Our subject of today’s Sabermetric Saturday is FIP, a topic which hasn’t yet seeped into the baseball mainstream. I know this because of the first Google result for “FIP”:
Yikes. I promise you, we’re not here to talk about Tanner Roark’s Feline Infectious Peritonitis. (That does sound fun, though.)
We’re here to talk about Fielding Independent Pitching – a metric which some baseball writers have begun preferring to ERA.
First of all – what the heck is FIP, exactly? Here’s Baseball Prospectus‘ explanation:
Fielding Independent Pitching converts a pitcher’s three true outcomes into an earned run average-like number. The formula is (13*HR+3*BB-2*K)/IP, plus a constant (usually around 3.2) to put it on the same scale as earned run average.
FIP is a component ERA inspired by the work of Voros McCracken on defense-independent pitching statistics, but has become more widely used because of the ease of computation – it requires only four easily-found box score stats, uses only basic arithmetic operations and has four easily-memorized constants. It was conceived of by both Tom Tango and Clay Dreslough, the latter of who called it Defense-Independent Component ERA.
The aforementioned McCracken conducted a stunning study, whose results were published in 2001, finding that pitchers have little control over the outcome of batted balls in play. Take Pedro Martinez, for example. In 1999, a landmark season in which Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA, won a Cy Young and finished second in American League MVP voting, he allowed a .325 average on balls in play. In 2000, Martinez was 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA – but his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) was just .237. That means in 1999, Martinez’ FIP was 1.39.
Let’s back up one moment – because this is a staggering number. While this is a bit of a crude simplification, FIP essentially tells us what a pitcher’s expected ERA would be without batted-ball luck. Using home runs, walks and strikeouts (and hit-by-pitches; although that’s not in the BP formula above, those are generally used to calculate FIP) only, FIP is a number that more accurately represents how well a pitcher throws than ERA, which does not account for batted-ball luck.
So, here’s what we’re saying – in one of the best-pitched seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, at the heart of the Steroid Era in the monstrous American League East – Pedro Martinez was woefully unlucky. He had an ERA 0.68 points higher than expected with average batted-ball luck. That is bonkers. (His FIP in 2000, by the way, was 2.17. ERA doesn’t tell the whole story.)
One flaw in FIP: it does not take into account certain factors that limit balls in play or runners. It does not account for how well pitchers control the run game, line-drive or ground-ball percentage or other factors. We’ve learned that no statistic in baseball should be taken as gospel, and FIP is no exception. It does, however, seem to be more predictive of future results than ERA.
Now, for fun, let’s take a look at some Chiefs pitchers this season – who’s been lucky, and who’s been unlucky…
Erik Davis: 4.58 ERA, 2.57 FIP
Davis’ 2.02 ERA-FIP gap is the largest on the team. His walk number is high – 17 in 35 and one-third innings – while his strikeout number is strong at 37. However, he hasn’t allowed a single home run this season. That means opponents are hitting .353 against Davis on balls in play. League-average BABIP is generally around .300, so Davis has had some tough luck, particular as of late.
Sam Runion: 4.68 ERA, 3.10 FIP
Runion’s walk and strikeout numbers are much lower than Davis’; 10 and 20, respectively, in 32 and two-thirds innings. He, however, has also kept the ball in the park all season, having not allowed a home run in 2016.
A.J. Cole: 4.84 ERA, 3.75 FIP
The award for “unluckiest Chiefs starter” goes to Cole, thanks to a BABIP of .331. Cole’s only walked 29 in 89 and one-third innings and surrendered nine home runs, but he’s allowed 101 hits. This is new ground for Cole – whose ERA far bettered his FIP with the Chiefs in both 2014 (3.43 ERA, 4.48 FIP) and 2015 (3.15 ERA, 3.90 FIP).
And now the other side…
Koda Glover: 0.00 ERA, 2.60 FIP
Bit of an asterisk here, as Glover’s only thrown 11 and one-third innings, but he’s had some luck getting out of them; Glover has struck out just six , allowing plenty of contact. He’s escaped a couple of jams with well-placed line drives and ground balls.
Matt Grace: 2.12 ERA, 2.59 FIP
Grace is a classic ground-ball pitcher who induces tons of contact. His ERA has been better than this FIP in all three of his seasons with the Chiefs. Remember, FIP doesn’t measure for ground-ball percentage, so Grace’s ability to induce double plays is negated here.
Austin Voth: 3.11 ERA, 3.57 FIP
Voth’s start against Norfolk on July 8th was a classic case of the difference between FIP and ERA. By the former, Voth would suffer; he walked six and struck out just two in five innings. By the latter, he excelled; Voth somehow squeezed out five scoreless innings, thanks to double plays in three consecutive innings. Should Voth deserve credit for inducing those three double plays at key moments? Absolutely. Hit a few inches to the left or right, do those ground balls change Voth’s night? Absolutely. That’s batted-ball luck in a nutshell.
To see how the Chiefs fair in FIP, check out the team’s page at Fangraphs, a terrific resource for all things baseball. And if you want to read more about FIP, be sure to include the word “baseball” in your Google searches. Unless your cat gets sick.
Welcome to our fourth new recurring blog series: Sabermetric Saturday! If you’ve enjoyed Minor League Monday, Chiefs in the Show Wednesday or I.L. Trip Advisor Friday…well, there’s absolutely no correlation to whether or not you’ll enjoy this! So pull up a chair, hope my exclamation mark key breaks and enjoy!
Each week in this space, we’ll examine a statistic or term that’s part of the sabermetric baseball world. What are “sabermetrics”? They are, according to Merriam-Webster, “the statistical analysis of baseball data”. The phrase was coined by the legendary baseball thinker Bill James in 1980 as an homage to the Society for American Baseball Research – or SABR.
On Sabermetric Saturday, we’ll attempt to explain something beyond the realms of traditional baseball thinking (home runs, RBIs, ERA, etc.) and apply it practically to your enjoyment of the game and/or the Chiefs. Our goal here is not to turn everyone into statistical junkies, poring over spreadsheets of data while examining variable after variable. That work is valuable to a certain group of people and should not be dismissed. However, we recognize it doesn’t always make for simple dinner conversation. These write-ups will hope to simplify and educate you on something that may be new.
So let’s talk about spin rate.
First of all – what is spin rate? Here’s how MLB.com defines it:
A pitcher’s Spin Rate represents the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released. It is measured in revolutions per minute.
The amount of spin on a pitch changes its trajectory. The same pitch thrown at the same Velocity will end up in a different place depending on how much it spins. (For instance, a fastball with a high Spin Rate appears to have a rising effect on the hitter, and it crosses the plate a few inches higher than a fastball of equal Velocity with a lower Spin Rate. Conversely, a lower Spin Rate on a changeup tends to create more movement.)
As more data have become available, most experts have agreed that fastballs and breaking balls are tougher to hit when they possess higher Spin Rates. In fact, some data suggest that Spin Rate correlates more closely than Velocity to swinging-strike percentage.
The short version: higher spin rate generally equals more swinging strikes. This varies from pitch to pitch – for instance, high spin on a splitter isn’t good, because splitters are supposed to dive. This MLB.com breakdown on how spin applies to different pitches is a good example of spin rate’s effectiveness per pitch.
The Chiefs’ king of spin is right-handed pitcher Paolo Espino, thanks to a dazzling curveball with a mighty break. That might not surprise you. Its specific metrics, however, might.
Espino has become a believer in his spin rate as it relates to his success. Here’s what he told us back in May…
“I hit 3,100 (rpm) this year, and I think in the past I hit 32. When I was in Columbus in 2010 or ’11, that’s the first time I heard about spin rate.”
Espino began talking to the Clippers’ video intern in charge of the “TrackMan” program that measures spin rate. That’s where Espino began to realize just how impressive his curveball was.
“I’ve only seen one guy getting close to you”, the intern told Espino. “He told me that it was Ivan Nova. I had no idea what it was then. He only told me it was really high.”
Paolo Espino’s curveball was “really high”? Ladies and gentlemen, that may be the understatement of the century. Once again, that link – Statcast’s look at every pitch thrown at least 100 times last year in Major League Baseball.
At that link, we can see that Garrett Richards threw a curveball with the highest spin in the majors last year – at 3,086 rpm. That means Paolo Espino – who has never pitched in a Major-League game in a career spanning 10 seasons and more than 1,200 innings – has a curveball that spins as much as any curveball in Major League Baseball.
Just how does Espino spin the ball that much? That has to do with his “choke” grip and release point. It’s a topic for a different day. For now, know that with the proper spin rate, you don’t even have to throw 90 miles per hour to strike out batters and pitch effectively at this level – or above.
If you have suggestions for something you’d like to see on Sabermetric Saturday, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have thoughts on what you like or don’t like about this post, those messages are welcome as well. Here’s to exploring.
It’s another new recurring blog segment! Every Wednesday, our broadcast intern Conor Green will take a look at a former Chiefs player who’s made his way to the Major Leagues. Enjoy…
The journey from the minors to the majors varies greatly from player-to-player. For blue chip up-and-comers like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, minor league advancement is often a swift process. But this obviously doesn’t hold true for every prospective major-leaguer. In this edition of Chiefs in the Show, we look at former Chief Marco Estrada, and his professional voyage.
From 2015 to 2016, Estrada has been a revelation in the starting rotation for the Blue Jays. This after playing a starter-reliever hybrid role, across the majority of his 11-year career. In 2016, Estrada sports a 5-3 record, while ranking fourth in the American League in ERA at 2.70.
Picked in the 6th round by the Nationals in 2005, Estrada was a standout at Sylmar High School in California, but was not a highly sought after prospect, resulting in pitching at Glendale Community College in California from 2002 to 2003. Following two years at Glendale, the right-hander transferred to Long Beach State in California, before being drafted in 2005.
After college, it took Estrada three years to progress out of Single-A ball, eventually moving to Double-A Harrisburg in 2008. With the Chiefs in 2009, Estrada had his best season as a professional to that point. In 25 starts, he went 9-5 with an ERA of 3.63 over 136.1 innings. Following the season, he was claimed off waivers by Milwaukee.
With the Brewers, the Californian made 70 starts over five seasons, not once winning more than seven games, while shifting from a starter to reliever role on occasion. Estrada didn’t tally All-Star totals with Milwaukee, but his five years with the Brewers provided an opportunity to start at the big-league level. Estrada will long be appreciative, saying, “I’m thankful every day for the opportunities the Brewers have given me. Not only that they picked me up in the first place, but that they actually gave me a chance to pitch.”
The pitcher’s breakthrough has come in the last two years in Toronto, with Estrada playing a pivotal role in the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run. In the ALDS, down two-games-to-none to the high-powered Rangers, Estrada pitched a sparkler. He went six and one-third innings, allowing just one run, en route to a 5-1 Blue Jays game-three win. Estrada’s performance propelled Toronto to the first of three-consecutive wins, as they eventually won the series in five games.
Then, again facing elimination against the Royals in the ALCS, Estrada kept the Blue Jays alive with another dazzling performance. Trailing three-games-to-one, the former Chief went seven and two-thirds innings, once again allowing just one run, while surrendering only three hits. The Blue Jays later fell to the Royals in game six, but without the playoff poise provided by Estrada, Toronto’s first playoff berth since 1993 wouldn’t have been as memorable.
Over his 11-year career, Estrada has navigated the murky waters of minor-league baseball, faced early hardship at the big-league level, and emerged as one of the more effective and consistent starters in the major-leagues. The road to the bigs was no easy ride, with some bumps along the way, but over the last few years this former Chief has begun to make his mark in the show.
Today begins a new blog series where one of our broadcast interns, Sawyer Kamman, will take a look around the Nationals’ minors for his thoughts on a team or a player with a future in Chiefsville.
This Monday, Sawyer writes about a budding young star in the Nationals’ system, outfielder Victor Robles…
The middle of June commonly marks the return of many casual baseball fans. Gone is the excitement that the NHL and NBA playoffs provide, and not yet on the horizon is the kickoff to football season. With no real other competition, the everyday sports fan now can buckle into the best time of year- the months where baseball reigns king.
For newfound Washington Nationals fans, the transition back to the diamond will be an easy one. At 43-27, the Nats are atop the National League East, five and aonehalf games up on the second-place New York Mets. Last week also brought with it a possible postseason matchup when the Chicago Cubs traveled to Nationals Park for a three-game series. Those games not only gave us some idea on how things may play out in October, but was, perhaps more importantly, a fun, high-energy series of baseball that highlighted some of the game’s youngest stars. Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo all on the same field for three straight nights? Yes please. Dusty Baker and the team managed to take two of three games in that series, including a grind-it-out 12 inning win in the finale. After allowing Chicago to tie it in the ninth, and then take the lead in the 12th, the Nats came back from a run down with a two-run inning for the walkoff win. All in all, it was a huge victory for Washington with a level of pressure and intensity that may next be matched in October.
While the big league boys in D.C. are playing well, we now turn to take a view at some players on the rise. Let’s take a look around the farm system to see who may be playing in a Syracuse jersey soon en route to the big lights of Washington. I’ll highlight a player from a minor-league team in the farm system in an effort to provide information on who may be climbing the ranks and ending up on the field at NBT Bank Stadium. Today’s player comes from Class-A Hagerstown.
Position: OF Age: 19 DOB: 05/19/1997 Bats: R Throws: R Height: 6′ 0″ Weight: 185 lb.
Victor Robles is a name you should remember. Even better perhaps, get to Hagerstown or a stadium where he will be playing at some point soon and snag an autograph, because one day that will likely be worth quite a bit. Robles is an above average player in every facet of the game, a rare combination of power and speed that earns him the “5-tool player” label. His dominance this season portrays that, with the seventh-best batting average, .317, in the South Atlantic League and the second-best on base percentage at .424. He is also among the league tops in runs scored with 44 and hit by pitches with 21 (!!), an astounding number that displays his tendency to find some way, any way, to get aboard the base paths. In all of professional baseball, from low-A to the MLB, Brandon Guyer of Tampa Bay ranks second in HBP with 15, six less than Robles. Once he is aboard, his speed shines and any defense has to be aware of his base-stealing capability. Robles can change the game on the base paths, shown by his 63 career stolen bags. Much like what we have seen with Trea Turner, Robles can turn a two-out, none on single into a threatening inning simply by swiping two consecutive bases. The outfielder was just recently named a 2016 South Atlantic League All-Star, a recognition he can add to his growing collection after being tabbed as a Washington Organizational All-Star last season in his efforts between the Gulf Coast Nationals and the short-season A Auburn Doubledays. Follow the link here to see a write up on Robles’ selection and to view the entire South Atlantic League Northern and Southern All-Star Game rosters. The Northern League team features four other Hagerstown players, and will also be coached by the Suns’ staff.
According to MLB Pipeline, Robles is one of the top baseball prospects in terms of raw tools. The outfielder ranks only behind Byron Buxton, the #1 ranked prospect by MLB.com in both 2014 and 2015, when his tool grades are totaled up. Buxton was drafted second overall in 2012, making his MLB debut last June, a sign that bodes well for Robles. Keep in mind that scouts grade on a scale of 20-80, with a 50 grade being average and 65 being at an “all-star” level. MLB Pipeline has graded Robles as follows:
- Hitting: 60
- Power: 45
- Run: 70
- Arm: 65
- Field: 60
That gives us a total of 300 points overall, behind just Buxton (340) and ahead of all other Major League prospects (next is Jorge Mateo, NYY, at 295). While his power is his “worst” facet of the game, Robles can hit the ball hard, and most importantly, to any field. Entering this season Robles had seven career home runs, but has nearly doubled that number in the first half of 2016, hitting five homers thus far. It is also worth noting that this seasons long balls have come against tougher pitching at the A level, compared to low-A ball and Rookie ball in years prior. Without home runs, simply putting the ball in play is just the beginning for Robles, who can use his speed, and ultra-aggressive mentality, to take an extra base. Robles can fly around the bases, making him an extra-base threat every time he steps up to bat. On the defensive side of the ball, Robles has made it clear he possesses a great instinct when tracking down fly balls. His first step is nearly always in the right direction, and that advantage doubled with his speed makes him a consummate outfielder with the range to take away what usually could be sure-fire base hits. Even if balls do get down in front of him, his strong arm will make any runner or base coach wary of attempting to take an extra base. Aside from his speed, his accurate, very strong arm is the best skill that Robles owns.
Another value of Robles is just that; his value. From the Dominican Republic, the Nationals spent just $225,000 when signing Robles. Had he been in the draft that year, many speculated he had the talent to become a first-round pick. Six outfielders were drafted in 2013’s first round. All signed bonuses of at least $1.8 million. The highest bonus came with Clint Frazier, who signed for $3.5 million as the fifth overall pick. While saving money is one thing, the return on investment is another. Of the six first rounders mentioned, just two, Aaron Judge at 18 and Austin Meadows at 22, outrank Robles on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects of 2016 list. The Nats signee doesn’t sit far back, ranking at 29th. One day Robles will be paid the big bucks, but for now the Washington organization can feel great about a top-ranked prospect signed for next to nothing.
That brings us to the long term position of Robles and where he will fit in the Nationals system. Many sites and scouts believe Robles will be MLB-ready in 2018. With his current skill set so prolific and at such a young age, that truly isn’t too far of a stretch. Praise is high on Robles for his wise beyond his years decision making, especially at the plate. Coaches have become accustomed to the young star being extremely patient and vigilant while batting. Robles doesn’t swing at balls and has become well trained in his batting approach, even with two strikes. All of these skills are normally possessed by older, veteran players, but for Robles are a trait that separate him from his youthful peers. While Robles would be very young on Opening Day of 2018, just over a month until he would be legally able to purchase his first beer, a recent Nationals corner outfielder has me thinking that debating age and skill set is just a clown question, bro. The aforementioned Bryce Harper will be a free agent in 2019, with the rest of his Nationals starting outfielder platoon, Ben Revere and Jayson Werth, becoming free agents the year prior in 2018. This not only leaves space for Robles, but if the Nationals were to retain Harper in what will likely be one of the largest, and most lucrative, bidding wars in MLB history, the organization would have to cut costs elsewhere, and a young prospect in the field would give that option. While there is no doubt that Robles will eventually make his way to the bigs, his path could converge with the Chiefs in short time. He has excelled thus far at every level, seamlessly making transitions to tougher competition with ease. For Robles, it seems as though he will be able to climb through the farm system rankings in an overall speedy manner. He has already shown his excellence at the beginning stages of professional ball, and looks ready to move up already after his Midseason All-Star selection in the A-level South Atlantic League. If Robles continues at his current torrid pace, which he has given no indication to believe elsewise, my guess is that 2018 could be a benchmark for Robles to see action in Syracuse. When 2018 rolls around, Robles could be on the path to the bigs, though in baseball years, with injury and season-long slumps always a possibility, 2018 is a long way off.
A lot can happen to a prospect in a relatively short amount of time. Many come to fruition and become big league All-Stars while others fall along the minor league wayside, never establishing themselves in the pros. Cases of both are seen every season, though the success stories are naturally much more sensationalized. As for Victor Robles, his future is very bright. Barring unforeseen circumstances, this special young player will make an impact in the majors one day. He is built for baseball, and has displayed his above average abilities on every level thus far, and will likely continue to do so as he moves up the ranks. There are no signs that this highly touted prospect will slow down anytime soon, and the Nationals can feel very comfortable that they have one of the game’s top young players in their system as they move forward.
(Editor’s note: Yes, there’s probably a better name for this segment than “Kevin’s Corner”, but that’s what we’re going with for now. Leave your better ideas in the comments if ya have ’em.)
I sat down with Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ Director of Player Development, last week for an interview that can be found here. At that link, you’ll find Scialabba’s thoughts on Trea Turner, A.J. Cole, and the Nationals’ defensive shifts. Off air, however, Scialabba was kind enough to take some more time to give his thoughts on a few more Chiefs prospects and their viability as future big leaguers. This is about as close as we’ll get to having a scouting report from a professional scout on here, so enjoy…
On Austin Voth:
Austin’s been doing great. He really commands the ball extremely well. His strengths are his deception, his strike-throwing ability, his ability to command the fastball. His curveball has evolved over time into a pitch that I think is a strikeout pitch now. He’s a good athlete. Very pleased with his development.
On Abel De Los Santos:
Lightning quick arm. He’s got two pitches, when he’s right, that have outstanding action. The changeup dives, drops right out of the zone. It’s late movement. He’s got a breaking ball with a downer shape. When it’s right and he’s commanding it, it’s a swing and miss pitch too. His biggest thing is repeating his mechanics, repeating his delivery and throwing quality strikes. When he’s up in the zone, he flies open and the fastball gets a little straight. Youth is on his side.
On Brian Goodwin:
We’re really pleased with where he is right now. Staying through the baseball extremely well. Making adjustments, hitting the ball to all fields. He really carried over his success he had in Venezuela in the offseason. He’s got a little sense of urgency now to his game. Not only maturing physically, but mentally as well, which is important. Right mindset to attack the fastball and attack pitches you know you should drive.
The best stories in baseball often come from scouts. Last Sunday in Buffalo, I sat down with Twins scout Earl Winn, one of the great storytellers I’ve met in the minors, who talked about how he helped give former Tennessee Titans G.M. Ruston Webster his first job. (Turns out Earl’s more than just a baseball guy.)
Later that day, a scout from Japan joined our table, turning the conversation to ex-Chiefs playing overseas. One of the first names to pop up was Brandon Laird. It wouldn’t be the last we heard of Laird this week…
With that home run, Laird – who hit .300 with 18 home runs, tied for the league lead in RBIs and finished third in total bases for the 2014 Chiefs – won a year’s supply of free Kirin Ichiban beer. Seriously. A professional sports team is giving one of its players – paid to be in the best possible physical shape and perform at the highest level – one full year of free alcohol.
I, for one, can’t think of any way that promotion could work out poorly.
Laird, who also won $10,000 for his bacon-slathered tater, had this to say:
Laird said he’d put the money toward his new house in Arizona, but didn’t yet know what he’d do with the beer supply.
“Definitely not drink it,” he joked. “Maybe give some to the batting practice pitchers or whoever wants it.”
Another scout whom we’ve enjoyed meeting this year is Jason Lefkowitz of the Seattle Mariners. Avid listeners will know that we occasionally dabble in a “Minor League Name of the Night” segment, where Eric and I choose a ridiculous name from the world of the minors and break it down. Jason, our segment’s #1 fan, has contributed the following monikers:
- Sitaifoni Fukofuka
- Sicnarf Loopstok
- Skye Boldt
If you have a weird Minor League name you’d like us to discuss, by all means – the more bizarre, the better. Leave it in the comments below, email email@example.com or tweet us your suggestion @ChiefsRadio. We’ll show you some love on the next broadcast.
That’s all for now. The Chiefs and Indians, featuring two of the league’s best starting pitchers by ERA to date, take the field at 6:35 tonight. For now – enjoy some Bruce.
The most eye-catching difference with the Chiefs this year hasn’t been the new uniforms or the new roster. It’s the new defensive alignments. Syracuse has overshifted in the first four games more dramatically than the Chiefs did at just about any point last season.
The shifts are part of a new organizational philosophy put forth by the Nationals. In spring training, Nationals field coordinator Jeff Garber worked extensively on shifts with the position players. Chiefs hitting coach Brian Daubach is in charge of the team’s defensive alignments this year. Before home games, the team has a sheet posted in the clubhouse hallway that notes the tendencies of each opposing team’s hitter.
In Tuesday’s doubleheader vs. Buffalo, the Chiefs placed three infielders on one side against a handful of Buffalo batters. Here’s a look at those alignments, starting with the shift to left-handed Domonic Brown…
On the left of your screen, shortstop Trea Turner fields a ground ball hit by Brown in the first inning of Game One yesterday. Without the overshift, that grounder likely makes its way into center field for an RBI single. Second baseman Brendan Ryan is the player to the right, coming in from the edge of the outfield grass.
Next up, a shift against left-handed Casey Kotchman, which was even more dramatic…
This picture shows the Chiefs’ infield after a slow ground ball to first base. Back it up before the pitch, and you’d find second baseman Brendan Ryan even deeper onto the outfield – maybe 10 or so steps. Meanwhile, Turner’s shift from shortstop is slightly deeper than against Brown. Again, this freeze-frame is from after the ball’s been hit, so Turner’s ranging to his right to hover near second base.
While shifts against left-handed batters seem more frequent, the Chiefs also pulled three infielders to one side against right-handed batters, with mixed success. Here’s an alignment against Jesus Montero…
On this occasion, the Chiefs’ alignment worked to perfection. Second baseman Brendan Ryan, playing well to the third-base side, fields a ground ball from Montero and throws to first from near his usual shortstop position for an easy out. In yesterday’s game two, however, Montero hit a weak bouncer to the vacant hole on the right side for a single in a key sixth-inning rally.
That’s a play that opponents of the shift will point to in their opposition to over-defending. However, in the small sample size of yesterday’s 14-inning doubleheader, the Chiefs made more plays thanks to shifts than they lost, particularly against the third and fourth-place hitters, Brown and Montero.
One caveat to all this: if you’re going to move your middle infielders around, you’d better have infielders with good range. With Brendan Ryan and Scott Sizemore at second base and Trea Turner at shortstop, the Chiefs aced that test yesterday.
1. Father and Son
I’ve said it all along – despite the Chiefs’ less-than-stellar overall record, last season didn’t lack for memorable moments. Cutting down this list to 10 wasn’t easy. Stopping the list at 15 or 20 wouldn’t have been easy, either. 2015’s most memorable moment, however, was never in doubt.
Kids who are into sports – as I was, and, reader, as I’m guessing you were – frequently gain that love of sports from their fathers. My dad taught me my childhood love of the Yankees, the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Posters and program covers of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera adorned my childhood bedroom. Brett Favre ornaments hung on the Christmas tree every December. (They still hang.)
There was nothing better than attending a baseball game or celebrating a championship with my dad. I learned my love of the game from him. He bought me a pitching net that I bounced fastballs off of in my backyard. He hung a tennis ball on a string from a tree branch in our front yard and turned one of my Little League baseball seasons around. He taught me how to shoot a basketball, how to throw a football and how to swing a golf club. (The last of those isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Sorry, Dad. That one’s on me.)
My story’s not unique, though. Many of us have been fortunate to have that fatherly connection in our lives. Many of us want to be our dad when we grow up. I was never in that boat – my father’s an engineer during his day job. (I never gravitated toward his way of manual labor and his scientific mind, unless you mean the science of Rafael Martin’s slider.)
But some of us have that chance. Some of us get to follow in our dad’s footsteps, as enormous as they may seem. Some of us – like Tony Gwynn, Jr.
To be honest – I felt bad for Tony last year. I didn’t just feel bad because of the pain he had to endure after losing his father to cancer in June 2014, at the age of 54. I felt bad because Tony had to face a reminder of that death every week. It’s the first thing on any reporter’s mind. Every seven days or so, I trudged down to the clubhouse to ask Tony if he’d talk to this person or that person. He hid it well, but it wore on him a bit by the end of the season. How could it not? Who wants to be reminded that their father – the man they loved, the man they idolized, the man whose line of work they followed despite an untouchable, Hall of Fame legacy – is no longer there?
I expressed my feelings to Junior near the end of the season. “Look,” I told him, “if you want me to stop bringing this interview requests to you…”
“It’s all good, man”, Tony said. “I get it.”
He meant that. He understood that despite the pain it brought, that was part of his life. It’s right there in the name – Tony Gwynn. In my five years of covering the Chiefs, I can hardly think of anyone more well-equipped to deal with that level of attention than Tony Gwynn, Jr. He’s a terrific young man with a wonderful spirit. He greeted every reporter and television camera with the same infectious smile and upbeat personality. That’s just how he operates.
Anyway – Tony could have helped himself out with media requests if he wasn’t so darned dramatic last year. He’d already delivered a handful of walkoff and clutch late-game hits by last Sunday, June 21st – Father’s Day. One year and five days after Tony, Sr. passed away. The first Father’s Day he didn’t get to spend with his father around.
In a tie game in the tenth inning, Kevin Keyes singled. Ricky Hague sacrificed him to second. And Anthony Keith Gwynn, Jr. delivered the most beautiful moment of 2015.
Thanks, Tony – for the memories on the field and the grace and class in which you handled yourself off it. At the end of the day, that’s what 2015 was all about.
(One final note before I sign off on this countdown and turn the last word over to Eric: Tony was gracious enough to join me the day after his game-winner to talk about his father and his own fatherhood. I enjoyed this conversation and hope you will as well.)
2. 11 Up
The thought of this Chiefs team coming one victory short of a franchise win streak seemed unfathomable up until the moment it happened. This is a Chiefs team that was 43-67 heading into the streak. A Chiefs team that lost 19 of 20 games and 25 of 28 in a stretch from May to June. A Chiefs team that hadn’t won more than four consecutive games heading into the streak – but had lost four or more in a row on six separate occasions beforehand.
Frankly, the odds of this group winning 11 consecutive games were about as high as…oh, let’s say for hypothetical’s sake, the odds of a 10 seed with 13 losses making the Final Four.
You’ve already read about the beginning of the streak: August 3rd, in a Stephen Strasburg-pitched game vs. Pawtucket. The PawSox would become frequent punching bags from that point forward. Some highlights…
- August 4th: Matt Skole and Matt den Dekker blasted back-to-back home runs in a 3-1 win over Pawtucket. (#2)
- August 6th: Paolo Espino threw eight shutout innings in a win over the PawSox. By length and runs allowed, it was the Chiefs’ most effective start of the season. For all of one day. (#4)
- August 7th: Another one we’ve covered: Richard Bleier’s complete-game shutout of the Sox. (#5)
- August 9th: A.J. Cole finished off seven straight wins against Pawtucket with one of his strongest outings of the year; seven innings, three hits, one run, one walk and six strikeouts. (#7)
- August 11th: Matt den Dekker and Emmanuel Burriss delivered two-run triples in the same inning. That was more than enough in a rapid-fire finishing off of Lehigh Valley. (#8)
- August 13th: The streak’s most thorough beatdown; an 11-2 drubbing of the IronPigs, highlighted by a four-run first. (#10)
- August 14th: The win streak’s last day was arguably its most impressive. The Chiefs knocked IL ERA leader Scott Copeland out with an eight-run barrage in the fourth inning; an inning that included five extra-base hits, among them a three-run home run from Kevin Keyes. (#11)
The only team with a longer win streak in Chiefs history? The 1979 Chiefs, who lost in the seventh game of the Governor’s Cup finals.
Eric, I think the fans wanted more overlap…
3. Cardiac Chiefs
There wasn’t a more thrilling finish than the Chiefs’ comeback last Thursday, July 30th. Syracuse, as Eric detailed yesterday, scored four runs in the ninth to erase a 4-0 deficit, with Trea Turner’s two-run single, Tony Gwynn’s RBI single and Matt Skole’s RBI double sending the game to extra innings. A ground-ball RBI single from Steve Lerud in the 10th sealed the deal.
That ending was even wackier, though, when you break it down. So let’s break it down…
- That comeback would have been significantly easier if the Chiefs hadn’t coughed up a pair in the top of the ninth. Right-hander Paul Demny entered in a 2-0 game and struggled through a 28-pitch inning. With two outs and the bases loaded, eventual I.L. MVP Matt Hague served a two-run single into center field, doubling the Bisons’ lead.
- The bottom of the ninth started in bizarre fashion. With Chamberlain on in relief, Caleb Ramsey hit a chopper to Hague at first base. What should have been a routine out turned into an infield single when Chamberlain ambled over to the base, causing first-base umpire Doug Vines to call Ramsey safe. However…replays showed Ramsey was, while close, clearly out. Chamberlain’s foot beat him to the bag. The improbable rally, as it turns out, began on a blown call.
- Side note: Buffalo manager Gary Allenson likely would have blown a gasket after the call; however, he’d already blown his share of gaskets. Allenson was ejected arguing a line-drive double play in the sixth inning, claiming that first baseman Matt Skole’s foot came off the bag before he received a throw. Ironically, video replays showed that Allenson was wrong on this account – Skole stuck to the base for just enough time.
Okay, back to the ninth…
- Side note: Buffalo manager Gary Allenson likely would have blown a gasket after the call; however, he’d already blown his share of gaskets. Allenson was ejected arguing a line-drive double play in the sixth inning, claiming that first baseman Matt Skole’s foot came off the bag before he received a throw. Ironically, video replays showed that Allenson was wrong on this account – Skole stuck to the base for just enough time.
- After Ramsey’s controversial infield single, Josh Johnson grounded a ball off Chamberlain that bounced to the third-base side for another infield single. The Bisons’ staff came out to check on Chamberlain afterward. He stayed in the game to face Steve Lerud…
- …who nearly extended the rally. Lerud hit a blooper down the left-field line, but Dalton Pompey raced in to make a nifty sliding catch, stealing a hit from the Chiefs. It felt like a backbreaker at the time.
- Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. Darin Mastroianni singled to load the bases. That led to a visit to the mound from Bisons pitching coach Randy St. Clair. Why it didn’t propel Chamberlain’s ouster, we still don’t know…
- …but Joba stuck around long enough to allow a two-run single to Trea Turner. That marked the end of Chamberlain’s night. Bizarrely, the Bisons let him throw 27 pitches, several of them high-stress, in his third game in four days after being signed from the free-agent wire. Even more bizarrely, on Chamberlain’s way off the field, he walked over to first base and began a conversation with Turner that lasted a full 44 seconds. Steve Grilli, our TV analyst that night, said that was “something I’d never seen in baseball”. (Turner told me after the fact that Chamberlain was asking him how his pitches looked. He’d never seen that, either.)
- Back to the game…Bobby Korecky, in the midst of a difficult season, took over for Chamberlain and faced Jason Martinson. With the count 2 and 2, Korecky fired a fastball generously above the belt… that plate umpire Jansen Visconti signaled to be strike three. Grilli, on the broadcast, described it as “borderline at best”.
- That put the game in the hands of Gwynn, Jr. Here’s another forgotten moment of the inning – Gwynn wasn’t in the game until the eighth. He pinch-ran for cleanup hitter Kevin Keyes in the previous inning. Fresh off the bench, Gwynn worked the at-bat of the night. He fouled off three two-strike pitches and, on the ninth offering from Korecky, served the table-setting single into center field.
- That set the stage for Skole’s tying double, with Gwynn thrown out at home on a perfect relay by right fielder Ty Kelly and second baseman Jon Berti. The Chiefs had roared back to life, however, and a 1-2-3, two-strikeout 10th from Rafael Martin sent the game into the bottom, where Lerud was the hero.
Here’s the TL;DR version; top-of-inning struggle, blown call (which manager didn’t argue because he was ejected for arguing an actually correct call), ground ball off pitcher, injury mound visit, sliding catch, pitcher hung out to dry, 44-second chat between departing pitcher and batter who just recorded a hit off him, bad third-strike call, nine-pitch last-gasp single in player’s first at-bat, perfect relay to the plate. Oh, and five runs for the comeback of the year, somewhere in there.
Not bad for a Thursday night.
4. The Trea Hey Kid
Imagine you’re an accountant. You graduate college in May with an accounting degree from a prestigious university. Next thing you know, you’re on the fast track, hired by a firm in June. You get right to work and immediately start moving up the corporate ladder.
Suddenly, in December, your boss calls you in. There’s a related firm across the country that wants your services. They’ve decided to take you on, but they won’t have space until the following June – so, you’ll stay at your current firm, which no longer requires your services, for an additional half-year. Oh, and, you have no say in this matter.
Got it? Now you might understand Trea Turner’s 2015 a little better – and understand just how impressive it was.
Turner starred at N.C. State before being selected by San Diego with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft. It didn’t take long for Turner to, well, turn heads with his play – he hit .369 in 46 games with Class-A Fort Wayne after an early promotion. Turner seemed like a large part of the Padres’ future – a young infielder with world-class speed, a strong bat and good instincts.
In the blink of an eye, that changed. On December 19, 2014, Turner was traded to the Nationals in a three-team, 10-player deal – except, he wasn’t. Because of a decades-old rule forbidding players from being traded within one year of their draft selection, Turner was technically a “player to be named later”. He couldn’t report to the Nationals until the second week of June.
Thus begun baseball’s oddest standoff. Everyone knew Turner was headed to Washington, but nobody could do anything about it. His agent talked about filing a grievance, but the rule didn’t change until after the fact. Turner reported to Padres camp and ended up in Double-A San Antonio. Here’s where both Turner and the Padres deserve credit – from Trea’s perspective, he didn’t sulk. He showed up, went to work, and delivered, sporting a .322/.385/.471 line in 58 Double-A games. The Padres, meanwhile, who had nothing at all to gain, slotted Turner into the middle of the San Antonio lineup and made him an integral part of their organization during his brief time there.
Eventually, Turner made his way to Syracuse in late June, coming over after a 10-game stint with Harrisburg. Eric covered his early struggles and first home run a couple of weeks ago, so I’d like to cover the overall impact Turner had on the Chiefs here. This isn’t a memorable “moment”, per se, but a collection of items on why Turner’s impact stands out as one of the defining memories of last season…
- Turner’s first Chiefs game was June 26th. His last of the year was August 19th. In that time span, the Chiefs went 30-22. Before his arrival, the team was 26-48.
- Between August 3rd and August 14th, the Chiefs won a season-high 11 games in a row, the most for the franchise in decades. In that span, Turner hit .318 and went 5-for-5 in stolen bases, playing in 10 of the 11 wins.
- In just 48 games, Turner had three triples and 14 steals. He may have been the fastest runner in the league. In fact, during his major-league cup of coffee, he may have been the fastest man in the bigs.
- Once Turner snapped his 0-for-18 streak to begin his Syracuse career, he began an immediate 13-game hit streak. In total, he reached base in 39 of 45 starts with the Chiefs.
All told, Turner’s impact wasn’t measurable simply by statistics. The burst of energy, youth and speed he gave the Chiefs seemed to resonate throughout the team. It culminated in a major-league call up in late August. That doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Turner, who might find himself in a starting Syracuse role rather than straddling the Nationals’ bench – but it’ll be hard to top that first impression.
Time for more overlap, Eric?