Joe Maddon sees a suppressed run-scoring environment across baseball and feels the way to bring back more offense is… well, he doesn’t really know. The Tampa Bay Rays manager – oops, make that former Tampa Bay Rays manager – had thoughts on the subject when we spoke in September. They were more musings than manifestos.
I asked Maddon if he sees an irreversible trend or simply a cyclical dip His answer suggested the former, with a nod in the direction of the bullpen.
“Offense hasn’t benefited at all from any of the new discoveries in the game,” said Maddon. “It’s only been injured by it. Along with the subtraction of PEDs, there’s informed data on pitching and defense, which has really slanted the field in favor of that area of the game. There are also accelerated bullpens. Look at Kansas City’s bullpen, Oakland’s bullpen, Baltimore’s bullpen. Specialization has really taken over.”
It’s hard to argue Maddon’s last point. Not only did teams hit just .251 this year – the lowest average in over 40 years — from the seventh inning on that number was .241. Teams also fanned an average of 7.7 times per game, the highest in history. Bullpens were a big part of that, with a whopping 41 qualifying relievers logging a K/9 of 10.0 or better.
*Attention fans of the Detroit Tigers: you might want to skip the next paragraph.
“There are a lot of ways to look at how you might augment your offense, but it can’t just be nine guys working a pitching staff over,” said Maddon. “If your goal is to get a starter out of a game, that might be the last thing you want to do. You see a lot of 95-plus out of the pen now, and some of those guys have quality secondary pitches. I think it’s become easier to build bullpens, and it’s rare a team has a bad one.”
The Kansas City Royals are a fit for Maddon’s musings. Not only is their pen dominant, their speed-focused offense posted the lowest walk rate in the game.
“We might possibly need to see a trend away from seeing pitches,” suggested Maddon. “I can see speed – including using it creatively – becoming a more important part of the game. I think the trend might be going back to the way the game had been before the unrealistic home run numbers arrived and walks became prominent. I really don’t know.”
The Red Sox have epitomized the patience-and-power approach, and despite a disastrous 2014 season, that probably isn’t going to change. I asked Boston general manager Ben Cherington about the team’s hitting philosophy relative to the current run-scoring environment following the completion of the regular season.
“Offense has changed,” Cherington told me. “Power, at least in terms of home runs, is down. Even on-base percentage is down. There are all sorts of reasons for that. We know we need to build a better offense, but we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. If we can see pitches and get on base, and still hit for power and hit with runners in scoring position, I still think that’s a formula to score runs.”
Boston batters produced just 634 runs this year, a far cry from the 853 who crossed the plate in 2013. The reasons behind the free fall were myriad and went well beyond league-wide trends. Retooling of the lineup is highly likely, but don’t expect the Red Sox to assume a slashers-and-burners persona akin to KC’s.
“Some of it has to do with the personnel you have,” Cherington said. “There are teams that have been successful who don’t see a ton of pitches and don’t get on base as much as we’ve been used to getting on base, so I’m not saying there’s one way to do it. I just think we have to be careful about moving too far away from the things we’ve always been good at. I’d rather try to fix the things that didn’t work this year.”
This is a big offseason for the Cincinnati Reds. If you don’t believe me, take the pulse of their fan base. Dissatisfaction was rife last winter when general manager Walt Jocketty sat on his hands, and it remained steady throughout the season. The status quo proved to be anything but profitable. Amid figurative shouts of “Penurious!” the club owned by Bob Castellini and run by Jocketty was substandard and poor, finishing well under .500.
In defense of the powers that be, a healthy 2014 squad playing to its capabilities would have been a contender. Even so, holes were apparent. Left field has been an issue for years. So has OBP from anyone not named Votto. Lack of depth stood out like a sore thumb.
This offseason promises to be different. Jocketty can’t afford to simply sit back and watch the hobbled heal and the under-performers perform. Nor can he expect to fill holes from within, not with a farm system lacking impact talent at the upper levels.
Actually, he could do those things. But the belief here is that he won’t, because he really can’t. (Can he, Mr. Castellini?) There’s scant little Reds buzz in southwestern Ohio right now – hey, how ’bout those first-place Bengals! – and the team needs to sell tickets. Here are a few ideas on how to do that, and to add digits to the Win column:
Don’t trade any of the starters unless it’s an offer you can’t refuse. There is no such thing as too much pitching and right now it’s the club’s strength.
Dip into the free agent market and sign Mike Aviles. He won’t be particularly expensive and would upgrade the bench. Aviles can handle multiple positions and has decent speed and power for a spare part. Kelly Johnson would be a fallback plan if Aviles doesn’t like Skyline Chili.
Sign Justin Masterson with the idea of turning him into Wade Davis. The power righty will likely shop for a starting role, but maybe he’d like coming home to Ohio – he grew up near Dayton – and teaming with Aroldis Chapman in the back of the bullpen. Coming off a down year, Masterson won’t command premium dollars.
Trade Joey Votto to the Red Sox for Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Matt Barnes. Shedding Votto’s contact frees up money and let’s be honest: as good as Votto is, he’s due a lot of dollars for a lot of years and is a payroll burden going forward. Napoli would step in and provide solid OBP and more power than Votto, albeit lesser overall production. Defensively, Napoli is a well-above-average first baseman. Nava would go a long way toward solving the left field problem. He’d be a good fit in front of Billy Hamilton in the two-hole thanks to his highly-disciplined approach. A switch-hitter who is better from the left side, he’d see his power numbers jump at Great American Ballpark. Nava’s stood out with the glove this year, as evidenced by his 17 Defensive Runs Saved. Barnes was Boston’s first-round pick in 2011 and made his big-league debut in September. A starter in the minors, he has a mid-90s fastball and is projected by many as a power arm out of the bullpen.
Trade Aroldis Chapman and Zack Cozart to the Tigers for Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias. All-Star-quality outfielders are more valuable than closers, and Castellanos is on the verge of being a stud. I don’t see Detroit doing a straight-up for just that reason – despite their desperate need for a closer – but the shortstop swap might nudge them toward considering it. Cozart is a surer bet than Iglesias, who missed the year with leg injuries. From a Cincinnati perspective, it could be worth the gamble as a healthy Iglesias is defensive magic.
Why is Buck Showalter good at his job? There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is his attention to detail. The Orioles skipper is said to be sly as a fox, and managerial ingenuity is also often a byproduct of preparation.
During the ALDS, I caught up with Showalter in the bowels of Camden Yards as he walked from press conference to clubhouse. I wanted to know if going up against a rookie manager like Brad Ausmus differs from matching strategy with a veteran like Jim Leyland. In other words, is it harder to predict Ausmus’s moves due to a lack of familiarity? Showalter insisted it isn’t. He said that regardless of who is in the other dugout, the bottom line is that “You always have to manage against the curveball.”
Orioles infielder Kelly Johnson has played for several big-league teams, and in his opinion, Showalter can definitely handle a curveball.
“I don’t think anyone has ever caught him unprepared,” Johnson told me. “No one ever beats him to a decision, whether it’s as simple as having the right combo of pitchers getting hot for potential hitters, or vice versa. Regardless of the situation, he’s got the upper hand.”
Equally important is Showalter’s ability to communicate expectations. Players might not always like what they hear, but they know where they stand. According to bench coach John Russell, “The biggest thing Buck does well is present how he wants things done. His presentation is outstanding. How you present something to players is how they’re going to grasp it, how well they know what’s expected of them.”
Johnson agrees, and the way he presented his opinion had me wondering if there were maybe some hidden meaning in his words.
“When you know somebody is always prepared, it results in trust,” said Johnson. “You’re never going to second guess and play manager yourself. Nobody is going to be sitting here talking about, ‘Why did we do that?’ That happens a lot on a lot of teams, and it doesn’t happen here.
“The managers I’ve played for who have been able to create that trust have had a positive impact on their players. When guys come over in a trade, or are brought up from the minors, they fall right into line. They know what to do and what is expected of them. Here, you know what’s going to happen. It’s like that in Atlanta and Tampa, and I’m guessing it’s like that in St. Louis and San Francisco. With certain teams who have been consistently successful, that probably comes from a similar type of trust.”
Johnson spent time with the Yankees and Red Sox this year before joining the Orioles. He’s also played for Atlanta, Arizona, Toronto and Tampa Bay.
Three years ago, with the Cardinals one strike away from elimination, Lance Berkman hit a game-tying single in the bottom of the 10th inning of World Series Game 6. St. Louis plated the winning run an inning later, and the following night beat Texas to take home the title.
I talked to Berkman about that game in June 2013 when I interviewed him about his evolution as a hitter. The World Series anecdote didn’t fit the prevailing theme, so I chose not to include it. Sixteen months later, with this year’s Fall Classic in full bloom, I decided it was worth digging up and including this week’s notes. After all, a magical Berkman-like moment may be about to happen in San Francisco – or in Kansas City in the coming days. Here is what the now-retired Berkman had to say about his 2011 heroics:
“As a little kid you think you want to be in that situation, but then when you’re actually in that situation it’s incredibly nerve-wracking. I remember praying the day of the game. If the whole season was going to come down to one of my at bats, I wanted to be able to remain calm without feeling all that pressure hanging over my head. The amazing thing about it is, even though it was a tense situation, I did feel very peaceful and calm. Scott Feldman made really good pitches and I was fortunate enough to fight one off into center field. We had several guys get big hits that night – especially David Freese and I’m just thankful I was able to contribute to us winning.”
RANDOM NOTES AND INFO
On this date in 1911, the Philadelphia Athletics beat the New York Giants 13-2 to win the World Series in six games. The Series was notable for two reasons. Legendary third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker earned his nickname with dramatic home runs off Rube Marquard in Game 2 and Christy Mathewson in Game 3. Six consecutive days of rain between Games 3 and 4 resulted in Game 6 being played on October 26, making this the latest-ending World Series prior to 1981.
On this date in 1985, first base umpire Don Denkinger blew a ninth-inning call that helped the Royals beat the Cardinals and even the World Series at three games apiece. Were it not for Denkinger’s mistake, it is quite possible the Royals – who also won Game 7 – would currently be playing for their first-ever World Series title.
One year ago today, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks was called for obstruction, giving the Cardinals a 5-4 win in Game 3. It is the only game in World Series history to end in such a manner. In the post-game press conference, the umpires made clear intent was irrelevant and they had no choice but to make the call.
Royals batters had 471 more hits than strikeouts this year. Cubs batters had 162 more strikeouts than hits.
I’d like to join the many who have already done so and wish a happy and rewarding retirement to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press. A fine baseball writer and a pleasure to cross paths with in a press box, Lowe shouldn’t have to wait long before being nominated for the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Much like legendary Detroit scribe Joe Falls, Lowe did yeoman’s work covering the Tigers.
The fourth-annual SABR Analytics Conference will be held March 12-14, 2015 at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix. Looking even farther ahead, the 45th-annual SABR National Convention will be held June 24-28, 2015 in Chicago.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.