What a Week!

Well, that was quite a week of baseball, so much so that I didn’t get a chance to update this blog amid all of the happenings, particularly due to Ken Griffey Jr.’s retirement and Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game. Running down what I gots:

• On Wednesday, amid a three-game series between the two teams, I covered the suddenly-interesting NL Central race between the overly favored Cardinals and the upstart Reds. The Cardinals came into the season favored by PECOTA to win the division by the widest margin of any team. They’ve played better than expected overall even given a sub-.500 record amid their May power outage. The race has more to do with the Reds, a team whose collection of young talent I’ve been (over)hyping for years in preseason radio hits. They’ve suddenly and surprisingly put together the league’s top-scoring offense even with the hindrance of Dusty Baker’s inability to find an effective leadoff hitter, and some trouble with the pitching staff:

To be fair, the Reds’ staff has been better lately, that blown six-run lead notwithstanding, putting up a 3.84 ERA in May after a 5.41 mark in April. The starters were especially good last month, with a 3.18 ERA and 20 quality starts out of 29, with rookie Sam LeCure providing one in his major-league debut on May 28 in place of Bailey, who’s on the DL due to shoulder inflammation. He’s fifth-starter fodder, but the Reds do have higher-upside reinforcements available. Edinson Volquez is simultaneously working his way back from Tommy John surgery and serving a 50-game suspension for PED usage; one can rail against the absurdity of the latter, but for a team in contention, this counts as a major break. He could be back around the All-Star break.

Meanwhile, lefties Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom spent March challenging Leake for the fifth spot, are at Triple-A. Wood, a three-star prospect, has a 4.19 ERA and a 60-17 K/BB ratio in 62 1/3 innings at Triple-A Louisville, though he’s been touched for 1.3 homers per nine. The much more heralded Chapman has a 3.55 ERA and 55/25 K/BB ratio in 45.2 innings while yielding just four homers. As Kevin Goldstein noted the other day, he hasn’t dominated like Stephen Strasburg, but he’s been very good quite often. Under normal circumstances, he’d merit a September callup, but it’s tough to imagine the Reds battling for a playoff spot while leaving him on the farm if he’s throwing well, even if he only winds up in the bullpen. In any case, the team does have pitching depth to draw upon if they’re serious about contending.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Baker, and particularly his reputation in handling young arms. His track record lends itself to cautionary tales told around campfires as well as ready-made satire, but even if one discounts the career arcs of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior as ancient history, he’s already left his mark on this staff. Harang’s ERA since his four-inning May 22, 2008 relief stint is a bulky 4.93, compared to 4.10 prior, yet he’s still ranked among the majors’ top 20 in Pitcher Abuse Points in each of the past three years. Volquez ranked 17th in PAP in his first season in the rotation, then wound up needing TJS after just nine starts last year. Cueto was pushed hard last summer while battling shoulder inflammation, and put up a 7.05 ERA after July 1.

While the Reds are currently second in the league in pitches per start (101.3), they’re just eighth in PAP after ranking fourth last year. None of the starters have thrown a Category 4 start (122-132 pitches), but Bailey (121 pitches on May 1), Harang (121 on May 8 ) and Cueto (118 on May 5) have all come close. Whether Bailey’s long outing and his injury are connected is unknown, though the pitcher vocally defended his skipper upon hitting the DL.

The Reds have an impressive aggregation of young talent, but they don’t have a battle-tested team the way the Cardinals do. In order to hang with the big boys, they’ll need this latest burst of strong pitching to keep up in some way, shape or form, and they’re particularly going to need Baker to handle his young starters with sensitivity, a notion that conjures up visions of a fox licking his chops as he fires up a barbecue outside a henhouse. That in turn will likely require general manager Walt Jocketty to keep a close eye on Baker’s handling of the staff, particularly when it comes to protecting the 22-year-old Leake, who’s throwing less than 15 pitches per inning, but will nonetheless face an innings limit somewhere down the line. Having Volquez, Wood, and/or Chapman in the mix by season’s end should help that, but the Reds will need their share of breaks for that even to matter.

• Wednesday quickly got crazy. First there was Griffey’s retirement, at once sudden — it’s not often a guy with over 600 homers hangs up his spikes midseason, particularly given that there are in fact six such players in baseball history — and inevitable, given that he was hitting so poorly and had created a distraction with the reports of his clubhouse napping. I quickly threw together a JAWS-flavored look, but not before waxing a bit nostalgic:

The Mariners, with whom Griffey began his major league career back in 1989, purportedly re-signed him as much for his effect on the clubhouse atmosphere as for whatever was left in his bat, but with a 20-31 record and an offense that was averaging just 3.7 runs per game, there was little defense for carrying him on the roster, particularly after the recent Slumbergate controversy turned the Seattle locker room into a chest-thump-a-thon.

None of which should devalue what Griffey accomplished in the game. His 13 All-Star appearances, 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999), four home run crowns, and 1997 AL MVP award are a pretty fair haul as far as honors are concerned, and his performance in the five-game 1995 American League Division Series against the Yankees — five homers, followed by his scoring the series-winning run on Edgar Martinez’s double off Jack McDowell in the bottom of the 11th inning — is credited with helping to save baseball in Seattle.

Between that amazing run with the ’95 Mariners, his spectacular leaping catches at the wall, and his infectious smile, Griffey would have left his mark on the game without being one of the preeminent sluggers of the era, but it’s his homers for which he’ll most likely be remembered. Griffey’s 630 homers rank fifth all-time behind only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. When he hit 56 home runs in 1997, it was he, not Bonds or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa who seemed like the obvious candidate to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Griffey hit 56 again the next year, but the spotlight shone upon McGwire and Sosa, and soon afterwards shifted to Bonds.

That latter trio players, as we now know, has since been connected to various performance-enhancing drugs while Griffey has not. While we’re still far from knowing the truth about what happened during an era where illicit substance usage was all too common — we never will — Griffey’s lack of a connection to that endless scandal managed to overshadow the last 10 years of his career, a span during which he averaged just 19 homers and 99 games a year while dealing with an endless litany of leg problems. Thus he’s been preserved as the innocent, smiling face of an era which many observers now view as soured.

Anyway, according to JAWS, Griffey ranks sixth among center fielders — behind Mays, Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio and Mantle — on career, peak and total measures. It’s amazing and saddening to think what he might have accomplished without injuries, perhaps passing Ruth’s 714 homer mark if not Aaron’s 755, but what we got was still pretty amazing. (Thanks to Hardball Talk’s Aaron Gleeman and the Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik for the shout-outs).

• The Griffey news was instantly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Jim Joyce’s blown call at first base on what would have been the final out of the third perfect game of the year — an astounding enough occurrence given that not since 1880 had there even been a year in which two such games were thrown; if you don’t know offhand how many balls and strikes it took, it doesn’t really count, does it? Watching the eighth and ninth innings via MLB.tv while instant-messaging with Steve Goldman, Nick Stone and the Twitscape, I had barely finished hyperventilating over Austin Jackson’s spectacular over-the-shoulder catch for the penultimate out when the outrage began.

Occupied by the Griffey writeup, my reaction unfolded in a rather fragmentary fashion. Mindful of the recent controversies involving umpires (particularly Joe West, not to mention last October’s ridiculousness), I joined the chorus: “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??? BRING ON THE FUCKING ROBOT UMPS YESTERDAY,” I tweeted momentarily after the play. Watching the aftermath, the grace with which both the pitcher and the umpire handled themselves, I noted both that “Jim Joyce’s otherwise upstanding rep clearly illustrates why instant replay use should be expanded. Reverse the call & his error is forgiven,” and that “Armando Galarraga showed more class in losing his perfect game than Dallas Braden did in completing his.” The latter thought — by which I meant more the whole narrative arc running from Moundgate through Braden’s subsequent running of the mouth through Granny Braden‘s “Stick it, A-Rod!” — was quoted or retweeted hundreds of times and gained me about a hundred new followers when it was all said and done.

In the end, I’m glad commissioner Bud Selig resisted the temptation to overturn the blown call and that angry fans resisted the call to mob violence in search of Joyce’s scalp. Not only is there the likelihood that Galarraga’s feat may live longer in memory as the new Harvey Haddix than he would as the new Len Barker, but the whole scenario turned out to be something of a teachable moment. Collecting a few links of the best links amid Friday’s AL Hit List entry:

[#6 Tigers] Nobody’s Perfect: Armando Galarraga is deprived of a perfect game—one that would have been the 21st of all-time, the third of the season, and incredibly, the second of the week—by a blown call by first base umpire Jim Joyce on the potential final out; a calm and collected Galarraga retires the next hitter to end the game. Controversy rages as to whether commissioner Bud Selig should overturn the blown call or expand the use of instant replay, and while the play stands, both Galarraga and Joyce show exceptional class in addressing the matter after it happens.

I’d like to have included Alex Belth’s take as well; he hit it out of the park:

Baseball brings us together. It’s a truism that can smack of cliche when invoked in a sentimental or nostalgic frame of mind, but it’s true all the same. And sometimes the game chokes up even the tough guys and the cynics…

This togetherness is why I chose to write about baseball and about being a baseball fan when I started this blog seven-and-a-half years ago. That’s why most of you guys roll through. That’s what we do. Today at work, people that could not care less about baseball were talking about the umpire’s blown call. “WORST CALL EVER” said the headline on the front page of the Daily News. There is nothing like injustice to bring people together, nothing more binding than “He wuz robbed!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to infamy. The two principal characters displayed such authenticity that the moment of greatness prevailed despite Joyce’s terrible mistake… Galarraga was so at ease with this basic fact that it stripped the drama of a victim. There was no outlet for any outrage. (Now, if the same thing had happened to a jacked-up spaz like Dallas Braden and a hard-nosed blowhard like Joe West it would have been like Wrestlemania and perhaps one of the trashiest scenes since Disco Demolition Night.) But Galarraga didn’t feel persecuted. He felt badly for Joyce. He knew the guy was hurting. After all, it’s got to be every umpire’s worst dream to blow a call of that magnitude. Galarraga didn’t let it ruin anything.

Then of course, Jim Joyce handled himself in such a way that I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that he’s a credit to his profession and to the game. We should all be that forthright, earnest, and professional in face of screwing the pooch. The umpires have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, but in what is clearly the biggest mistake by an umpire in years, Joyce was a full-grown man. He didn’t hide. He admitted that he was wrong. He was genuine. I don’t know what more can you ask from a person.

• Amid all of that, Thursday’s NL Hit List got somewhat lost in the shuffle, but I was quite proud of it, particularly given the Marlins rant and the Werner (not Whitey) Herzog reference:

[#9 Marlins] Perfect Crime: Victimized by Roy Halladay’s throwing a perfect game against them in front of 25,086 paying fans (65% capacity), the Marlins find a new way to devalue baseball history by selling unused tickets to the game in order to make a fast buck-while also padding their attendance total (yes, really). Screw Jeffrey Loria, David Samson, their merry band of money-grubbing carpetbaggers and the horse they rode in on; the money they’ll raise won’t buy them a clue.

[#14 Diamondbacks] Fire, and Lots of It: The Diamondbacks’ losing streak reaches 10 in a row, including four straight one-run losses and a 31-inning scoreless streak. As the offense sputters, the bullpen continues to smolder, surrendering the winning run in all four games (once via walkoff balk!) and throwing the obligatory Chad Qualls blown save in for free; he and Juan Gutierrez, who surrenders a walkoff homer to Matt Kemp, are second and third in the majors in negative WXRL. Diamondback relievers have allowed opposing hitters to bat .309/.390/.545; the last time such a conflagration raged in the desert, Werner Herzog filmed it.

Back in a bit with more.

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