2014 Postseason Showing How Far Reds Are From World Series

royalsMy, how baseball has changed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scoring runs was, as George Will articulated to Ken Burns, as easy as getting two runners aboard and watching Godzilla hit a three-run homer. For most of the 2000s and into the 2010s, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” philosophy–getting on base, in any capacity, is more valuable than making outs–set the precedent for how front offices began to construct their lineups.

But now, in today’s Major League Baseball, good old-fashioned “survival” is the way to score runs. “Survival” at the plate is how the St. Louis Cardinals have managed to contend for the World Series year in and year out for over a decade. It’s how the San Francisco Giants have reached the pinnacle in three of the past five seasons. And it’s why the Kansas City Royals have awoken from their nearly thirty-year slumber to climb to the top of baseball’s Mt. Everest.

Today’s Batters Face Two Bob Gibsons and a Sandy Koufax in One Game

You want to be a major league hitter nowadays? Good luck. You’ll be up against it, that’s for sure.

First, the opposing coaching staff will move its defenders to the spots where you most frequently hit the ball. Doesn’t matter how hard you square up that baseball…that second baseman is positioned in shallow right field to turn a woulda-been rocket base hit into a simple 4-3 putout.

“Just go the other way,” the fans urge. “The whole left side of the field is wide open!” Sure, you think, it’s as easy as that. Never mind the fact that this starting pitcher is throwing 95 with down-and-in sink on the ball to go along with a wicked 86 MPH changeup that looks like the same pitch but disappears off the face of the earth. The guy I’ll face in the 8th inning? He throws 99.

Not easy. In fact, only sixteen MLB hitters finished at .300 or better in 2014.

Yeah, so? You’re a major league hitter. You’re getting paid millions. And right now, in these elements, your number one job is this: Put the ball in play.

Having the highest on-base percentage is not necessarily an indicator of scoring runs against the toughest pitchers in the game. Of the three example teams (StL, KC and SF), only the Cardinals ranked in the Top 10 in OBP (9th), while Kansas City ranked 16th and San Fran 18th.

Nowadays, success is not determined by how many runners you get on base; it’s more about what you do when you have those runners on base. And how can you nearly guarantee you won’t knock those runners in? By striking out. The Giants ranked 17th in team K’s, the Cardinals 26th and the Royals whiffed just 985 times in 2014, 119 fewer than the 29th spot (Oakland).

Seeing a trend? Yep. Making contact with the baseball is at a premium. Oh, and by the way, these three teams have also proved that the home run is fool’s gold. Nobody hit fewer home runs than the Cardinals and Royals; the Giants were in the middle of the pack.

The overall theme here is to have a pesky lineup. Your hitters must identify which pitch in which location from a certain pitcher gives them the best chance to drive the baseball, be ready to rip from the first pitch of the at-bat (Giants finished 3rd in MLB in first-pitch swing percentage), but refrain from offering at the baseball unless it is that exact pitch…and then with two strikes, be able to foul off anything close until the pitcher gives in and puts it in the wheelhouse or throws ball four.

In other words, do not, under any circumstances, give away an at-bat by swinging at a pitch you can’t drive early in the count or by taking too big of a swing with two strikes.

The Cincinnati Reds have multiple hitters in their everyday lineup who do not subscribe to the survival philosophy, and it costs the team runs. It costs the team dearly in one-run losses. And it will not play in the postseason, when only the pesky survive. As much as the fans and the front office love some of the Reds players, it might be time to part ways with the “non-survivors.”

The Pitching Side: You’d Better Be Flush With Nasty

On the other side of the coin is the bullpen–the guys fighting the battle against those pesky hitters late in games. When you get to the postseason level, your bullpen better limit baserunners and keep the ball off the barrel of the bat. In other words, you need three Walter Johnsons, a Carl Hubbell and a J.R. Richard to call on. A dominant closer is obviously important, but the set-up men must be the closers of their innings.

The San Francisco Giants’ bullpen was tops in all of baseball this season with a 1.07 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). St. Louis was 9th, Kansas City ranked 13th. San Fran’s pen was also tops in Batting Average Against (.217), while KC ranked 11th in that category (St. Louis ranked 17th).

Kansas City’s pen features three guys who pitched in at least 65 games with earned run averages below 1.50!

Take a look at the Reds’ bullpen in 2014: 26th in WHIP and ERA. That cannot and will not fly in the postseason. Something must be done, whether it’s converting a few of your top starting pitching prospects into relievers or trading for relievers.

The Bottom Line

Having a lineup full of all-or-nothing power hitters is the equivalent of a basketball team that relies on the three-point shot. When the ball ain’t leaving the yard, you’d better have a Plan B. The teams in this year’s postseason that didn’t have a Plan B got knocked out. Meanwhile, the teams featuring consistency, defense, survival and stingy pitching have moved on.

If the Cincinnati Reds expect to compete in 2015 and beyond, let alone make noise in the postseason if the team can get there, the organization must adjust accordingly to the present state of Major League Baseball. If that means parting ways with the faces of the franchise, then Cincinnati will have to cut those ties and move on.

6 Reasons #Reds Should Trade Jay Bruce to the Houston Astros

Jay Bruce hits a home run, a.k.a. Fool's gold

Jay Bruce hits a home run, a.k.a. Fool’s gold

If the typical (and overboard) “Cincinnati loyalty” is any indication, I have a better chance of marrying Mila Kunis next Tuesday in Starkville, Mississippi than Jay Bruce does of being traded this winter.

But the Reds should trade Jay Bruce to the Houston Astros.

Bruce is beloved around Cincinnati. Go to a Reds game, you’ll see a ton of fans sporting “Bruce 32″ on their backs. By all accounts, the 2005 first round draft pick is great in the community. You could make the argument that JB is the face of the franchise right now.

But still, Jay Bruce must be traded, preferably to Houston. Here are six reasons why:

1) Jay is an all-or-nothing hitter.

As I detailed in my previous post, these types of hitters, the high-strikeout/swing-for-the-fences-with-two-strikes guys, they don’t work. Not in the postseason. And not in close regular season games. In 2013, when Bruce clocked 30 dingers and 43 doubles, he was busy whiffing 185 times. Can’t have that in the middle of your batting order.

In today’s baseball, pitching and defense rules. It’s as tough as ever to hit .300 (only 16 ML hitters did so in ’14). As Kansas City, St. Louis and San Francisco have demonstrated thus far in the postseason, putting the ball in play matters most. All 3 teams rank in the bottom half in strikeouts (KC the fewest in MLB by a wide margin) and none of those teams hit many home runs (KC and St. Louis the fewest).

Jay Bruce simply does not fit into that mold. And when you face tough pitching, you’ve got to be pesky; you’ve got to extend at-bats, put the ball in play or draw walks. You cannot give away at-bats. Bruce gives away at-bats. Often. Very often.

2) Bruce’s salary

Bruce is scheduled to make $12 million in ’15, $12.5 mil in ’16 and then if the Reds pick up his option, $13 mil in 2017.

Could that money be better spent on a different right fielder and a new left fielder that don’t make the big bucks but provide the necessary characteristics hitters must display to succeed within the current state of the game?

You see, while it’s becoming increasingly more evident what type of hitters you need in your lineup, salaries are still skewed to favor the “big boppers.” Maybe you take that $12 million and find a couple of undervalued fellas to plug in. Or, if you structure the deal right, maybe you get a young player in the trade that fits the right mold. (I’ll try to stop using the word “mold” from here on out.)

3) Bruce is not as good defensively as you might think

Appearances can be deceiving. If you watch a ton of Reds games, you likely think Jay Bruce is a great defensive right-fielder. He has the big arm. He seemingly covers ground.

And hey, I was of that opinion myself. Until, that is, I looked at the numbers on FanGraphs. If you’re not familiar with FanGraphs, it’s a website that bases its rankings on every single daggum statistical measure known to man. It’s basically Moneyball with an extra 55 Roger Clemens steroid injections.

Anyway, I took a look at the defensive rankings for right fielders with at least 300 innings played over the last six seasons. Check out Bruce’s rankings:

2009: 9th
2010: 1st
2011: 26th
2012: 37th
2013: 10th
2014: 38th

Of course, Jay was injured for a good portion of 2014, so we can cut him some slack. I remember he made an extra effort to be in better shape before the 2013 season, and it showed in his Top 10 ranking. He was the best in the game back in ’10 at age 23. He’s not exactly old at 28, but the 26th and 37th ranking in 2011 and ’12 are cause for concern.

Either way, he’s pretty good defensively, but not irreplaceable by any stretch. He doesn’t have elite speed.

4) Give the kid a break, send him home

Bruce is from Beaumont, Texas, which is a little more than an hour’s drive to Houston. I’m sure Jay would like to be closer to friends and family.

5) The Astros are flush with prospects

After starting from scratch a few years ago, Houston saw improvement in 2014. The plan is to contend seriously by 2017. The organization rid itself of any and all high-salary players when the rebuilding began, so there should be some dollars to spend now. $12 million, in today’s baseball, ain’t that much. And you’d be bringing in a hometown hero.

Moreover, trading away all of those players, in addition to having a bunch of high draft picks, means Houston is stocked with young talent. Baseball prospectus ranks the Astros’ farm system 5th in all of baseball. The Reds should be able to find a couple-few players of worth that Houston would be willing to part with.

6) Houston is in the American League now

If Jay figures it out at the plate, he’s not going to come back to haunt the Reds.

 

 

Pesky Over Power: How to Advance in the MLB Postseason

royalsAsk a casual baseball fan about the 2014 postseason runs of the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, and you’ll likely get these three responses:

1) The Cardinals always do this.
2) I don’t know how the Giants have been doing this the past five years, but they keep doing it.
3) The Royals are getting lucky this year. I like ‘em and I’m rooting for ‘em, but they’re probably a fluke.

Regardless of your opinion, these are the three best teams in major league baseball this year. Combined, they ousted both high-payroll Los Angeles franchises and the team with the best record in the National League (Washington) in the Division Series.

Let’s take a look at what these teams have in common and then compare those characteristics to the teams who haven’t been long for the postseason the last few years.

Before we do that, I want to establish a hypothesis about baseball in the post-steroid era: It’s extremely tough to hit these days. Hitters now must deal with defensive metrics/shifts and nearly every bullpen they step in the batter’s box against is packed with dudes who throw 98+ MPH, dirty lefties, etc. More guys throw straight change-ups. Plus, the cut fastball has swayed the advantage to the men on the mound.

In 2014, only 16 MLB hitters checked in at .300 or better. Only three fellas hit better than .325. Go back ten years to 2004: 36 hitters finished at .300 or better. F*ckin’ Jack Wilson batted .304 that year!

It probably goes without saying that it’s harder to hit home runs these days as well. But just for evidence purposes: In 2004, nine MLB hitters cracked 40 or more bombs. In 2014, one guy (Nelson Cruz) hit 40.

How to Score Runs in Today’s Baseball

With pitchers rarely grooving anything in the middle of the strike zone, in order to score runs these days, putting the ball in play and running the bases effectively gives you the best chance. Long gone are the days when a general manager could stack his team with beefy power hitters (Tigers, Angels, Dodgers) and rely on the home run ball to light up the scoreboard. The teams with lineups full of guys who work the count, shorten up and cut down on the swing with two strikes and focus on hitting the ball up the middle/the other way are the teams that are still standing right now.

Sam G., a good friend of mine up in Rumford, Rhode Island, e-mailed me an apt comparison yesterday:

“I watched that game last night – great baseball – and it made me
think: a small ball team that plays great defense, has speed, produces
timely hitting, and is fundamentally solid is sort of like a
basketball team that also does the little things well: plays good D,
points in the paint, rebounds.  On the other hand, a power-hitting
team that relies on the long ball is like a team that lives or dies by
the 3-pointer: when they’re on, they’re on, and a lot of fun to watch.
When they’re cold, they are dead in the water.”

Let’s go back to the Cards, Giants and Royals. In the majors this season, nobody hit fewer home runs than the Cardinals and Royals. The Giants were in the bottom half of the league in round trippers. St. Louis and San Francisco both finished in the bottom half in strikeouts. Kansas City, though…holy shit. How ’bout this? KC struck out by far the fewest times in MLB in 2014: The second to last team, Oakland, whiffed 1104 times. The Royals fanned just 985 times.

And really, just let the eye test take over. Watch these teams hit. These guys lay off of close pitches, foul off tough pitches…they just grind. They have a plan. I’d bet you a UDF malt that each batter studies the opposing pitcher and decides which pitch in which location offers the best chance to drive the ball…the hitter looks for that exact pitch early in the count…if it’s there, they’re ready to rip…if it’s not, the hitter is content to let it go by…and then with two strikes, the hitter adjusts, shortens up, stays on the ball, and just tries to put the ball in play hard somewhere.

Contrast that with every Jay Bruce at-bat you’ve ever seen…

(Sorry, Jay, but from my friends and family, I hear the most complaints about your approach.)

In the playoffs, it becomes infinitely harder to hit. You’re facing the teams with the best pitching staffs in the majors. These bullpens just keep comin’ at you with dudes throwing filthy, hard, hot shit. Those guys eat hitters with big, long swings for breakfast. That’s why KC, St. Louis and San Fran have survived to this point. (Yes, Baltimore is still alive, and could very well win the ALCS, but losing the first two games at home diminishes their chances.) In the case of the Royals, they led MLB in stolen bases and Fangraphs ranked KC’s defense #1 by a wide margin. (Baltimore was #2, for the record.) The formula: Put the ball in play, cause havoc on the basepaths, pitch and play great defense.

How this translates to the Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati ranked #3 in total defense, according to Fangraphs. And we know that despite playing in a hitter’s paradise, the Reds have starting pitching. The bullpen’s another story, and that’s an area we’ve yet to touch on in this analysis. Really, all you need to do is take a look at the Tigers, Angels and Dodgers’ bullpens. I’ll save you the time of looking up the numbers: They’re all f*ckin’ terrible, especially Detroit’s.

But I want to look at the Reds’ offense, in terms of peskiness. I know there were a ton of injuries in 2014, Joey Votto the most notable, but let’s take a look at what they would have had this year:

You tell me which of these guys qualifies as a pesky hitter…

Billy Hamilton
Todd Frazier
Joey Votto
Devin Mesoraco
Jay Bruce
Brandon Phillips
Ryan Ludwick/Chris Heisey
Zack Cozart

Let’s see, Votto’s pesky…Phillips and Ludwick can be…Mesoraco’s shown the ability to extend at-bats and shorten up a hair with two strikes…

The rest? Yeah, the rest of those fellas…what do they do with two strikes? Take f*ckin’ full, long-ass swings? Yeah. Thought so.

Take a guy like Jay Bruce. He had a horrendous 2014 season (.217 batting avg, .281 on-base pct, 149 strikeouts in 137 games). Of course, we’ve got to cut him some slack because he had knee surgery and never really got comfortable at the plate. On the other hand, he had a bum knee and never made an adjustment. Yes, Bruce is a power hitter, and yes, I remember his 30 home runs and 43 doubles in 2013. But I also remember his 185 strikeouts last season. 185. My God. That’s an all-or-nothing hitter if there ever was one…and guess what? When it matters…against a tough-ass reliever…that approaches usually yields nothing.

Randal Grichuk was actually a first round pick by the Angels in 2009.

Randal Grichuk was actually a first round pick by the Angels in 2009.

Think about this. Do you know who the Cardinals’ right fielder is? It’s some dude named Randal Grichuk. Who? Exactly. But I’ll bet you a Frisch’s Big Boy and French fries that St. Louis would rather have that guy in their lineup than Jay Bruce. But wait, you say…Bruce is a great defensive player with a great arm! Oh he is, is he? I thought the same thing, until I took a look at the numbers…stay tuned for my next post: “Why the Reds Should Trade Jay Bruce to the Astros”

The Bottom Line

The teams that are thriving in this year’s MLB playoffs are thriving mostly because they aren’t all-or-nothing at the plate. In today’s baseball, with pitching damn near as tough as it was in the mid/late 1960s, you’ve got to increase your chance of success by building a team featuring an offense full of guys willing to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the whole.

That’s why the Cardinals do this every year. That’s why the Giants have gone 8-1 in their two recent World Series wins over the stacked (and not just offensively!) 2010 Rangers and 2012 Tigers. And that’s why the Royals probably aren’t a fluke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bothJBs_onemeanface_oneotherface

Father and Son Enjoy Hollywood JCC Softball Season

What is this, Hollywood?

How did any of this JCC Softball League season even happen?

Let’s rewind to about 18 months ago, when I determined I would move back to Cincinnati from Bellingham, Washington, where I lived from age 24-33. On the phone one day with my dad, Johnny Berg, I said, “If I come back there, we’re playing one season together in that JCC League.” He said, “Ah, we’ll see.”

Back around sign-up time, we still weren’t sure we’d play. A few days before the deadline, we talked on the phone about the league, and I thought, “This is our only chance. We have to do this.” So I told him I’d play. Johnny, age 63, reluctantly agreed to come along for the ride.

And what a ride it was.

When the “New players workout” arrived, JB was still laying by the pool and tearing up golf courses in Scottsdale. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up–I didn’t even know what position I’d play.

Then, the draft. Or as it will go down in history once I sit down and interview Adam Cronstein about it, The Draft. I get a phone call from Adam. I had no idea who he was. He told me I’d be on his team. I called my dad to ask about Cronstein, and he said, “Adam’s a really good ballplayer but his teams haven’t done much.” (“His teams were like the Cubs,” Ben Rodriguez would later state.)

The season gets off to a rocky start

We show up for Opening Day to face Jeff Weisbrot’s team. In the top of the first inning, their big third baseman, Evan Cohen, belts a 3-run home run to left center. Five brutal innings later, Team Cronstein walks off the field a 22-10 loser.

I call my dad to give him the news. You can imagine his response.

Game Two: Waxed 11-1 at the hands of Jason Faust. If it weren’t for leadoff hitter Mike Askin’s deep HR to left in the final inning, it’s a shutout. (Mike Gray pitched that game for us. He would get his payback later in the year.)

I call my dad to give him the news. His response: “I don’t wanna play for this f*ckin’ team.”

Discovering some power

Meanwhile, in my world, I switched to my old slow pitch softball stance for that second game, to no avail (0 for 2 with a strikeout). “The Stance” is anything but traditional: I stand with the toes of both feet pointed at the pitcher and wave the bat like Gary Sheffield before striding forward. After the game, Gary Askin told me, “Hey Justin: Just hit the ball, will ya?”

The following Saturday night, on the eve of Game 3, I stood out on our deck, late at night, in a “hazed” state. I was at a crossroads: Stick with “The Stance” or go traditional and just try to hit line drives up the middle.

I started swinging a whiffle bat with “The Stance,” but with a more relaxed (naturally, at that juncture) stride and stroke. It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt right.

I’m rolling with it, I said.

The next morning we took the field with a host of subs to battle Roger Rosenthal’s squad. In the bottom of the first, I came to the plate. After Steve Eppstein tossed three balls and a get-me-over strike, he made a fatal mistake: He threw me a pitch directly in my “cream zone,” middle-away and just above the knees. So, as I had the night before, I sent a calm cut at the softball. I connected nicely, but wasn’t sure what that meant, not having played in this league before. The ball sailed over the right centerfielder’s head; I rounded the bases for a 3-run home run.

Two at-bats later, deja vu. “The Stance” is here to stay.

Team Cronstein won that game, aided by 5 big RBI by veteran catcher Gary Askin, who caught every inning of that game and EVERY INNING OF EVERY GAME the entire season. For any human being, that’s impressive. At his age, that’s incredible. Gary was our field general, he rarely threw the ball away, and we all know he got way under the opposing players’ skin. He was a huge part of the team’s success.

It wasn’t until Game 6 that I finally stepped onto the field alongside my dad. I had heard all about his career as a sure-handed infielder and a very difficult out at the plate, but I had yet to see him play. He had never seen “The Stance.” We won the game that day. It was a very special experience for both of us.

Around that point in the season, I looked around at the league and realized, “You know what? I think we have the best team.” With Team Cronstein, I saw a sharp pitcher, a sound defense and a batting order with no holes.

The Team went on to finish 2nd in the first half, a remarkable feat considering those first two run-rule losses.

Another “Almost” Trophy

After splitting the first four games of  the second half, The Team caught fire, running the table in the final four games of the regular season. Unfortunately, despite finishing with the best overall record in the league, Team Cronstein finished second in both halves, meaning the players missed out on a trophy…

“We’ll just have to win the whole damn thing to get our trophy,” Adam said after the final regular season game.

The Tournament (Single Elimination)

Sparked by 11-hole hitter Mark Bloom’s moonshot triple to left in the bottom of the 5th, Team Cronstein staged a dramatic come from behind win against Team Rosenthal in Round One, avoiding the dreaded 8 vs 1 upset. The victory was bittersweet, as first round draft pick Jeff Finkelstein blew out his hamstring midway through that ballgame, relegating his status to unknown for the rest of the tournament.

After surviving that scare, The Team played loose and free in Round 2, dispatching Team Weisser, 9-2, setting up the matchup everybody wanted to see: Cronstein versus Guttman. 1-seed versus 2-seed. A rubber match for all the marbles.

The Championship Game

On a windy, overcast Wednesday evening at Triple Creek, the teams took the field to battle for the 70th JCC Softball League championship trophy. Opposing captain Brandon Guttman was not able to make it to the game, so he selected the powerful Matt Steinberg as his sub.

Team Guttman scratched across two horseshit runs in the top of the first inning, both scoring on wild pitches, one reaching base on a jam-shot chopper. The Team started slow at the plate as I ended our half of the frame with a weak popout to right center.

In the top of the 3rd, Ken “Hack Wilson” Groh made a mistake to Steinberg, leaving the ball over the plate and elevated. Steinberg lifted a high drive to left center, and it carried over the fence for a 2-run homer.

The Team now found itself in a 4-0 hole against a pitcher (Mike Gray) who hadn’t allowed a run since the first round of the tournament.

Cue Gene Hackman’s character Coach Norman Dale in the movie Hoosiers: “Maybe they were right about us! Maybe we don’t belong up here!”

But The Team is The Team. A Team with a batting order completely filled with threats from leadoff to the final spot. A Team that played extremely well defensively throughout the season. A Resilient Team.

In the bottom of the 4th, Captain of the Year Adam Cronstein led off with a laser up the middle, then advanced to second on an outfielder muff. “Hack” Groh followed up with an identical laser up the middle to get The Team on the board as Cronstein sped home.

That brought me to the plate. Before the at-bat, I asked Jeff Weisbrot for some advice. I had been popping the ball up of late. I just wanted to hit a line drive. I contemplated scrapping “The Stance” for the traditional approach. When I walked up to the plate, something told me to stick with “The Stance,” but to revert back to the way I was calmly and effortlessly swinging that whiffle ball bat four months earlier.

Gray started me off with a big juicy cleavage ball, belt-high and on the outer portion of the plate, so I took a Zen-like poke at it and drove a high fly ball to dead center field. As I rounded first, I saw the outfielders running out of real estate… and then the ball dropped on the other side of the fence.

The Team pulls to within 4-3. We’ve got ourselves a ballgame. Three straight drill-jobs off of Mike Gray.

But Gray would settle down. As his team was tacking on two more 2-spots, one coming on Steinberg’s second tater of the game, he allowed a single run over the next couple of innings. When The Team came to bat in the last of the seventh, trailing 8-4, things looked bleak for one side and like aces for the other.

Who’s Writing This Screenplay?

Wouldn’t ya know it…The Team would send the “bottom of the order” to the plate in that final frame. Or so Team Guttman thought. You see, there’s no “bottom of the order” on The Team. There’s just The Order. You get through the first four hitters, then you’re dealing with the three best veterans in the League…you get through them, you’re dealing with the RBI Rabbi and his Four Horsemen.

Yitzi Creeger, “The RBI Rabbi,” put a real nice swing on one to lead off the inning but unfortunately hit the ball directly to Steinberg in left center for the first out. Ben Rodriguez (yes, he is a Jew) then sent a ground ball to second baseman Matt Hiudt…oh no, will it be two outs and nobody on? Of course not. This is Hollywood. Hiudt yipped the throw over the first baseman’s head.

Was that the break The Team needed?

Well, after Brent Canseco (Carroll) moistened all the panties in the stands with an absolutely stroked double to deep, deep left center and Mark Bloom followed with a lashed base knock to left, the momentum laid solely with The Team and the tightness emanated in Gray and the rest of Team Guttman.

Mike Askin “The Quiet Assassin” stepped to the plate as the lineup turned over. He’d had a rough night at the dish up to that point. But this is The Team. Askin promptly laid into a high fastball and drove a rocket into left field for a double, setting the stage for Captain of the Century Cronstein, who now miraculously represented the Tournament-winning run.

High drama on Field 2 at Triple Creek Park.

Cronstein wasted no time Stan Musial’ing a frozen rope to left center to tie the game. The captain raced around to 3rd on the play, placing the winning run 90 feet away.

After Team Guttman elected to intentionally walk “Hack” Groh and me to load the bases, the stage was set for who else, Jeff “Marty Finkhowser” Finkelstein. After an internal debate, Fink decided to bat left-handed.

At this point, Team Guttman is shell shocked. An 8-4 lead had evaporated, and now the bases are loaded with one man out.

Fink wastes no time and sends a high fly ball down the right field line. What should the right fielder do? Let it drop? But what if it lands in fair territory? Gray yelled for his defender to let it drop, seeing the ball tail into foul territory. But the fielder made the catch. Cronstein tagged up from 3rd and zipped home to clinch the title.

In that video, you can see my grandma, Ruth Berg, delighted and in disbelief at the same time. She was there representing her late husband, the great Bob Berg, who used to come to all the games before he passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Grandpa Bobby knew the game inside and out, and he would yell out things like “Move in! This guy can’t hit” and “All he does is bunt!” He was so well respected that after he passed, one of the umpires joined my dad’s team for a ceremonial pre-game shot of Maker’s Mark whiskey. That umpire, a fella named Lee, was (naturally) behind the plate for the championship game.

Did Bob Berg have a hand in his son and grandson’s triumph? Well, the wind was blowing out that night. And The Team somehow managed to rally from four runs down in the final inning to clinch the title.

All in all, it was a special rookie season for me in the JCC Softball League alongside my father. Even with my insane imagination, I don’t believe I could’ve written a better screenplay than the one my dad, myself and all of Team Cronstein just lived.

Top row, left to right: Jeff Finkelstein, Gary Askin, Mike Askin, Danny Cronstein's hair, Adam Cronstein, Yitzi Creeger, Brent Carroll, Mark Bloom. Bottom row, left to right: Justin "Jux" Berg, Johnny Berg, Ken Groh, Ben Rodriguez. Not pictured: Scott "Shorty" Adams

Top row, left to right: Jeff Finkelstein, Gary Askin, Mike Askin, Danny Cronstein’s hair, Adam Cronstein, Yitzi Creeger, Brent Carroll, Mark Bloom. Bottom row, left to right: Justin “Jux” Berg, Johnny Berg, Ken Groh, Ben Rodriguez. Not pictured: Scott “Shorty” Adams

(Editor’s note: The player not pictured in the team photo is a good fella named Scott Adams. His nickname is “Shorty,” for reasons unknown to most. He batted last in the order, but he contributed, just like the rest of the fellas. He laid down numerous important sac bunts and had an extremely key sacrifice fly in Round One of the tournament right after the aforementioned Bloom triple. In the field, well, I’ll leave that to his sarcastic/hilarious son Jay, who had two of the great all-time quotes:

1) After Shorty fielded a ground ball at second, had plenty of time, but errantly threw the softball to first (way up the first base line, Rodriguez had nary a chance of coming near it, let alone catching it)—Shorty comes off the field at the end of the inning to the tune of, “Jeez man, what was that throw?” from Jay.

2) After that same ballgame, as Shorty and Jay were leaving the dugout, I said, “Way to hit the ball today, Shorty” and he said “Thanks” and then Jay turned and said, “And that golden glove.”

Well-placed, Jay, well-placed.)

(Editor’s note #2: Brent “Canseco” Carroll never ever played baseball before! In fact, in his entire life, he had only played two games of softball before this season! And he crushed the ball and was really solid in the field at multiple positions! How is that possible? Because this is Hollywood, that’s how.)

(Editor’s note #3: Before the championship game, my dad came over to me and asked, “Is it good luck or bad luck if a bird poops on you?” He pointed to a stain on his right shoulder. “It’s definitely good luck,” I replied.)

 

2014 Bengals Preview: Here We F**kin’ Go Again

giovanni bernard bengals

Are you sure you want to strap in for another Cincinnati Bengals season? You do? Seriously? Wow. Your dedication is enviable. Not by me, of course, but by some.

If you know me well, you know that I gave up on my Bengal fandom about six years ago (right around the end of the Chad Johnson/Ochocinco ridiculousness and the Carson Palmer pussness). After paying a steep price many, many excruciating Sundays with this team, I had reached my breaking point. For my sanity, there was no other recourse than to jump off the train.

Now, if you don’t know me personally, or haven’t read me much, you can tie your horse to a couple of things with regard to this season preview:

1) I’m completely objective. Since I’m no longer a live-and-die-and-die-and-die-some-more Bengals fan, you can rest assured that I am no homer. I call it as I see it.

2) I do not judge you for continuing to show up Sunday after Sunday with your alcohol and your face paint and your Jason Buck #99 jersey to watch the Cincinnati Bengals. Just because I’d rather watch six straight episodes of the TV show “Roseanne” translated into Japanese than sit through an entire Bengals football game doesn’t mean I’m gonna perch atop my high horse and rag on your parade.  

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to this 2014-15 professional football season.

The Missing Ingredient

We’ll start with something simple that will ramp up your confidence. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill out of LSU.

Despite reaching the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, the Bengal offense had a major issue: Short yardage situations were more difficult to convert than a Muslim to Judaism.

You know exactly what I’m talking about: Andy Dalton zips a pass over the middle to Marvin Jones on 2nd and 10 for a gain of 9. Shit, you automatically say, he didn’t get that first down? Damn it.

You were skittish because you damn well knew it would be pulling teeth to get that one yard.

We’d probably see the straight hand-off up the exact center of the obvious-ass middle to Benjarvus Green-Ellis—-you know, really catch the opposing defensive coordinator off guard. Or perhaps we’d see former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden elect to send Dalton back for a pass. Oftentimes, after the play concluded, you’d slam your fist down on a table and spew twelve expletives…or you’d be so numb to the failure that you had no reaction at all other than to sigh, take another swig of your Mich Ultra and wait impatiently through four minutes of very terrible commercials until the game came back on.

Enter Jeremy Hill. He’s 6 foot 2, he’s 236 pounds. He has nary a notion of sidestepping contact. When the football is in his hands, he wants to split your sternum in half.

If this dude can consistently move the chains on those short yardage downs, and, perhaps more importantly, gain significant yards on those 1st-and-10 handoffs up the middle, your Cincinnati Bengals will benefit in a few ways:

1) Keeping drives alive builds momentum and allows your workhorse defense extra rest; it also gives you field position advantage
2) It will open up the “play action pass” (when the quarterback fakes the hand-off, draws the defense in, and then throws the ball over top to a streaking wide receiver)
3) More touchdowns, fewer field goals

Bottom line: Your Bengals gained the 10th-most yards in the NFL last season while scoring 27 points per game. You’ve got bosses all over the joint with the likes of A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu (my favorite Bengal, for the record), Giovanni Bernard and the rest of the crew.

But trying to roll with Benjarvus Green-Ellis as your short yardage back…yeah, uh, that ain’t scarin’ nobody. Remove Green-Ellis (they did) and insert a gigantic bowling ball that runs a 4.6 40-yard-dash—–now you’re talkin’.

The Defense

Carlos DUN-lap

Carlos DUN-lap

Even a non-Bengal fan such as myself knows that Cincinnati’s defense has been a f**king brick wall the past few seasons. In 2013, the Bengals allowed the 3rd fewest yards in all of football. How’d they manage to be that stingy? A stout “Front 7″.

You show me a good football defense, and I’ll point to a disruptive defensive line. One of the many, many, MANY frustrating things about Bengals football for years had been a soft, geriatric-slow pass rush. If I had a nickel for every Bengals game I’ve watched when the opposing quarterback never had a single daggum finger laid on him, I could buy South Dakota. (And I would buy South Dakota. Then I’d change the name to Reverse Dunkota.)

But fortunately, the days of those invisible defensive lines are in the past. Now, Cincinnati’s Front 4 is stacked, even with the departure of Michael Johnson. You’ve got runstoppers (Domato Peko, Geno Atkins), you’ve got guys who make QB’s brown their jockstraps (Margus Hunt and Wallace “Don’t Call Me Willis” Gilberry); you’ve even got athletic freaks like ‘Los Dunlap who can drop back into coverage and eff with opposing offensive coordinators’ heads.

On your linebacking core, you’ve got Vontaze Burfict patrolling the field like a crazyperson. The guy’s in on every tackle like his name was Lawrence Taylor. Rey Maualuga is deceptively decent (how ’bout THAT compliment?) in the middle. It’ll be a rotation of fellas you may not have heard of for the final linebacker slot. On paper, your linebackers aren’t necessarily the cream of the crop, but within Cincinnati’s scheme and when combined with that swashbuckling defensive line, you’ll get the required production.

**The Elephant in the Room** Although Mike Zimmer is no longer the Bengals’ defensive coordinator, his fingerprints remain all over this swarming defense. I don’t see why there would be any drop off in beastdom this season on that side of the ball.

The Burning Question: Is Andy Dalton Good Enough?

Cincinnati recently announced a 6-year, $115 million contract extension with QB Andy Dalton which drew considerable uproar on the Internet. (Iron Sheik continued with his Cheetos/genitals fascination, of course.) Did Dalton deserve that type of cash? It’s debatable. On one hand, the guy’s quarterbacked three straight playoff teams. On the other, he’s come up small in all three playoff games. The dude is polarizing, there’s no doubt about that. His numbers are big, but his reactions to pressure in the pocket are not instilling confidence in anybody.

Here’s what I’m thinking: Maybe Dalton doesn’t have to be as good as you think he has to be. You see, if Cincinnati can improve upon its ground game (18th in rushing yards per game in 2013), game results won’t hang solely on the shoulders of Cheeto–I mean “The Red Rifle.” And I don’t follow the team as closely as you likely do, but from what I’ve heard, new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson intends to run the ball more this season…and it’ll have a good chance of success with the tandem of Gio Bernard and J-Hill.

So the answer to that burning question really doesn’t have anything to do with Andy Dalton. Run the football more consistently and explosively, move the chains, rest your defense and score more 6-pointers than 3-pointers.

If Cincinnati can establish that formula, in combination with its stable of menacing weapons in the passing game, I don’t see why this football team won’t win most of its football games.

Prediction Time

12-4 record in the regular season. Advance to AFC Championship game, but drop a heartbreaker to either Tom Brady or some other douchebag quarterback that you’ll hate until the end of time.

Enjoy your Sundays!

 

 

 

 

#Reds: I Tried To Be Positive. I Really, Really Tried!

crazysportskidRant time. It’s gotta happen. All season, from the first post until the recent post from Boca Raton, FL, I’ve believed 2014 was The Year for the Cincinnati Reds.

But not anymore. Not after what just fuckin’ happened in Colorado.

I’ll get my apology for all the foul language out of the way right now because this post will be packed to the brim. I’m sorry in advance.

Okay. Lemme ask you this. No wait, lemme ask The Baseball Gods this: What the daggum hell did everyone associated with the Reds do to deserve THIS?

This season has been absolute, pure, complete and fuckin’ total horse shit. Check this list of players who’ve suffered significant injuries:

Pitchers:

Mat Latos (elbow, knee)
Aroldis Chapman (smashed in face with line drive)
Jonathan Broxton (recovering from surgery)
Tony Cingrani (dead shoulder)
Homer Bailey (elbow…if it’s Tommy John I will punch 18 car windows out)
Sean Marshall (the usual weak ass bullshit)

Hitters:

Joey Votto (who cares anymore)
Brandon Phillips (thumb surgery)
Jay Bruce (knee surgery)
Devin Mesoraco (hamstring)
Skip Schumacher (separated shoulder)

And now, All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier is out with a tweaked back.

So, basically, out of your Top 16 players (8 positions players, 5-man starting rotation and 3 late-inning relievers), fuckin’ only FIVE out of those 16 have been “healthy.” And out of those five, all three position players (Frazier, Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart) have missed games with injuries.

Are you shitting directly into my mouth with this? Has a team ever basically had every motherfuckin’ significant player get hurt in the same horseshit season before? Somebody look that up. That’s your cue, ESPN1530’s Lance McAlister. Get me the figures on that, will ya buddy?

Okay, so that takes care of the rash of god damn injuries. Now on to the birdshit-in-your-hair stat of the year: Out of the Reds’ 62 losses, 29 of them have been by ONE FUCKING RUN. Guess how many walk-off wins this team has all season? FOUR. That’s it.

Of course, when half your lineup is out ALL OF THE TIME, you’re gonna have trouble scoring runs, especially late in games (when you’re down by ONE RUN). But still, man: Give me a fuggin’ break, will ya? Give us all a break! Twenty-nine games, man. You were ONE RUN short in 29 games. God. I actually started to go through all of the one-run losses the other day, gathering all sorts of stats in a spreadsheet, to see if there was any statistical explanation…and then I stopped doing that because:

1) It was more frustrating than a 2-monthlong sinus infection.
2) Who the fuck cares?

Which brings us to about 45 minutes ago. The 29th one-run loss of this ridiculously ridiculous season of baseball here in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds took a 9-5 lead into the 9th inning at Coors Field in Denver. Bryan Price brought his hammer in: Aroldis Chapman (1.88 ERA, 17.4 K/9 innings). 5-6-7 were due up in the Rockies’ batting order. What does Chapman do? Why, he walks the first fuckin’ four batters he faces, naturally. Why wouldn’t he do that, right?

So Price yanks Chapman and replaces “The Cuban Missile” with regular normal everyman right-handed right-hander-man J.J. Hoover and his 1-8 record. Cool. That’s fun. It’s 9-6 and the bases are loaded. Oh, and there are no outs. Go get ‘em, J.J.!

So Hoover gives up a sacrifice fly and then gets the second out on a line drive (luckily) right at right-fielder Jay Bruce. Okay. We breathe a little bit easier. Two outs, Reds still up 9-7, Rockies have runners on first and second. Hmm, we think: Who’s up next? …

Oh fuck. Oh no. It’s FORMER RED Drew Stubbs. The same Drew Stubbs fans ran out of town two years ago (because he struck out 8900 times every season). Lemme guess, Baseball Gods (Assholes), lemme fuckin’ guess! This scrub is gonna end it right here! Wouldn’t that be sooooo satisfying for you, Gods (Assholes)?

(Cut to: Me frantically calling Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas to get a $6 million dollar bet down on Stubbs hitting a walk-off 3-run H.R.)

Hoover starts Stubbs off with (duh) a breaking ball away. Stubbs lays off. So Hoover and Mesoraco brilliantly think, “This guy cannot hit a curveball. We’ll just get one over for a strike and then throw some shitty ones in the dirt, he’ll whiff idiotically, and then we’ll win the game!” So Hoover spins one right down the epicenter of the fucking strike zone, Stubbs squares it up with a bunch of backspin and it’s (obviously) outta here. Walk-off home run, DREW STUBBS.

Reds lose 10 to 9. Oh, the humanity.

I tried to stay positive. I really, really, REALLY did. You know I did. Well, tonight, I’m anything but positive. I’m done.

I’m done.

Now the Reds have to play ANOTHER game tonight and then go to ST. LOUIS for three. And I ain’t watchin’ a single pitch of any of ‘em.

Good night and good riddance.

 

What Has Happened To Sam LeCure in 2014?

Sam LeCure

Sam LeCure


Rubber-armed reliever Sam LeCure has not been the same for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014 as he’d been the past few years out of the bullpen. The difference in 2014? He’s hittable.

When LeCure entered a recent ballgame for the Reds, I was shocked to see one of the numbers Fox Sports Ohio flashed on the screen. Major league hitters have a .286 batting average against “The Oil Man.” For the first time as a reliever, Sam has allowed more hits (48) than innings pitched (42) in ’14.

LeCure also hasn’t been striking out as many hitters. After posting Strikeout Percentages (Strikeouts divided by Total Number of Batters Faced) of 23.8, 25.7 and 26.3 the past three seasons, that rate has dipped all the way down to 19.5 this season.

What’s the deal?

I believe two factors have contributed to LeCure’s derailment as an effective set-up man:

1) Drop in Velocity

LeCure never threw very hard to begin with, but there had always been enough of a difference between his fastball and offspeed pitches to keep hitters off-balanced.

In 2011, LeCure’s average fastball touched just above 90 MPH. In 2012 and ’13, he was right around 89.5. But so far in 2014, that number has dipped down around 87.5, per Pitch f/x. The changeup has always been around 81 MPH — this season it’s right around 80. A 7 MPH difference between fastball and changeup, especially when the fastball is nowhere near overpowering, ain’t foolin’ anybody.

2) Hitters Have Figured LeCure Out

Sam has always been able to jump ahead in the count by spinning a first-pitch curveball in there for a strike. From there, he can throw his back door 2-seamer on the inner half to lefties or the outer half to righties, go with the straight change-up, or some combination of those two, to get to two strikes and eventually retire the batter.

And that was his strategy. It worked pretty well, too, as batters had averages of .202, .216 and .221 against Sammy the past three seasons.

But not this year. I first noticed the adjustment when LeCure faced none other than Milwaukee’s Jonathan fuggin’ Lucroy a couple months back. Sam tried to get ahead with that looping curveball, but Lucroy knew all about it, and he rifled a base hit to left. Since then, I’ve seen enough guys do that to force Sam to now revert back to his fastball to begin at-bats…the same fastball that’s two miles-per-hour slower than usual.

Translation: Remove the element of surprise and a couple of ticks on the radar gun, and Sam LeCure has average stuff.

Sam’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) proves just that. It currently sits at 0.0, which means that he’s not even a hair more valuable than a replacement player.

LeCure hasn’t been awful. His ERA is still under 4.00. I’m not sure if he might be injured, or if his velocity being down has anything to do with his usage rate being less in 2014 (you’d think it would be the opposite). Either way, when the 6th and 7th innings roll around during this do-or-die stretch run, and Bryan Price is forced to go to his bullpen, he’ll have to think twice about going to LeCure.