Monday, April 28, 2008

A Great Story in Salt Lake City

The best story of the 2008 baseball season isn't happening in Boston, New York, Chicago, or even Tampa Bay. The story isn't being reported by national media outlets like USA Today or ESPN. Sadly, one of the most amazing stories in the history of modern professional baseball is getting very little coverage in the team's local market. But despite the lack of coverage, the Salt Lake Bees record setting 21-1 is a story in which every baseball fan should be interested. What the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is accomplishing has never been seen before and probably won’t be seen again.

It is a shame the record setting performance of the Salt Lake Bees is not being recognized. With all happenings of the sports world it is unrealistic to expect the national media to spend much time on minor league baseball. But there is no excusing the local media for ignoring the Bees accomplishments. The two local newspapers view the Bees as unimportant. The small stories on the Bees are buried on the back of the newspaper’s sports sections after endless stories and columns about the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Both of the local sports-talk radio stations in Salt Lake City have adopted an “all Utah Jazz all the time” format. If Jazz point guard Deron Williams breaks a shoelace at practice it becomes the front page headline of the newspaper’s sports sections. The sports radio stations have live, on the scene coverage of Williams changing his shoelace and the impact the new shoelace will have on the Jazz in the playoffs. Even an out of control fan being ejected from a Jazz playoff game was the subject of endless coverage while a Bees victory is afforded only a token mention.

I am not proposing a AAA baseball team be covered with the same intensity as the only “major league” sports team in the area. But the overboard fascination Utah sports media and fans have with the Utah Jazz is ridiculous. The 2008 Salt Lake Bees are an exceptional story and should be receiving more coverage from the local Salt Lake media.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Closer?

Baseball managers, players, fans, and media like to say “baseball is a game of match ups.” Watch any game and moves are constantly being made by managers to ensure the best match up for their team. Left and right hand hitting platoons, situational left handed relief pitchers, and pinch hitters are all examples of adjustments Major League managers will make attempting to create a favorable match up for their team. But when using their bullpen in the 8th and 9th innings of a game, managers stop trying to create the best possible match up. All Major League managers have clearly defined roles for their bullpen and they almost never deviate from it. Without any regard for what might be the best possible match up, all 30 Major League managers will use their setup man to pitch the 8th inning and their closer to pitch the 9th. This is the way baseball is managed in the 21st century. Last evening I watch this ridged structuring cost the Minnesota Twins a game making me wonder how many games are lost each season because teams have predefined bullpen roles.

Heading into the 8th inning the Twins were leading the struggling Detroit Tigers 4-3. Since it was the 8th inning and his team was ahead, Ron Gardenhire did what every other Major League manager would have done and brought in his setup man Jesse Crain. I don’t think Gardenhire considered who was coming up for the Tigers. Rookie Clete Thomas was scheduled to lead off followed by Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera. A one run game with four of the best hitters in the American League scheduled to hit and Gardenhire has his second best relief pitcher in the game! Five batters later, Miguel Cabrera hits a rocket over the left field wall and the Tigers were ahead 6-4.

I don’t fault Gardenhire for the way it turned out. As I wrote in the beginning, he did what every other manager would have done. But even though every manager would have handled it the same way, I don’t understand why. The Twins recently made it clear they consider Joe Nathan their best relief pitcher. They signed him to a multi year $40+ million contract. But the Twins view Nathan’s role as “the closer” and that means he pitches the ninth inning regardless of the score or situation. I don’t see any logic to this approach. Gardenhire should have looked at who was scheduled to hit for the Tigers and not the inning. When it became unavoidable that Sheffield, Ordonez, and Cabrera were going to hit, he should have gone with his best pitcher. There is no way a manager should lose a game with his best pitcher sitting in the bullpen waiting for the 9th inning.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Butler, Gordon, and Teahen

In the most recent mailbag column on the official Royals website, Dick Kaegal answered a question about the number of homeruns Alex Gordon and Billy Butler would hit this season. His response was neither Gordon or Butler consider themselves homerun hitters and their homerun production in 2008 should be in the 15-20 range. This projection will disappoint many Royals fans who are hoping one of these players would develop into a 30+ homerun hitter in the middle of the Royals lineup. But if Gordon, Butler, and outfielder Mark Teahen were to each hit 15-20 homeruns in the middle of the lineup, the Royals would be a solid offensive team.

With slugging percentages above .500, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Mark Teahen are off to very good starts. If the Royals are going to be a contending team again these three players are going to have to shoulder the bulk of the load. My fear is the Royals coaching staff will buy into the notion that since Teahen, Butler, and Gordon all occupy the so-called power positions in the lineup, they will begin to tinker with their approach at the plate in an effort to make them homerun hitters without regard on how that change will impact the rest of their hitting abilities. This has happened in other organizations and it would be a shame if the Royals derailed the careers of young hitters by trying to make them into something they are not.

Scott Stahoviak and Doug Mientkiewicz, who came up through the Twins organization in the 1990s, both had their careers damaged by Tom Kelly's attempts to transform them into power hitters. In 1994, Scott Stahoviak was a 24 year old first baseman for the Twins AAA team the Salt Lake Buzz. Stahoviak had a solid year for the Buzz; 41 doubles, 6 triples, 13 homeruns, 94 RBI, and a batting line of .318/.413/.529. Stahoviak also walked 70 times. I saw Stahoviak play more than 40 games that summer and there was no doubt he had Major League potential. He could drive the ball with authority to all fields. After being a part-time player for the Twins in 1995, Stahoviak took the full-time first base duties in 1996. He hit 13 homeruns, drove in 61 runs, and produced at a respectable .284/.376/.469 clip. The following year Stahoviak's numbers declined significantly and his Major League career was over.

Doug Mientkiewicz followed a similar path as Stahoviak. Although not as good as Stahoviak's 1994 season, Mientkiewicz's 2000 season of 18 homeruns, 96 RBI, and a batting line of .285/.324/.400 was very good. Mientkiewicz had good bat speed, excellent gap power, and played Gold Glove level defense at first base. The following year, Doug Mientkiewicz was the Twins first baseman and had an excellent season. 15 homeruns, 74 RBI, and a line of .306/.387/.464. Mientkiewicz garnered five points in the 2001 MVP balloting. But like Stahoviak, Mientkiewicz has never again reached his 2001 numbers. Because of his defensive abilities, Mientkiewicz has had a long career, but he has never developed into a front line Major League first baseman. Recently I spoke with a man that was part of the Buzz front office in the 1990s and he shared with me that both Stahoviak and Mientkiewicz suffered because Tom Kelly tried to make both of them into Kent Hrbek.

Watching Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Mark Teahen in 2008 should give all Royals fan hope for the future. Each of these guys have the ability to be major run producers for the Royals. They have excellent bat speed, they can drive the ball to all fields, and they display a composure that will allow them to perform in the clutch. But none of these guys are going to make a run at Steve Balboni's single season homerun record. I hope the Royals will continue to allow these guys to play to their abilities and not make the same mistake Tom Kelly and Twins did with Scott Stahoviak and Doug Mientkiewicz.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Passing of a Salt Lake Bees Tradition

With the baseball season a little more than a week old there are many items about which I could write. The Royals surprising 5-2 start, the struggles the Angels are having with injuries, the Salt Lake Bees bolting out of the gate to a 6-0 record would all be interesting topics. But the game on the field is going to move to the side today because a Salt Lake Bees legend Dave Pratt passed away last week.

If you ever attended a Salt Lake Bees game at Franklin Covey Field you knew who Dave Pratt was. He wasn't a player, concession worker, or usher. He was the famous "Net Man" who was adored and loved by the Bees fans and players. Net Man sat in the front row, down the right field line between first base and the Bees bullpen. With a ball glove on his left hand and a fishing net in his right hand, Net Man was ready on every pitch to make a play on a foul ball.

And make plays he did. A hot smash down the line close to him would be scooped up with his net. A line drive or foul fly near him was caught. But he never kept a single ball. After getting the ball Net Man would give it to a small child sitting near him. He would often ask for the child pose with him while his wife would snap a picture. My daughters loved Net Man. On nights that I worked at the ballpark, the girls would find seats close to his and spend the evening enjoying the game with him and his wife. Net Man truly enjoyed seeing the smiles of the children when he gave them a baseball and t
hrough the years Net Man blessed hundreds young fans who attended games at Franklin Covey Field.

Through the years I got to know Net Man. He was a Christian man who lived his faith with a loving heart and a positive attitude. More than anything else, he loved life and doing what he could to make others smile. He was part of the enjoyment of attending a Salt Lake Bees baseball game and he will be missed by everyone.