Pace of play? The Diamondbacks and Rockies hold the longest 9-inning game in National League history

3dclocksYou don’t hear about pace of play this season as much as you did when the new rules to speed up baseball games were instituted in 2015. But don’t be mistaken; it remains one of commissioner Rob Manfred’s top initiatives.  And frankly, he’s fighting a losing battle right now.

Game times are up in 2016, surpassing the dreaded three-hour mark as of mid-May. The biggest culprit? There’s just more of stuff. More pitches, more walks, more strikeouts and more balls staying out of play. Those add up, and you had the perfect storm Friday night when the Rockies hosted the Diamondbacks.

It took 4 fours and 30 minutes for the D’Backs to pull off the 10-9 comeback victory. The game time bested a 15-year National League record for longest nine-inning game by 3 minutes. The previous record-holder was a Dodgers-Giants tilt from 2001.

This one had all the ingredients for a extraordinarily long game: 19 runs; 30 hits; 13 walks; 16 strikeouts (eh, that’s not too bad); six mid-inning pitching changes (serenity now!).

As pointed out by the Rockies’ SB Nation blog, Purple Row, the teams combined for 46 at-bats with runners in scoring position. That is pretty amazing to fathom but easy to understand when you see that there were 12 doubles (tied for the most in a game this year), six stolen bases, five errors, three wild pitches, two balks and all of those damn walks. There were actually 60 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, and imagine how much longer this game would have lasted if the teams had hit better than .196 in those RISP situations.

I never want to complain about game times; my life is always better at the ballpark. But it’s games like this one that make Manfred tear out what’s remaining of his hair. Moreover, there’s really nothing he can do to stop these types of games from occurring. For all of his rules and suggestions, he can’t force pitchers to throw strikes. He can’t stop fielders from booting balls. He can’t stop hitters from taking so many pitches. Like the fans, he just has to sit there and wait for the game to, at some point, end.

The inevitable NBA Finals post-Game 7 talking points

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Everyone is pumped for tonight’s Game 7 between the Cavaliers and Warriors, as well they should be. Besides an NBA championship, there are legacies for the players and the teams, both short-term and long-term, on the line.

One game shouldn’t define a player or a team, at least not while that game is fresh in our minds. Everyone falls prey to recency bias. Time is the best way to determine whether or not something is the greatest. The problem with time, however, is that it takes its sweet damn time, and nobody wants to wait that long for a clear picture to develop, so let’s just make a bunch of declarations now, OK? 

That is how sports talk works. You need to present opinions on the impact of a just-completed event and its space in history immediately. This is a corrupt way of judging something, but it’s the world we live in. And for this series specifically, there are very clear questions that will be asked about each team and some of its players no matter who comes out victorious.

While I have no idea what will happen on the court in Oakland, the chatter subjects in the minutes, hours and days following the final buzzer — barring the occurrence of some non-basketball-related event during the game, like an alien invasion — are pretty obvious. I’ll cover those topics now and give you my take so you don’t have to waste your time listening to others debate these issues after the fact.  

If the Warriors win …

Is this the greatest team in NBA history? 

On a single-season basis, I think so. Best record and winning percentage of all time. Although they were pushed to the brink in two playoff series, that shouldn’t weigh as heavy as the credit earned for ultimately winning against tough opponents. This team has shown its mettle in the playoffs. That should be commended. They annihilated the competition in the regular season, posted the second-longest winning streak in NBA history (dating back to 2014-15) as well as the association’s longest winning streak to open a season. They did it with purely sublime shooting, perhaps the best we’ve ever seen. 

Are these Warriors, 2014-present, the greatest team in NBA history?

Read more…

James Shields needed 84 pitches to get 6 outs in his White Sox debut

91oigplffzl-_sl1500_I don’t remember the last time a big-ticket pitcher was booed off the mound in his home debut (not that I’ve done any research to that end), but that’s what greeted James Shields on Wednesday night in Chicago. I don’t quite find the pleasure or purpose in booing poor performance, but Shields sure didn’t leave those who are so inclined any other choice.

Two-plus innings, eight hits, seven runs (all earned), two walks, two strikeouts, three home runs and one wild pitch.

It was a long night for Shields made even longer thanks to a bevy of lengthy at-bats. Nine of the 16 hitters he faced saw at least three balls. That led to the rapid ascension of Shields’ pitch count.

He threw 32 pitches in the first inning, 47 in the second and finally five more to Anthony Rendon before he singled to open the third.

Eighty-four pitches. That’s the second-most pitches ever needed to record no more than six outs. And when I say “ever,” I mean “since no later than 1947, when pitch count data became the norm via Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tool.”

Shields actually joins three other starters who spent 84 pitches to get six outs. Russ Ortiz in 1999, Steve Parris in 2000 and Chris Young in 2007 all accomplished as little with as much. The “record” belongs to 23-year-old Matt Moore, who dialed up 86 pitches in his six-out stint in 2013.

Everyone knows this marriage between Shields and the Southsiders isn’t always going to be a smooth one. Since the start of 2015, Shields has made the majority of his starts in some cavernous National League venues, including Petco Park, Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park, and he allowed 42 home runs in 269.2 innings during that time. Bartolo Colon took him yard.

Now he moves to one of the game’s most homer-friendly pads. Including Wednesday’s thrashing, Shields has given up 12 homers in 74 career innings at U.S. Cellular Field. Rough outings are going to be on the menu. But the White Sox will deal with that as long as Shields eats up innings, preferably more than two per night. If there’s a silver lining to this for White Sox fans, it’s that they have probably seen the worst Shields has to offer.

Yordano Ventura needs another, longer timeout

On Tuesday night, we were treated to yet another example of Yordano Ventura’s desire to start fights.

The fuse was lit in the second inning when Ventura threw a couple of fastballs up and in to Manny Machado, who responded with a stiff glare and some trash talk after he flew out. Then in the fifth inning and trailing 5-1, Ventura sent a fastball at 99 MPH — his fastest pitch of the night — right into Machado’s back.

A melee ensued. Machado immediately charged at Ventura, hit him with a right and then basically DDT’ed Ventura into the mound. It was ugly and it certainly could have been avoided.

But this is what Yordano Ventura does when he’s not striking batters out at a declining rate or issuing walks at a rising rate. A similar incident occurred last April when Ventura, once again on the losing side of things, decided to drill Brett Lawrie with a 99 MPH fastball.   

A week before that, Ventura got in Mike Trout’s face for … some reason. In his start directly following the Lawrie beaning, Ventura instigated a brawl with the White Sox after mouthing off to Adam Eaton because … I really don’t know why. It’s quite difficult to identify Ventura’s modus operandi all the time. He was tagged with a seven-game suspension for his role in that donnybrook, a ban that felt like a make-up call on MLB’s part after it only fined Ventura for throwing at Lawrie.

And now he has done it again to one of the biggest stars in the game. Already frustrated with the look of his box score, Ventura decided to take it out on Machado at ninety-freaking-nine miles per hour.

What’s to come of this? It’s tough to say. Baseball has sent a message in recent years with its penalties — or lack thereof — for beanball pitchers. Since the start of 2012, only two pitchers have been suspended more than six games for intentionally throwing at batters. That’s one fewer than the number of pitchers who have received such suspensions for using pine tar. The Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy set the recent high-water mark in 2013 when he was banned for 10 games after throwing at the heads of Yasiel Puig and Zack Greinke.

Perhaps Ventura won’t get 10 games (I mean, he tried to hurt only one batter). But he should. He is now a repeat offender, choosing on multiple occasions to throw as hard as he can with the intention of inflicting pain on another baseball player. The fact that he did it to an MVP-level player this time should carry some weight as well. 

Ventura was compared to Pedro Martinez as he made his way through the minors for his delivery, slight build, eye-popping velocity and nasty offspeed stuff. He’s got another thing in common with Martinez now*. People romanticize how Pedro would pitch inside and intimidate hitters. Shortly following the brawl, I heard some TV broadcaster say, in relation to Ventura, at least Martinez never tried to hurt anyone (Hey, Gerald Williams! Hi there, Karim Garcia!).

That is ridiculous. This shouldn’t be dolled up “old school” baseball. This is dangerous and could be construed as criminal. Yordano Ventura can continue to jabber and piss off opponents and likely some of his teammates when he tries to get under a batter’s skin. The larger issue is the 25-year-old has hit a batter in consecutive years on purpose with a 99 MPH fastball. That really, really needs to be seen as more egregious than scuffing the ball with pine tar.

*Actually, an affection for the beanball should be considered the only thing Ventura and Martinez share as pitchers currently because Yordano has been one of the league’s worst on the bump this season and hasn’t come close to living up to the hype. 

The new ‘Killer Bs.’ And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords

e8ec8ab8a39705da6c6bcb54c7e664ccIf you are a baseball fan and were born before, say, 1990, the nickname “Killer Bs” should create a distinct image in your mind.

Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and a revolving door of players made up Houston Astros’ trio of “Killer Bs” from the late-90s and early 2000s. I’m not sure why everyone felt the need to always group Biggio and Bagwell with a third alliterative surname, but that’s how it was done. I guess three bees are so much more intimidating than a measly duo of bees. I can’t say since one actual bee is enough to send this phobic man into a catatonic state.

In the ’90s, Derek Bell or Sean Berry played the role of the third man. (I think Bill Spires even snuck in there for a bit too). At the turn of the millennium, Lance Berkman fit right in. Carlos Beltran was part of the band for a few incredible weeks in 2004. But Chris Burke was never included. I don’t know what the makers of that poster were thinking. Also, the nickname shouldn’t have an apostrophe. But I digress.

Together, Biggio, Bagwell and the other guy were the “Killer Bs.”

That time has passed, and the nickname’s legacy remains pretty much in tact, at least in baseball. The Pittsburgh Steelers are using it to describe Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and, when he’s not suspended, Martavis Bryant. Honestly, the usage there makes more sense on the surface considering the Steelers’ uniform color scheme.

But it’s time for baseball to dust it off and get it to catch on across the country en masse with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. 

Too soon? Yeah. Collectively, they have fewer than 4,000 MLB at-bats between them. Bradley looked like an overrated prospect prior to 2016, and Betts has just one full season under his belt. Biggio is a Hall of Famer, Bagwell should be one, and both were established studs by the time they were tagged with the moniker 20 years ago.

But baseball should be doing whatever it can to market its young stars — Bradley Jr. is the elder at 26; Betts and Bogaerts are 23 — and three all-around quality ballplayers in a big, diehard baseball market seems like a perfect opportunity. I know baseball is strongest at the local level; its low national ratings are commonly overrated when discussing the sport’s well-being. That doesn’t mean baseball should just ignore attempts to get fans everywhere interested in particular players. Why not make Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. poster children?

Bradley Jr. was already a spotlight player in May as his hitting streak was the top story around the league — whenever Clayton Kershaw wasn’t pitching. And when Bradley’s streak stopped at 29 games, Betts took over the lead by hitting basically every ball he saw out of the park. In the span of seven at-bats on Tuesday and Wednesday, Betts hit five home runs. Meanwhile, Bogaerts entered tonight leading Major League Baseball in hits and batting average. That’s all.

Sell that burgeoning talent, that youth, and the excitement those three create on the diamond, package it with a gimmick that ties eras together and see what happens. And yes, the fact that all three are not white should make this an even more important matter to the powers that be.

At the very least, wait a year, let David Ortiz have the going-away party he deserves and then plaster these guys all over any media outlet you have. I trust that none of them fall into a horrendous slump that sees them benched or flown back to the minors. In the near future, they may even be batting back-t0-back-to-back in the Red Sox’s order. Plus, Boston is their baseball home, so the “Killer Bs” will be playing in the “B-hive?” OK, that’s a little ridiculous. Or a lot ridiculous.

I think a committed, multi-player nationwide campaign would be fun. I’m a Yankees fan, and I have loved watching Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. this year. I think everyone outside of Boston and who doesn’t pay for the MLB Extra Innings package would love them as well. Baseball should expose them to the hilt and keep alive the charm of the “Killer Bs” nickname.

Matt Albers: Laser show

gettyimages-537081332-e1464820646317I have a certain affinity for Matt Albers, mostly because he is the closest thing I have to a doppelganger in today’s game. His every-man body, the way his jersey sags on him … that could be me out there! I mean, if I could throw a mid-90s fastball with sink or had strong legs or could walk. Oh, whom am I kidding? Compared to me, Matt Albers is this generation’s Jim Thorpe.

Albers will also assuredly be forgotten by most baseball fans shortly after he retires. He has played for six teams in 11 mostly nondescript seasons. He hasn’t started a game since 2007, doesn’t have a save to his credit and doesn’t throw extraordinarily hard. Nothing about him is exciting. In a line of work where you have to be pretty special just to make it to this level, Albers is all parts ordinary nonetheless.

However, he accomplished something Thursday that I and many others who adore quirky baseball will remember. In the 13th inning of Wednesday’s game versus the Mets, Albers led off the inning by rocketing a double to left-center field.

Let’s stop there for a moment. Matt Albers doubled. A well-hit, opposite-field, honest-to-goodness double. Well, it would have been reduced to a single with Albers being thrown out at second base if Neil Walker hadn’t been there to act as Albers’ personal backstop. He definitely would have fallen off the bag if no one had been there to help him slow down all of that momentum.

Regardless, it was Albers’ first hit and only second at-bat since 2007, when he was with the Astros (He has made all but eight of his appearances since then with American League clubs). AL relievers roping out extra-base hits isn’t as rare as I imagined, as the last person to do it was the Yankees’ Branden Pinder just last year. It has happened five times in the past decade.

With this kind of odd feat, there are so many angles you can cover, but let’s just go way down the rabbit hole. After his double, Albers moved to third on a wild pitch, scored on a Jose Abreu sac fly, and then went on to close out the game in the bottom of the 13th. So who was the last American League relief pitcher to score a game-winning run in extra innings and get the win? 

That would be Ryan Hancock for the 1996 California Angels. He singled with one out in the 13th inning and scored on J.T. Snow’s two-run homer off of Julian Tavarez as the Angels beat the Indians, 8-6. While you probably won’t remember Albers, you definitely don’t know who Ryan Hancock is, unless you share a blood relation.

That’s because 1996 was Hancock’s only MLB season. He had a 7.48 ERA and a 1.84 WHIP over 11 appearances. But on the bright side, he had only one career plate appearance, so Hancock will forever own a 1.000 average and a 2.000 OPS. 

Before Hancock, you have to go back, understandably, to Sparky Lyle in 1972 to find the last pitcher who achieved the hit-run-win trifecta in extras. One year later, the DH was upon us, and AL pitchers becoming offensive heroes have been rarely seen in the wild. Thank you, Matt Albers

The Dodgers’ phenom is here

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Photo DayIn 1980, an unimposing, 5-foot-11 lefthander from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 19. He didn’t allow an earned run in 17.2 innings that year and followed that up in 1981 by becoming the first player to ever win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards. He began that season by posting five shutouts and allowing just two earned runs through his first seven starts. He ended it as the best player on a World Series champion. Through it all, Valenzuela was so beloved by Los Angeles’ large Latino – specifically, Mexican – community, his starts became must-see events. The craze was known as “Fernandomania.”

Thirty-five years later, there’s another 19-year-old, 5-foot-11 lefty from Mexico ready to become the Dodgers’ next phenom. And he will begin his journey tonight.

That’s Julio Urias, a pitcher whom MLB.com has listed as a top-10 prospect two years running. He will take on the Mets at Citi Field, and the Dodgers clearly believe he is ready for such high-end competition. They could have called up someone else and held Urias back until next week’s home series versus the pitiful Braves. Instead, he will be thrown into into the orange and blue flames tonight. Urias has done nothing to second-guess his preseason rankings as he has a 1.10 ERA and a 44:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 41 innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City.  He threw six no-hit innings in a start earlier this month.

Urias does compare slightly to Valenzuela as a pitcher, but that doesn’t mean he will throw a bunch of shutouts right away – it’s a different era. However, Urias pitches with more power and better control. His career K-to-walk rate through more than 250 minor league innings is better than 3:1. Scouts have marveled at his feel for pitching at such a young age, and there was a belief that Urias was MLB-ready last year, at the age of 18, when he was baffling mature hitters in Double-A. Even at age 16, Urias was striking out more than 11 men per nine with a sub-2.50 ERA and a WHIP barely over 1.10. He is a player well beyond his years.

Urias has a full repertoire of pitches, too. A mid-90s fastball, an excellent changeup, a developing curveball and a slider. He can throw all of those pitches for strikes and spot them on different horizontal and vertical planes. His combination of age and stuff has led to comparisons with not so much Valenzuela, but Felix Hernandez.

Felix was the last pitcher to debut at such a young age. Bryce Harper was game’s most recent teenage hitter. Those players had a surplus of hype surrounding their first games, and it should be no different with Urias. I won’t be able to watch tonight’s game because living in Los Angeles and seeing the Dodgers on TV is not something many people can do around here. Also, I’ll be at Angel Stadium for Astros-Angels. Because who needs to watch the game’s next great arm introduce himself when you can just go see Mike Fiers battle Matt Shoemaker, right?

Anyway, I’m just giddy and glad that Urias is here. He looks like the nerdy, scrawny babyface who gets bullied by the jocks in high school. But he is about to make a bunch of grown men look stupid. I’m not sure how many starts he will make; the Dodgers will monitor his pitch and inning counts very closely and may stick him in the bullpen for this season. But for one night, everyone should want to see what he brings. Maybe he won’t produce anything close to “Fernandomania” in the long run, but if he is as good as billed, I, for one, welcome the age of “U-phoria”

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