Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pounding the zone

"I was just going out there and pounded the zone. Just here it is, hit it," said Homer Bailey commenting on his performance today at Goodyear Ballpark.

The result, he pounded the Giants. In his outstanding start against a mostly first-team San Francisco Giants lineup, Homer allowed only one run in five innings. He gave up three hits, all in the first, and one walk. Only one of the hits was a line drive.

In the first inning, Giants leadoff hitter, Aaron Rowand greeted Homer by lining his first pitch into left field for a base hit. After Edgar Rentaria grounded to Scott Rolen, Pablo Sandoval was fooled on a Bailey pitch and topped the ball softly toward the first base bag. Neither Homer or Joey Votto could make a play on both the ball and the bag, so Sandoval was safe, Rowand moving to third. Aubrey Huff then blooped a check-swing single down the third base line, driving in the Giants only run off of Homer.

Homer kept the Giants off balance with his sweeping curve ball -- including one he threw on a full count in the fourth inning to Giant left fielder, and Reds-killer, Mark DeRosa. DeRosa tapped it softly back to the mound. It was mostly smooth sailing for Bailey, as he continued his progression toward being an outstanding major league starting pitcher.

Homer retired the last 10 batters that he faced. He'll next take the mound Monday against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. Here catcher Ryan Hanigan is about to receive one of Homer's bullpen warm up pitches before the game.

Post-Chapocalyptic observations and hopes

The Reds day off yesterday provided time for reflection to assess where the team stands with just less than two weeks before Opening Day. Here are a few updated observations -- and hopes -- for the final 10 days of the Reds spring camp.

Infield: Mismanaging the backups
The Reds recently cut top prospects Todd Frazier, Chris Heisey and Zack Cozart. Of the three, Todd Frazier didn't receive nearly enough quality playing time, particularly at second base. The 50 AB and all the starts the Reds have given to Aaron Miles, Miguel Cairo and Chris Burke should have been distributed among our younger players.

The way the club is handling Aaron Miles is particularly frustrating. Miles came to the Reds in the swap-of-bad-contracts that sent Willy Taveras to the Oakland A's. Because Miles' contract was slightly less horrible than Taveras' we had to send Adam Rosales packing, too.

The day the Reds subtracted Taveras and added Miles, Reds GM Walt Jocketty praised the latter, leaving no doubt that he considered the 33-year-old Miles squarely in the Reds' future plans. "I'm happy to be reunited with Aaron, who played a key role in our World Series championship in St. Louis. He's a quality infielder, a quality person and will be an asset to our club."

This spring, despite ample opportunity, including several starts, Miles has exactly the same number of hits as he does errors - one. Not quite the "asset to our club" that Jocketty forecast. Miles' one hit was a bloop single, fisted barely over the head of the Giants third baseman last Saturday. The rest of his AB can be characterized as a series of weak ground balls.

Miles' defense has been unremarkable for the most part except for the one error. In the field, he certainly is less athletic than Drew Sutton or Paul Janish, both of whom have had excellent springs at the plate.

In comparison, the Oakland A's dumped Willy Taveras the day after the trade was completed. They didn't drag him along to their spring camp, wasting valuable playing time and at-bats for other players. No, they admitted, in a way the Reds wouldn't, what that trade was all about.

Given the love Miles has seen from the Reds this spring, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he heads east with the team in April. At least based on current performance, that would be unfortunate, as he surely hasn't earned it. Baker doesn't seem happy about it, but Miles is Jocketty's guy.

Hopes: The Reds quickly end their experiment with Miles (and Cairo and Burke) and give the two backup infielder jobs to Janish and Sutton, both of whom could use more consistent work to get ready for the year.

Outfield: Stubbs has caught Dickerson
Spring training started with Dusty Baker virtually anointing Drew Stubbs as the Reds CF and leadoff hitter. Those plans were called into question a few weeks later as Dickerson exploded out of the gate in Goodyear while Stubbs struggled. Baker even allowed a few days ago that Dickerson had thus far outplayed Stubbs.

Today, against the Giants, for the first time all spring Baker has Dickerson batting leadoff and playing CF with rest of the first team. Homer Bailey, the most important Reds pitcher this year, is starting.

Over the past week or so, Stubbs has dialed up his game. Always a spectacular fielder, as Stubbs has gained major league experience, he has shrugged off problems with "taking charge" that plagued him when he first was called up to the Reds last fall. His spring on-base-percentage is now at .351 (Dickerson is at .400). Stubbs is still striking out at too high a rate for a leadoff hitter, whiffing 11 times in 37 plate appearances.

The Reds now face two squeezes in the outfield. One is for playing time, as four players have had positive springs - Stubbs, Dickerson, Jay Bruce and Jonny Gomes. Gomes has even demonstrated a bit of improved defense.

The second tough decision concerns the last of the five outfield roster slots. Both Laynce Nix and Wladimir Balentien have had productive springs, flashing power and glove. The conventional wisdom is that Nix, as a lefty, has an edge in this battle. But Balentien is out of options, so the Reds would lose him if he doesn't make the 25-man roster.

Top prospect Chris Heisey was cut and sent to the minor league camp. He had shown glimpses of why the Reds and other scouts are so high on him, though.

Hopes: To see Stubbs and Dickerson play side-by-side in the OF, with Dickerson in LF, and equally importantly, Dickerson leading off. Stubbs should bat sixth behind Jay Bruce.

Starting Pitchers: Fifth spot remains uncertain
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey have all turned in solid springs thus far, ready to head back to Cincinnati assured of the top four spots in the starting rotation. But what of the fifth spot? Who is going to pitch April 11 in Great American Ball Park against the Chicago Cubs?

Just as an answer was forcing itself upon the Reds management, this happened.

Aroldis Chapman's back spasms have thrown the Reds 5th SP slot into turmoil. Matt Maloney seemed to be earning it for a while. But apparently the party line is that he is now being looked at for the bullpen, which is a polite way of saying he will start the year in the minor leagues.

The youthful duo of Travis Wood (LHP) and Mike Leake (RHP) have seemed tied together this spring. Not only have they pitched on the same day, but their performances have paralleled each other, with their last outings in San Francisco bringing expectations back down to the proper place. This Friday may turn out to be particularly important, when both Wood and Leake will pitch on the road against Seattle. Leake will start this time, so he'll face Ichiro, Chone Figgins, etc.

A new name has entered the mix in the press recently, Justin Lehr. This really surprises me as Lehr has been an afterthought in the Reds planning this spring. He hadn't pitched more than two innings at a time prior to Sunday when he faced the Cubs. Lehr's respectable spring ERA and numbers from the game against the Cubs are misleading for two reasons. First, he has been hit pretty hard. Second, against the Cubs he was facing a lineup of AA/AAA players. If he starts for the Reds on April 11, that's a sign the Reds are playing for time, probably to get Aroldis Chapman ready.

Hopes: That Maloney, Wood or Leake will be given the opportunity to take a few big league turns in the rotation. And that Chapman returns to health quickly and is the Reds fifth starter by May 1.

Bullpen: Looks great
The pitchers assigned to the back end of the bullpen -- Coco Cordero, Arthur Rhodes, Nick Massett and Daniel Ray Herrera -- have been fine this spring, particularly Cordero and Rhodes. You can probably count on Micah Owings for one of the two remaining slots, given his unique talent as a pinch hitter. The long relief role is a perfect fit for him.

Hopes: For the continued good health of these pitchers.

Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras ... Orlando Cabrera

Just when you thought it was safe to let Dusty Baker manage the Reds lineup this year, it turns out there is another tragically OBP-terrible player for him to bat insanely high in the lineup. 35-year-old SS, Orlando Cabrera is Baker's new lineup-killer -- and he's batting right in front of the Reds best hitter, Joey Votto.

It shouldn't be a big surprise to the Reds that Orlando Cabrera is hitting like Willy Taveras this spring. After all, his career on-base-percentage (.322) is virtually identical to that of Taveras (.321). Last year, Cabrera's OBP was .316.

This spring, in 34 plate appearances, Cabrera's OBP is a woeful .286 so far. He has certainly looked the part at the plate - regularly swinging wildly at pitches well out of the strike zone. He has yet to hit a home run.

By comparison, last year's SS Paul Janish has an OBP of .388 this spring, with two home runs and a double. Janish is certainly no #2 hitter either. But the Reds do have another option -- an excellent one, in fact -- to bat second in the lineup.

Raising an additional horrible memory of Taveras was Cabrera's pathetic effort to bunt for a hit on Monday, with the ball stopping about a foot in front of the catcher.

To be fair, Cabrera has been excellent in the field this spring, turning in one of the best defensive plays on Monday, robbing Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo on a ground ball hit deep in the hole at SS.

Nonetheless, Cabrera's once sterling defensive reputation has taken a hit in the past couple of years, as he has aged. Last year he had the most errors (25) of any SS in the league. And out of the 31 shortstops who played at least 500 innings in 2009 he was ranked 29th based on the defensive statistic UZR/150.

BTW, the #1 rated SS in that category? Paul Janish, of course.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapmania, meet Chapprehension

As every Reds fan in the free world knows by now, Aroldis Chapman left today's game after pitching less than two complete innings, complaining of a stiff back.

I had an excellent vantage point, sitting in the front row behind home plate, watching his day unfold. These photos were all taken this afternoon.

After retiring the Colorado Rockies in order in the 6th inning, Chapman struggled with his control and quit using his fastball as much as he previously had in the spring. The fastballs he did throw seemed to have a little less pop than usual.

After the game, Chapman said through his interpreter, as reported by CNati.Com, "I'm not really hurt, it's a problem with my back I've had all week. I was trying to work it out but they took me out just in case."

When I first saw the trainers go out, I thought it might be related to a problem that he seemingly had with a blister or cut on his hand that I'd seen the trainers tend to while Chapman warmed up in his previous start. My photos and post of that can be found here.

Chapman's pitch velocity didn't reach past levels of 100+ mph. Mark Sheldon reports that Chapman recorded no pitch higher than 97 mph today.

Pitching coach, Bryan Price, noted that Chapman was indeed using his off-speed pitches more often than usual. Again, from CNati.Com:
"I didn't think he was attacking the hitters, it was a regular, typical mound visit -- be more aggressive with your fastball," Price said. "He was trying to get guys out with his slider and change-up and not being aggressive with his fastball. I wanted to remind him that he's got a good fastball and to utilize it more and then in the next few pitches we notices he was moving around kind of funky and we didn't want it to get any worse."
Chapman's day started off really well. He dominated the Rockies best hitter, striking out SS Troy Tulowitzki. He then proceeded to retire the next two Rockies on routine plays. Here Tulo swings badly on strike three.

In the seventh inning, Rockies CF Dexter Fowler hit a hard ground ball that Reds SS Drew Sutton couldn't handle. It was scored an error, which I thought was a pretty rough scoring decision, as the ball was really scalded.

John Fay of the Enquirer reports that Dusty Baker said one thing that tipped him off to Chapman's physical troubles is how the Reds new pitcher was walking around the mound. "We saw him walking around the mound. He didn't have the same stuff. We could tell something was wrong. He's just sore, a little tight."

As Chapmania turns to Chapprehension, Reds fans will just have to wait and see if this back problem becomes chronic or just a one-time occurrence. One part of this that troubles me is that Chapman says he has been bothered by the back all week.

John Fay speculates that this may take Chapman out of the running as the fifth starter for the Reds, something I had seen as becoming more and more likely. If that's the case, I really have no idea who Baker and Price will tap to start on April 11.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Batting Second: Cabrera vs. Rolen

The second hitter in the batting order goes to the plate more times than any other hitter on the team except for the leadoff hitter. On average the #2 hitter will have 60 more plate appearances than the #6 hitter, and 90 more than the #8 hitter.

It appears that Dusty Baker intends on having newly-acquired SS, Orlando Cabrera, bat second and 3B Scott Rolen bat 6th. Leaving aside the question of whether the Cabrera signing was wise and whether he should be starting ahead of defensive whiz Paul Janish, should Cabrera be batting second for the Reds?

Let's compare the merits of batting Cabrera second vs. batting Rolen second. Both of these players have long career histories - the "back of their baseball card" as Baker is fond of saying. Cabrera has had over 7200 plate appearances heading into 2010 and Rolen over 7400. Both players are roughly the same age, with Rolen being 6 months younger than Cabrera.

While the two hitters are relatively close in career batting average, with Cabrera at .275 and Rolen at .284, for on-base-percentage Cabrera has a very low .322 while Rolen is well above league average at .370.

One way to put that into perspective is to point out that Willy Taveras has a career OBP of .321. So, over more than 7000 plate appearances, Orlando Cabrera gets on base at the same rate as Willy Taveras.

Another way to view it is to compare Cabrera and Rolen's rates to the rest of MLB. In 2009, 154 hitters had enough AB to qualify for the batting title. Scott Rolen's OBP of .370 ranked him 64 out of 154. Orlando Cabrera's OBP of .316 ranked him 140 out of 154.

Finally, if you're inclined to look at 2010 Spring Training statistics, Cabrera has an OBP of .303 (with three BB) and Scott Rolen an OBP of .375 (with 6 BB, not counting the two he had today).

Plate Discipline
O-Swing is a statistic that measures the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which the player swings. It's a measure of the plate discipline of the batter. Over his career, Cabrera has an O-Swing of 24.3% and Rolen's O-Swing is 19.0%. A clear edge for Rolen.

Since the #2 hitter has more AB than hitters lower in the order, power numbers such as slugging percentage, are an important factor to consider. Over his career, Cabrera has accomplished a .398 SLG, while Rolen has a .498 SLG.

Again, in comparison to the rest of MLB, in 2009, looking at the statistic wOBA which weights OBP for power, Rolen was ranked 49 out of 154 while Cabrera was 140 out of 154.

It's important to note that Scott Rolen has not been the same power hitter since his shoulder surgery in 2005, so his career SLG is misleadingly high. From 2000 to 2004, his slugging percentage was .535, from 2006 to 2010 it was .450. Scott Rolen is clearly not the same power hitter that he was earlier in career, yet Dusty Baker, by batting Rolen in the 5th spot in the lineup apparently continues to treat him as though he is. But even with his reduced post-surgery SLG, he is still more of a power hitter than Cabrera, and by a considerable margin.

In conclusion
These are the reasons that Scott Rolen should bat second for the Reds, not Orlando Cabrera.

(1) Rolen is a better hitter, period. Batting second, instead of sixth, will give him roughly 50-60 more AB.

(2) Rolen will get on base ahead of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce at a much higher rate than Cabrera.

(3) Batting Rolen second will move Jay Bruce up to the fifth spot in the order where his power is more likely to drive in runs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Noteworthy people and places

I'm heading to Scottsdale Stadium in a little while to watch the Reds play the Giants. It should be interesting to see how Travis Wood and Mike Leake do today. Usually home teams play their starters, and Travis and Mike are both scheduled to pitch three or four innings. This will be a solid test for their candidacy to be the fifth starter.

Over the past days here in Arizona, I've collected a few pictures of noteworthy people and places and thought this would be a good time to post them, including a restaurant review at the end.

People of interest

A few former Reds have appeared on opposing teams. Former Reds' outfielder Norris Hopper made a short (no pun intended) appearance for the Brewers. Objectively speaking, Hopper has never been a great, or even a good, MLB player. But in the summer of 2007 he did become a Reds fan favorite when the only thing going right for the Reds was Norris Hopper, who seemed to get a hit every time at the plate. In 2007, he had a .371 on base percentage in 305 plate appearances.

This day, playing for the Brewers, Hopper swung at the first pitch in his only AB and he grounded into a double play. He probably should have tried one of his famous push bunts up the first base line.

Josh Hamilton still plays for the Texas Rangers. I saw a few innings of a Rangers-Giants game last week. Josh played left field that game. Hamilton played for the Reds in 2008 and was traded to the Rangers for pitcher Edinson Volquez. The "throw-in" player in that deal was a small, left-handed relief pitcher named Daniel Herrera.

Two former Reds' pitching greats -- Jack Billingham and Jim Maloney -- were in uniform and standing together in the dugout.

Jim Maloney pitched for the Reds from 1960 to 1970. He had a career ERA of 3.19 and threw 74 complete games, including three no-hitters. His best season was 1963 when he earned a 23-7 record, an ERA of 2.77 and struck out 265 batters in 250 innings. In a sense, he was an Aroldis Chapman of his day, considered a hard thrower. His pitches were estimated in the 100 mph range.

Jack Billingham came to the Reds in the blockbuster trade with the Astros that brought Joe Morgan and Cesar Geronimo to Cincinnati and sent Lee May and Tommy Helms, among others, to Houston. Billingham was a cornerstone of the Big Red Machine's pitching staff, pitching for the Reds from 1972 to 1977 and winning 87 games over those six years. In 1973 he threw 293 innings with a 3.04 ERA, 19 wins, 16 complete games (no easy feat with Sparky 'Captain Hook' Anderson as the manager) and seven shutouts. Billingham saved his best for the World Series, where over his 7 appearances he was 2-0 with a microscopic 0.36 ERA.

My seat at Goodyear Ballpark affords me close proximity to the Reds brass. Owner and CEO of the Reds since 2005, Bob Castellini sits a few rows in front of me. He has used his field seats (I'm sure he has a nice suite, too) every game I've attended. He stayed in his ballpark seats all nine innings last night.

Hall of Fame announcer, Marty Brennaman, has watched several games in sections with regular paying customers. Marty has been the voice of the Reds since 1974 when he took over for Al Michaels. He worked side-by-side with Joe Nuxhall for 30 years. Marty's signature call "And this one belongs to the Reds!" began in his second game broadcasting for Cincinnati.

Through his tenure, Marty has called Pete Rose's hit number 4192, Henry Aaron's home run number 714 (which was given up by Jack Billingham), the Reds' 1975, 1976 and 1990 World Series championships, and Tom Browning's perfect game. Other Reds' broadcasters, Chris Welch and Jeff Brantley, have been regular observers at Goodyear on their "off" days. Brantley frequently sits in the first or second row behind home plate scoring the game. Here, Marty is sitting at Goodyear Ballpark with his son Thom, who is also a Reds broadcaster.

Walt Jocketty, the Reds' General Manager, usually watches games from upstairs, but on occasion has ventured down into the cheap seats. Last night he watched the entire game from about 8 rows back behind home plate. A few days ago, against Cleveland, toward the end of the game he watched inconspicuously standing and then sitting among the crowd.

Before working for the Reds, Jocketty was the GM for the St. Louis Cardinals for 13 seasons. Over that time the Cardinals won a World Series and seven NL Central Division Championships.

Places of interest

I've seen a few ballparks in Arizona. Maryvale Baseball Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers, sits in a residential area on the outskirts of the city of Phoenix. It was built in 1998 and seats 7,000 people. It was mostly full yesterday in a day game between the Angels and the Brewers. The dominant sense I had at Maryvale was the ever-present smell of fried dough, from their funnel cake booths.

Camelback Ranch is the new home of the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. This is the Dodgers inaugural year at Camelback, and the second year for the White Sox. Camelback has a very distinctive southwestern style which I found appealing. The two team administrative offices back up to the outfield fences - the Dodgers in left field, the White Sox in right. Camelback is about 15 minutes northeast from Goodyear Ballpark. It opened in 2009 and seats 13,000 people, which is the largest seating capacity in the Cactus League.

Surprise Stadium is the shared home of the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. I watched a game between the Rangers and the Giants there last week. It opened in 2003 and seats 10,500 people. Surprise Stadium is about 20 minutes from Goodyear, due north.

UPDATE: The San Francisco Giants play in Scottsdale Stadium, which sits in downtown Scottsdale, just northeast of downtown Phoenix. It opened in 1992 and does have a few touches of old-stadium design - very small seats that face straight ahead, not angled toward home plate. It has a capacity of 12,000 and was completely packed today as the Reds played there.

Goodyear Ballpark, the Reds new Arizona field, also opened in 2009 and seats 10,300.

Among the parks that I have visited in Arizona, Goodyear is the only one that charges for parking. In Florida, the only free baseball parking I experienced was at Disney in Orlando, the home of the Atlanta Braves. But here, parking has been free at Camelback, Surprise and Scottsdale, where I'm headed in a few minutes.

Matt's Big Breakfast

A few weeks ago, Matt's Big Breakfast was featured on the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." I've been there twice and the food is simply, utterly, fantastic.

There is nothing big about Matt's, except the breakfast, however. It is a tiny, tiny spot, perhaps seating 35 people. I waited both times I've been there, but it was well worth it.

Matt's features basic breakfast dishes, like eggs, meats, pancakes, a waffle, as well as a few lunch items. It isn't open for dinner. Here you see my first breakfast at Matt's -- an omelet of grilled onions, sausage and cheese, their delicious crispy hash browns (although I liked their home fries better on visit #2), and great toasted wheat bread with local strawberry preserves.

I give Matt's Big Breakfast my highest culinary recommendation.