Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Observations on a summer's day at Wrigley

Before I get to the main content, a quick word about the All-Stars--I think it's time to cut out player voting. Just looking at the overall numbers, I believe the fans did better than the players did at picking out the All-Stars. The AL starting lineup is almost exactly what it should be, while Rolen and Beltran are the only really questionable picks in the NL (and one can make a good case for them based on career output). True, Ensberg is the biggest snub, and he's in that position because of Rolen, but I have more of an issue with the players picking Shea Hillenbrand over Travis Hafner, Ichiro over Hideki Matsui, Cesar Izturis over Felipe Lopez (although LaRussa saved Lopez), and Pudge Rodriguez over Jorge Posada. I'm all for getting rid of the player vote, and perhaps replacing it with a G.M. vote. After all, they're the people actually watching all the games.

Ok, on to some observations I made while watching (and scoring) the dramatic Nats/Cubs game at Wrigley on Sunday the 3rd. The Nats won 5-4 in 12 innings, but not before weathering two Cub comebacks in the bottom halves of the 9th and 11th frames. It must've been a tough loss for the Cubs to take, especially since it cemented a Nationals sweep.

Observation 1: I've already written about why the Nats are doing so well in close games (combination of good bullpen and judicious use of the bullpen by manager Frank Robinson), but I think I figured out another piece of the puzzle while watching the Nats' outfield in action. Centerfielder Brad Wilkerson made 4 or 5 outstanding plays, all on hits which would have either started a rally or driven in critical runs. Wilkerson was getting fantastic jumps on the ball, and turned what seemed like sure extra bases into routine line-outs. Frankly, Wilkerson did what Andruw Jones is reputed to do--he made it look easy. As the Bernie Williams disaster in the Bronx this year has shown, the importance of having a good defensive centerfielder cannot be overstated. Wilkerson's Rate2 shows him at only a 98 this year (though he was at 108 last year), but I can tell you to throw the stats out the window on this one. Wilkerson's defense won the game. With a team so dependent on winning close games, the Nats outfield D could be what wins them the division.

Observation 2: While I praised Frank Robinson earlier, I'm using this space to lambaste him for some bonehead decisions. In the 6th inning, with Washington up 2-0, Jose Guillen singled and Vinny Castilla walked, putting men on 1st and 2nd for the 5th batter in the lineup, Marlon Byrd. Byrd attempted to bunt the runners over, and popped out into a double play, killing the rally. This illustrates why it's a bad idea to force guys who aren't used to bunting into bunting (Byrd only has 6 in his career). It's also a bad idea to play for one run when you're already up by 2. It's much better to play for a big inning during the early and middle stages of a game--bunting is, in essence playing for only one run. This can be crucial late in games when the score is tied, but a single run in the 6th is not as valuable as the potential of a bigger rally. So yeah, bad decision. You know what an even worse decision was? Having Byrd attempt to bunt again in the 8th, IN THE EXACT SAME SITUATION. Guillen singled, Castilla walked, Byrd struck out while attempting to bunt. Given Byrd's previous failure, wouldn't it make more sense to let him at least try to get a hit? One might argue that Robinson showed confidence in Byrd by charging him with the task a second time, but that only had to make the failure all the more crushing for Byrd, who finished 0-6 with 4 strikeouts. All of this makes me wonder--why the hell is Byrd batting 5th anyway? Ok, well, the real answer to that is because Nick Johnson and Ryan Church are injured, but seriously--the #5 hitter is SUPPOSED to swing away with runners on base. Driving in runs is his job. If you don't have enough confidence in a guy's hitting ability to let him swing away with 2 men on, none out, and a 2-0 lead, why the hell is he batting 5th? Wait, I'll answer that too--because Carlos "My best season was on Tyler's 1992 Strat-O-Matic Card" Baerga and Jamey ".350 SLG" Carroll are hitting behind him. This is why the Nationals are so confounding. There can't be a #5 hitter worse than Marlon Byrd, yet they're on pace to win 100 games!

Observation 3: In addition to recording outs and hits in my scorecard, I also noted how deep in the count every at bat went. It was a bit tedious, but the results confirmed something obvious--Carlos Zambrano runs his pitch counts high because he throws a lot of balls. Some of the credit has to go to the Nationals for being disciplined, but compare Zambrano's outing with his counterpart, Washington's Ryan Drese. Drese is one of those guys who pitches to contact--in other words, he throws strikes and hopes his defense catches everything, which is exactly what happened Sunday. In fact, only 3 out of the 24 batters Drese faced went to 2-2 or 3-2 counts. Compare that with the Zambrano, who went to 2-2 or 3-2 on 3 batters in the first inning alone, and 12 of 28 batters (excluding an intentional walk). The results? Drese allowed 4 hits and no walks in 7 innings, but only struck out 1 batter. Zambrano allowed 6 hits and 3 walks 7 innings, and struck out 7 batters. These numbers illustrate the difference in "stuff" between the pitchers. Zambrano's pitches dart out of the strike zone, and disciplined teams are able to lay off and work deep into the count. In contrast, Drese's stuff is straight and not very electric, but he's able to place it well enough that he lets his defense do the work, as was demonstrated on Sunday. Drese's style is particularly suited to the vast expanses of RFK Stadium, and for the Nationals good outfield defense. He's proving to be a good, cost-effective pickup.

Observation 4: It seriously doesn't get any better than Wrigley in the purely aesthetic sense. Fenway was awesome because of the people there, and PNC is breathtaking, but Wrigley has something unique about it that pushes above all the rest in my book. I suppose it's the combination of the ivy, the scoreboard, the pennants keeping track of the standings, the people on the rooftops, the El, the lake, and the skyline--it's baseball, pure and simple.


Anonymous Sean said...

I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'd put Citizens Bank Park and Camden ahead of Wrigley, with US Cell and Wrigley more or less in the same area. Wrigley is a very nice place to see a game, no doubt, but it just doesn't quite do it for me. Oddly I'd say that the night of the Reds game was the best experience I had there, since seeing the skyline (on both sides) lit up was pretty great. But if I have to see a game somewhere, Wrigley is probably 4th at best. (Fenway, Camden, CBP, Wrigley, US Cell, Angel Stadium is my current list)

1:14 PM  

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