 6 loss.
  • No. 2: Oct. 27, 1991: Braves @ Twins; Jack Morris‘  seminal performance; a 1-0 10 inning shutout over the Braves in perhaps the best Game 7 of any World Series ever.
  • No. 1: Oct. 21, 1975: Reds @ Red Sox; the game forever known for Carlton Fisk waving his walk-off homer fair, but which should be known for the unbelievably clutch Bernie Carbo 8th inning homer to tie the game and enable the extra inning fireworks.

(A quick glance at the top 20 list above has one glaring game that I’d honestly replace immediately; the Bartman game was more iconic for the individual play and not for the game itself, which ended up being a blowout when all was said and done.  Nearly every other game on this list featured late game comebacks and walk-off hits).

The earliest game on this list is 1975 and if the moniker “last 50 years” is true then the classic Bill Mazeroski homer game from game 7 of the 1960 World Series must not have been eligible.  Because certainly it should have been in the top 5 otherwise.  A quick note about this game; click on the link for the box score to imagine just how amazing this game must have been.  Recap:

  • Pittsburgh jumps to a 4-0 lead early.
  • Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle help spark a 4-run rally in the 6th to take a 5-4 lead.
  • The  Yankees extend their lead to 7-5 in the top of the 8th.
  • The Pirates rally for FIVE runs in the bottom of the 8th for a 9-7 lead.
  • The Yankees’ two hall of famers Berra and Mantle manage to drive in the tying runs in the top of the 9th to make it 9-9.
  • Mazeroski blasts a walk-off homer on a 1-0 count to lead off the bottom of the 9th and win the world series.

Where to put 2011’s game 6?  I think I’d place it right around the #4 spot.  David Freese‘s heroics will soon settle into place as one of the legendary performances in post season history.  I can’t dislodge the current top 3 games on MLB’s list.  Its a common folly for the immediate labeling of recent events as “the best ever” without standing the test of time, but in this case I feel comfortable in the statement that this game is one for the ages, absolutely.

My answers to Boswell’s chat questions 8/15/11 edition

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Tom Boswell must have been on vacation; he hasn’t done a chat in weeks.  Well, he caught up and more on August 15th’s version.  Here’s how i’d have answered the questions he took.  As always, the “questions” posed are edited here for levity and clarity, and I write my “answer” before reading his.

Q: Why is Espinosa struggling at the plate?

A: Probably because the league’s pitchers are adjusting to him the 2nd time around.  Plus, there’s a lot of at-bats for advance scouts to learn from and formulate plans of attack.  This is a constant adjustment cycle that hitters and pitchers do throughout the year and throughout their careers.  There could also be a normal rookie fatigue factor; you play 30 games in a HS season, 60-or so games in a college season, around 70 games in a short-season minor league, and around 140 games in a full-season minor league.  To say nothing of the incredible jump in talent from even AAA to the majors.  So, some regression is to be expected as the season winds down.  Boswell agrees with the adjustments angle and gives some tips for Espinosa to follow.  I hope he was reading the chat :-)

Q: Will the Nats get to 77 victories?

A: With a .479 winning percentage as of 8/15/11, that puts them on a pace for 77 wins (rounding down since they’re one game ahead of their pythagorean won-loss record).  I would say that the team will likely fail to reach that threshold though; September is going to see debut starts given to guys who have never seen the majors, and the transition is usually pretty tough.  I see a few extra losses thrown in there to bring down our win totals to the 73-74 range.   Boswell sticks by his pre-season prediction of 75.  Its looking like a good prediction.

Q: How has Davey Johnson performed so far?

A: I’d say he’s been awful.  Even given that Riggleman’s record was improved by a winning streak, the numbers are clear.  Riggleman was .500 with this team, Johnson is 17-24 (as of 8/15/11).  I think he’s poorly managed the bullpen and is poorly handling his starters.  On more than one occasion he’s let a starting pitcher make the 3rd out in the 6th, only to yank him one walk or one hit into the 7th.  This makes no sense to me!  Why give away that at-bat and that out (remember; you only get 27 outs in a game) especially if there’s runners on base and you still have hitters off the bench.  What was the point of “strengthening the bench” if you never use those hitters?  Grr.   Boswell agrees with me somewhat, and notes that Johnson quickly ended the lineup manipulations under Riggleman.  I’m not going to kill Riggleman for trying those lineup mods; they did lead to a very hot streak for this team.  Another interesting fact; the team has given up 10+ runs 6 times so far under Johnson but only twice before that under Riggleman; why is that?  The implication seemed to be that Riggleman was over-using Storen and Clippard.

Q: Will Purke sign by the deadline?

A: I didn’t think so: I was wrongBoswell had no answer, just said he’d be watching at midnight on 8/15/11.

Q: Should MLB allow close/controversial plays to be replayed on the scoreboard?

A: Good question: right now presumably these plays are NOT shown on scoreboards to prevent further fan-distress and histronics from the argumentative players and managers.  So, clearly when a play is not shown on the board the tacit message sent to all who are watching is, “oh they’re not showing the play so the umps must have blown it.”  It doesn’t seem to really cause that much grief in the NFL, which plays replays instantly (since they have 35 seconds to kill after every play).  So I think MLB should just show replays of all plays and not editorialize.  Boswell seems to agree.

Q: In 2013, what are the chances that this is the lineup we see every day: Ramos, Morse, Rendon, Espinosa, Zimmerman, Harper, CF, Werth?

A: Pretty close in my estimation.  We don’t have positions listed but the implication is that Harper is playing LF, Morse 1B and Rendon 2nd.  2013 may be a tad too early for Rendon; it may be a safer bet to put Lombardozzi at leadoff/2nd.  I think Harper should be trained as a center fielder.  Rendon should be able to transition to LF if need be, but it may be a waste of his abilities.  Otherwise this looks pretty close.  Boswell says there’s a pretty good chance, talks about Rendon a bit then gets more digs into Desmond despite his not being named here.

Q: Is there any significant relationship between payroll outlay (Nats 9th from bottom) and w/l record (14th from bottom)?

A: (links to use here: list of payroll by team, and the current MLB standings 1-30.   Nats are, as of 8/16/11 18th in W/L and22nd in total payroll.

There is definitely a relationship in general between payroll and won/loss records; I don’t think its a coincidence that the 3 highest payrolls (NYY, Boston, Philadelphia) are also the 3 best teams.  However that middle ground is where the direct correlation breaks down.  The Chicago Cubs have the 6th highest payroll and are 27th in won/losses.  Meanwhile the Tampa Bay Rays are 29th in payroll but have the 9th best record playing in the AL East.  This middle ground is where teams can use superior General Managers, superior scouting and overall organizational improvements to be better than they appear.  With respect to the Nationals current positions, I’ll say two things.

  1. Yes we’re clearly doing “better” than our payroll would indicate, a sign that Rizzo is getting good value for his contract dollars.
  2. Its despicable that a team with owners as wealthy as the Lerners, playing in a $600M stadium that was given to the team, and playing in the wealthiest per-capita area with a top 8 population center in the country isn’t spending more on this team.

Q: Is Batting Average not that good of a stat to use to judge hitters?  (in the context of Jayson Werth’s .226 value)

A: Batting Average needs context, yes.  A well-hit line drive directly at a 3rd baseman is really a better hit ball than a weak tweener ground ball that gets through for a hit.   If looking at the BA, you really should look at the BABIP (which for Werth is now .281 on the season, decent and closer to league norms than earlier, but still below his career .314) and his breakdowns of line drives, grounders and flyballs.  Here we see that Werth’s LD% is about on a par with his season last year, but his fly balls are way down.  Makes sense; more of his flyballs were turning into homers at the cozy Philadelphia park.  The stat I really use the most is OPS+, which normalizes the OPS (on base percentage plus slugging) to the league averages and is read more or less as a percentage value as compared to MLB average.  Werth’s number there is currently 98, meaning his OPS is about 2% worse than the league norm.  Now, this isn’t great (he’s being paid like on of the top 10 players in the league and was 5th in the NL in OPS+ last year), but it isn’t Adam Dunn.  Boswell points out that Werth’s slugging % is down and that he’ll be here til the next president is in office.

Q: Was Strasburg an injury waiting to happen?

A: Unknown; the injury he suffered (to his elbow) was NOT the injury that all these inverted-W and/or shoulder loading freaks drone on and on about.  So, until Strasburg’s shoulder blows out (as Prior’s did), we won’t know.   Boswell agrees

Q: What is going on with Zimmerman’s throwing motion?

A: Looks to me like the team has tried to address his biggest problem; making the un-pressured throw accurately.  It happens; you get a ball, have all the time in the world, and fire a ball over your first baseman’s head.  Then it gets into your head and you’re in trouble.  If this weird motion works (and it certainly seems to) then more power to him.  You’ll notice, by the way, that he never makes a throwing error when pressured or on the run.  At least not that I can remember.  Boswell Agrees.

Q: Should/Will the Nats go after Jose Reyes this off season?

A: Should they?  I don’t think so; depends on if they think Desmond has any future or if they can move over Espinosa and call up Lombardozzi.  It’d be foolish to spend $12M/year on a leadoff hitter who is only slightly better than your $440k/year in-house options.  Will they?  We’ll see.   Boswell thinks they shouldn’t and lists a few more good reasons.

Q: Would you trade all the National’s young pitchers for the Orioles’?

A: No.  Way.  Baltimore has a habit of destroying young arms lately.  And I like the upside of our slew of prospects versus theirs.  Boswell says no way.

Q: Zimm/Morse/Werth in 2012 vs Zimm/Dunn/Willingham in 2010?

A: Offense only?  You take the latter.  That was three guys with OPS’s in the 140s back to back to back.  Werth did it in his contract year but not before or since really.  Morse is a breakout guy this year; can he continue?  Can Zimmerman stay healthy?

Does Verducci’s article about Strasburg’s Mechanics worry you?

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This is an image I hope we don’t see again.

In an article that seemingly came out of nowhere, Si.com columnist Tom Verducci posted this missive on 3/8/11 with ominous warnings to Nationals fans everywhere.  He believes that Stephen Strasburg has a fatal flaw in his mechanics related to the timing of his stride forward off the rubber versus his release point that may continue to plague the pitcher even after his post Tommy John surgery recovery.

I say this article comes out of nowhere since I would have expected to see this posted back in August 2010, when every other pundit posted their own theories as to why “the best pitching prospect ever” suddenly blew out his elbow.  I reviewed some of those explanations at the time but thought (and still do think) that his injury was less about his release point and more about pitch selection.  I think that Strasburg (and more importantly his catchers) fell in love with his change-up after discovering what a devastating pitch it was (imagine facing a 91-mph screw ball that moves a foot into the right handed hitter).  Suddenly he was throwing a ton of circle changes and placing unexpected, here-to-fore unseen stress directly on his elbow ligament.  When a hurler goes from pitching one day a week in a protected environment where he can get by throwing mostly fastballs to overpower college hitters to suddenly throwing only about 58% fastballs (per Verducci’s research) at the Major league level every 5 days, sudden injury onset can occur.

Verducci touches on the preponderance of off-speed pitches Strasburg was throwing in the article but focuses on the “late cocking” of the arm as the primary culprit of the injury.  He then lists a number of pitchers who exhibit this same late arm cocking with (conveniently) a ghastly list of arm and shoulder injuries that followed.

Here’s my problem with this type of cherry picking of arm injuries; as Mike Rizzo pointed out in the article, you can probably find a similar subset of pitchers who exhibit the same late-cocking of the arm who have NEVER had an arm injury.  Rob Neyer posted a similar opinion in a Verducci-followup piece.  Similarly, those who subscribe to the “Inverted W” pitching mechanical flaw fail to point out that, while there are plenty of examples of pitchers who show the inverted W behavior (most notably in most examples is Mark Prior but Strasburg exhibits the same mechanics as well), there are also plenty of pitchers who do the same motion but who never have had a serious injury.  People always forget to mention this fact and their articles always come off with the message that “if you exhibit this, you are doomed.”

John Smoltz was listed as a pitcher who had this fatal mechanical flaw (he also has inverted W syndrome) and listed as an “example” of what can happen.  Yes Smoltz blew out his elbow in his early 30s and missed an entire major league season.  But he also pitched until he was 42, made over 700 major league starts, won 213 games and saved another 154 while he was in the closer role theoretically “protecting” his arm.  If Strasburg gives the Washington franchise those kinds of numbers between now and the year 2030 (when he too will be 42 years of age) I will never quibble.

For me, shoulder injuries are the injuries that you really worry about.  Look at Chien-Ming Wang right now; he’s throwing in the low 80s 2+ years on from shoulder surgery.  The Nats have taken fliers on several other post-shoulder injury starters over the past few years (Brian Lawrence, Ryan Drese, John Patterson) with limited success.  However, pitchers seem to be able to recover from Tommy John surgeries with much better regularity.  I realize our own Shawn Hill had the TJ surgery and never really came back, but the list of successful pitchers who have had the TJ surgery is long.  3 of the top 5 NL Cy Young candidates last year (Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson and now Adam Wainwright) have had the TJ surgery, as did 2009 NL cy Young winner Chris Carpenter.  Our own Jordan Zimmermann seems to be nicely recovering, although it is far too soon to conclude that his surgery was a success.

I sometimes wonder what modern medicine could have done with Sandy Koufax, who abruptly retired at age 30 after a Cy Young winning season where he made 41 starts and went 27-9.  His retirement reason was listed as “arthritis in his pitching elbow” and he had symptoms that included massive hemorrhaging in his arm; was this a condition that would be easily solved today?

For Strasburg, as with pretty much any baseball pitcher, in many ways every pitch could be your last.  Modern medicine can fix all kinds of injuries and modern technology can pin point the wheres and whys of why some guys may last and some guys may be flashes in the pan.  But in the end, some guys physiologically are more durable than others, some guys can throw a ball through a brick wall for 25 years (see Ryan, Nolan) and others break down after just a few professional games.  Lets just hope for the best once Strasburg comes back.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_John_surgery#List_of_notable_baseball_players_who_underwent_the_surgery

What really “caused” the Strasburg Injury?

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By now, we’ve all heard the news: Steven Strasburg is headed towards Tommy John surgery and won’t be back for 12-18 months, which probably puts him out for the entirety of the 2011 season.  Analysis and observation seem to show that the acute injury was the result of a singular injury, namely his 5th inning change up thrown to Domonic Brown which left him visibly shaking his right arm.

So, what really caused the issue?  Here’s some possibilities:

1. Over-protection by the team.  I have an awful hard time believing this.  Strasburg never went more than 100 pitches or 7 innings in any major or minor league start this season.  Does that mean he was more susceptible to a major arm injury?  I seriously doubt it.  There are those pundits who blame the Nats for NOT gaining an MRI of his shoulder during his 15-day DL stint, which is similarly ridiculous.  He had a shoulder injury not an elbow injury.  If he had blown out a groin would those same pundits be saying the team should have MRI’d his legs too?

2. A mechanical change: Some analysis that i’ve read (this post by Foxsport’s Jon Paul Morosi) has quotes from unnamed scouts that say his mechanics had changed slightly, which (Morosi intimated) may have resulted in stress on the elbow that had not been there before.  To test this, compare his Pitch F/X report from his MLB debut on June 8th to that fateful day in Philadelphia  last week. Comparing the release points in these two plots shows something interesting; his release point is indeed several inches higher on average in his last game versus his first.  Comparing The 6/8 video versus the 8/21 video isn’t really helpful; the former just shows every strikeout while the latter replays the fateful pitch where the injury occurred.  One would have to see the isolated feeds side by side to really see a difference.  However, a slight mechanical change could certainly be factor.

3. The “Inverted W” Effect: There some pundits out there on the net who believe that the “Inverted W” effect (where a pitcher’s pre-release arm positions resembles an upside-down W) indicates a proclivity of arm injuries.  The name most often associated with this (the poster boy, so to speak), is Mark Prior, who had supposedly clean mechanics, threw hard and was basically out of baseball by the time he was 25.  Writer Chris O’Leary has several examples plus an entire section on Strasburg, who does exhibit the behavior.

The problem I have with the inverted W theory is that you can cherry pick from the thousands of major league pitchers out there to prove or disprove this theory.  O’Leary himself uses John Smoltz as an example of someone who had the Inverted W, saying that Smoltz “… retired due to shoulder problems.”  Uh, Smoltz made over 700 HUNDRED starts, plus had 4 years as a closer, and made 32 starts the year he turned 40.  Thats about as BAD of an example as you can find to prove your theory.

Yes Strasburg exhibits the inverted W behavior, but not nearly as definitively as poster boys such as Prior or Reyes.  But he’s never had shoulder problems, and damage to the elbow seems to be indicative of something besides the W effect.

4. Scapular Loading: some googling about his injury turned up this interesing article at Drivelinebaseball.com.  In essence, Strasburg puts undue stress on his elbow based on “scapular loading” during his windup.  The article concludes that this behavior possibly contributed but isn’t necessarily the cause.  It is worth a read though.  I don’t know nearly enough about the subject to agree or disagree to heavily.

5. Strasburg was throwing FAR more change-ups than he’s used to.  In college, he was so dominant that he could be a 2-pitch pitcher (4-seamer and curve) and pitch his way to the player of the year award.  However, in the pros 3 pitches are required and 4 good pitches are desired.  Luckily, Strasburg possessed a 91-mph circle change that moved 10-12 inches on the horizontal plane, an absolutely ridiculous pitch.  Well, his catchers noticed this too, knowing that a screw-ball like 91 mph pitch had a better chance of getting hit by lightening than being hit hard, and started calling for it more and more.  For the season he threw that pitch 16.7% of the time (according to Fangraphs.com) but by the time the fateful Philadelphia game rolled around he was throwing it more like 20-21% of the time.

The circle change is a rather difficult pitch to master.  You essentially make a “circle” with your thumb and forefinger around the ball, then throw the ball with a fastball arm-action but letting it “tumble” off your remaining three fingers.  This causes the screw-ball like reverse movement on the ball when thrown with enough velocity.  It is a great pitch; not only does it come out of the hand slower (hence the changeup) but it moves unlike any of your other pitches.  The bad part of the pitch; it causes a ton of stress on the arm.  Your wrist and fingers are very strong and contribute to the natural fastball motion; by taking them out of play with the circle-change you use a lot more of your forearm and elbow to “throw” the pitch.

Conclusions: in the end, it is difficult to  know exactly what happened.  I personally believe the over-reliance on the circle change was his downfall, but the other points (mechanical changes, inverted-W tendencies and scapular loading) are difficult to discount.

In any case, Tommy John surgery is so common now amongst power pitchers that you start to hear rumblings about pitchers getting it done as a preventative measure (!!).  Jonah Keri had a great q&a session with the originator of the procedure and it makes for a great read.  So we’ll cross our fingers, hope that around this time next august Strasburg is pitching rehab sessions in the minors and is ready to go full strength in 2012.

Written by Todd Boss

August 29th, 2010 at 11:35 am