Buster Olney: Insider MLB

Jeter's legacy: consistency, reliability 

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
10:32
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Derek JeterAl Bello/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter hit a game-winning RBI single Thursday night in his final game at Yankee Stadium.
Two camps have warred throughout Derek Jeter’s career -- those who claim he has raised his level of play in crucial moments, versus the crowd of skeptics, who countered that Jeter merely cashed in on a fragment of his extraordinary number of opportunities on the big stage.

I always thought both sides missed the point. I don’t believe Jeter suddenly got better when we were all watching, but he has never been diminished by the pressure, either. We’ve seen accomplished veterans playing in a critical spot, and they disintegrate, putting too much pressure on themselves -- trying too hard to get a big hit or struggling to command a fastball.

Jeter’s greatest attribute has always been that he reduced the playing of games to the lowest common denominator: He just had fun. After the contracts were signed and the media questions were answered and the fans were acknowledged, he just had fun, treating a World Series game the same way he treated a season opener at Kalamazoo Central High School.

Pace of play committee lacks right voices 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
10:05
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videoLOS ANGELES -- Another in the season-long burst of complaints erupted recently over one of the on-the-fly rule changes that were implemented in 2014. An official with Major League Baseball privately conceded that the criticism, in this particular case, was fully warranted.

“We didn’t think about that possibility,” he acknowledged privately. “We probably should have.”

The sport’s worst nightmare still has a chance to play out, that a crucial October moment will hinge on one of the still murky corners of instant replay or Rule 7.13, which addresses home plate collisions. Overall, however, it has been a year of significant progress, a long step in the right direction. More calls are correct, through replay, and we haven't seen a single injured catcher or baserunner carried off the field because of a home plate pileup, which really was the driving force behind 7.13.

But the official’s statement -- “We didn’t think about that possibility. We probably should have.” -- should echo in Major League Baseball’s Park Avenue hallways.

When immediate changes are needed, it’s important that baseball reacts swiftly, as officials did with the ill-fated transfer interpretation earlier this year, and with the recent clarification of Rule 7.13. When possible, however, it would be good for more percolation, more consideration, more thought. It’s why the new committee to address pace of play comes with some surprises.

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Stanton's injury could cause MLB change 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
9:57
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Giancarlo StantonAP Photo/Morry GashMarlins star Giancarlo Stanton is likely out for the season after being hit in the face by a pitch Thursday.
On this date in 1952, the Pittsburgh Pirates did something no other team had done before. From NationalPastime.com:

At Forbes Field, the Pirates become the first team to use protective head gear, a precursor to the batting helmet that protects the players' temples. Branch Rickey's innovation, worn both at the plate and in the field in the Bucs' twin bill split with Boston, is a plastic hat with a foam layer attached to the hat band.


On Sept. 9, 1979, Bob Montgomery -- the backup catcher for Boston’s Carlton Fisk -- took the final at-bat of his career, a moment notable because it was the last helmet-less at-bat by any hitter in a major league game.

When the rule requiring batters to use helmets was put in place eight years before, all the players who hit without them to that point were grandfathered into the regulation and allowed to continue to hit without the additional protection for the sake of their comfort.

The composition and shape of helmets has changed many times through the years, from something that was little more than a lined hat to the high-tech stuff we see now, when the composition of the helmets has been through military-style testing. All with regard for player safety.

There was no protection in place for Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, when he was hit directly in the face by a pitch thrown by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers; Stanton suffered dental damage and fractures.

Chase Headley
AP Photo/Kathy WillensChase Headley of the Yankees will miss a few games after being hit by a pitch Thursday.
A few minutes after Stanton was hit, Chase Headley was drilled in the chin; Headley is likely to miss a few days.

Stanton is expected to miss the rest of the season, and just as the Buster Posey injury of 2011 spurred a lot of conversation about home plate collisions and player safety, the injury to Stanton -- one of the game’s greatest stars -- will inevitably spur this question: In the name of player safety, can more be done to protect hitters?

The answer, without question, is yes.

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Sizing up offseason salary-dump market 

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:56
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B. J. Upton Leon Halip/Getty ImagesIt's been another long season for B.J. Upton. Could he be on his way out of Atlanta?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- August may be over but these are the dog days of player evaluations, the time of year when teams are ready to turn the page, ready to say something hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work. They’re looking for something different.

It’s the time of year when executives are beginning to mull over the possible salary dump in the offseason, and some are scanning other rosters for matches. “Your trash contracts for somebody else’s trash contracts,” as one official noted the other day.

Here are 16 players (and contracts) who figure to be analyzed and perhaps discussed in deals after this season ends.

1. B.J. Upton | Atlanta Braves
Owed: $46.35 million over the next three seasons

He’s batting .205 this season after hitting .184 in 2013, and he’s already posted his sixth straight season of 150-plus strikeouts. The Cubs could again have interest after trade talks that involved Edwin Jackson crumbled earlier this season. There might be a match with the Indians, as well.


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Jerry ReinsdorfAP Photo/David BanksJerry Reinsdorf won't have nearly the same power under new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Some of those who were in the room in last week’s contested election of the next MLB commissioner are still trying to figure out what happened, and why it happened the way that it did, with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf fighting with virtually no chance of success.

Reinsdorf pushed Tom Werner as a candidate when the vote was stacked heavily in favor of Rob Manfred by a 2-1 margin, and folks with other teams say they would’ve understood better if Reinsdorf had simply presented Werner as an alternative to Manfred -- and then quickly retreated, in the face of overwhelming dissent.

But that’s not how it played out. Reinsdorf kept the fight going, even as the Rays and Brewers jumped on board and joined the Manfred camp, putting him within a single vote of being selected. Reinsdorf then mentioned that there were other qualified candidates in the room who were not up for election -- and somebody then asked why Reinsdorf, a member of the search committee, hadn’t pushed forward those other would-be candidates before.

As it played out, rival executives say, there were only two sure outcomes:

1. Manfred would be elected.
2. At the end of the process, Reinsdorf lost a lot of influence.

For years, Reinsdorf has been regarded as the second-most powerful man in the sport, given his relationship with deal-making commissioner Bud Selig. But in the midst of the process for choosing the commissioner, the decision was made in the room to allow Manfred to choose his own executive committee -- which Reinsdorf has been a part of in the past.

“He’ll be treated like everybody else now,” one rival executive said.

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Finding value on the waiver wire 

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
2:53
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Cole HamelsAP Photo/Alex BrandonStarter Cole Hamels, boasting a 2.42 ERA this season, was placed on waivers by the Phillies.
Think of baseball’s waiver claim process as you would government funding: By the time everybody has taken their piece of the pie and it reaches the end of the line, there really isn’t much left.

This is what’s happening in the first days of August, executives say, as the first wave of players passes through waivers. Many teams are aggressively making claims on players for reasons attached to their respective circumstances, and if you are at the back of the waiver-claiming line in each league -- if you are the Athletics -- you are left with a choice of Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder, should you choose to make a move. Good luck with that.

It’s not only about trying to get better for this year, and the claims are being made by non-contenders as well as contenders, executives report.

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Timing key in Cubs' call-up 

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
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Javier BaezAP Photo/Chris CarlsonJavier Baez has hit .310 with 12 homers and a 1.063 OPS over his past 30 games.
If this all plays out the way the Cubs hope, their collective journey will reflect that of Javier Baez, with failure preceding great success. The middle infielder started terribly in Triple-A this year, but as player development executives will tell you, this is a good thing, really. Because slumps in the big leagues are inevitable when your swing isn't right or you struggle to adjust to how pitchers are adjusting to you, and you have to learn how to dig your way out.

Baez did that at Triple-A Iowa, gradually learning to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, learning that if you ignore the slider in the dirt, it gives you a better chance to get pitches in the zone. This is a message reinforced by the Cubs' new minor league hitting guru Manny Ramirez, who seems to have had an immediate impact on the young players he has worked with and has been impressed with Baez's skills, which have blossomed.

Think of Baez as the college freshman who got a lot of C-minuses in the first marking period but now has graduated from Triple-A with honors: Despite being more than five years younger than the average player in the league, Baez racked up 23 homers and a .510 slugging percentage.

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Jeffery LoriaSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOwner Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins are only six games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
Before you dismiss the notion that the Miami Marlins could be serious players in the market over the next few days, it's worth noting that, after their wild comeback win over Washington on Monday, they are closer to the leader in their division -- six games behind -- than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are seven games behind the Baltimore Orioles, are.

Remember, too, that for all of his quirks and odd ballpark colors and home run sculpture, Miami owner Jeffrey Loria is an optimist at heart. And despite fielding teams with minimal payrolls, his expectations have always been high for his baseball operations employees. In 2003, he watched a bunch of youngsters named Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre revive themselves in midseason and go on to win the World Series. After it was over, Loria ran around the bases at Yankee Stadium. Loria is a dreamer, and staffers past and present talk about meetings in which they thought they would be told to rebuild and cut their losses. Instead, they walk away having been ordered, in so many words, to find a way to win.

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Cliff LeeMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesTeams in the playoff hunt are evaluating whether Cliff Lee would help their starting pitching needs.
There are two windows in every baseball calendar year in which small sample size really matters. In October, of course; as Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone and Dave Roberts can attest, bits and pieces of success can live forever.

The other time frame in which one game or one week can make a difference -- really good or really bad -- is just before the trade deadline. Multiple scouts were dispatched to watch Cliff Lee in his return to the rotation Monday, the 322nd regular-season start of his career. Rival executives are well aware of all that Lee had accomplished before Monday’s game, with the Cy Young Award and the four All-Star appearances and the postseason dominance, but all they wanted to know was how Lee is throwing the ball right now, in this moment of his career, as they assess whether to pursue a deal with the Phillies.

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Ryan Braun's power outage 

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
10:15
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Ryan Braun AP Photo/Morry GashRyan Braun ranks 146th out of 163 qualified batters in percent of hits pulled (30.8).
An experienced and smart evaluator who has seen Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun a couple of times this year noted all the twists in his career in a conversation on Monday.

“Wins the Most Valuable Player Award [in 2011] hitting with all kinds of power,” he said. “Tests positive, [but] wins his appeal. Has another big year, with power, second in the MVP. Then, Biogenesis.”

Yes. He was suspended.

“He’s had a lot of injuries. Now he’s completely different.”

How so?

“Takes the ball to the opposite field a lot,” said the evaluator. “I think he’s more of an opposite-field hitter than almost anybody in baseball. He doesn’t really pull the ball anymore, and I don’t think he hits the ball as far as he used to.”

On home runs?

“No, in general. I don’t think the ball goes nearly as far.”

Braun is having a good season, without question, with a .354 on-base percentage. He’s on track to accumulate a respectable 63 extra-base hits -- but with 19 homers and 37 walks, very different from his 2012 totals of 41 homers and 63 walks.

The observations were interesting, so I asked “Baseball Tonight” senior researcher Justin Havens, half of the podcast Fireball Express, to look more deeply into Braun’s performance, to see how close the evaluator’s eye test is to reality.

What Justin found was amazing.

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Yasiel PuigAdam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThe average MLB game in 2014 has 15.4 strikeouts, the most in the history of the sport.
Brady Anderson swung as hard as he possibly could throughout the 1996 season and blasted 50 homers. He swung hard on the first pitch, he swung aggressively when the count was 0-2, he swung aggressively always.

He scored 117 runs and compiled 92 extra-base hits, 76 walks and 106 strikeouts, and late that season, Orioles hitting coach Rick Down mentioned that before Anderson, he had never seen anyone succeed with that approach. Most hitters made adjustments according to the count, Down noted at the time, cutting down on their swing when they reached two strikes, protecting against a strikeout.

But more and more, that sort of thinking has become outdated, and a whole lot of hitters are thinking like Anderson did. Swing hard throughout the entire count. Look to damage throughout the entire count.

The problem for them -- and for baseball, really -- is that this approach is not really working.

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Adam WainwrightElsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright admitted to giving Derek Jeter "a couple of pipe shots" during the All-Star Game.
Adam Wainwright is earnest and honest and yes, he probably revealed a little more than he intended to about that pitch that he threw to Derek Jeter. But let’s put this into context. The tradition of pitchers working to provide a moment for a hitter goes back way beyond the first time the All-Star Game was played, and Wainwright is only different because he acknowledged what everybody already knew, when viewers could react in real time on social media.

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A's make a mockery of tanking 

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
10:09
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SamardzijaAP Photo/Ben MargotOakland acquired right-hander Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs last week.
The Oakland Athletics are on a pace to win 102 games and their third consecutive AL West title. But they need only 17 more wins to extend another streak that might be even more remarkable: The number of consecutive seasons in which they have won at least 74 games.

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses.

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win. There is something to be said for that.

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Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesReds starter Johnny Cueto is just one of 27 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00.
The topic of parity came up Thursday on "Baseball Tonight," and Rick Sutcliffe mentioned how the sport has changed over the last decade, in the wake of the steroid era.

Many, many pitchers have used performance-enhancing drugs, for sure, but the simple fact is that since Major League Baseball adopted testing, offensive numbers have been in sharp decline. There is also less opportunity for hitters -- and, by extension, teams -- to distinguish themselves. The potential variance between clubs has declined.

The same sort of thing happened in the latter half of the 1960s, as pitching increasingly dominated. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, none of the 10 National League teams won less than 72 games, and only one team won more than 88 -- the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished 97-65. Every team averaged between 2.9 runs per game and 4.2 runs per game.

There was a greater range of performance in the American League in 1968, with the Tigers posting a record of 103-59. But every team averaged between 2.9 and 4.1 runs per game that year, and in the season before, 1967, the AL saw an incredible race because of the parity in another season of few runs. Boston led the AL with 92 wins, while Detroit and Minnesota won 91, the White Sox 89, the Angels 84. The Kansas City Athletics were the only AL team to win fewer than 72 games.

Baseball altered the rules in response to the decline in offense, lowering the mound, and if Major League Baseball wants something other than general parity and games with fewer runs, it will probably have to revisit this -- perhaps lowering the mound again, or changing the composition of the ball.

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MaddonRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesJoe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays haven't lived up to expectations so far this season.
We've reached the midway point in the 2014 MLB season, when teams are turning the corner on the 81-game mark. A good or bad week in April or May might’ve been classified as a slump or a streak, but now the sample size is big enough to draw some larger conclusions.

With that in mind, here are the eight most shocking things to me about the first half of the 2014 season:

1. It's stunning how bad the Tampa Bay Rays are

They are 33-49 and 12 games out of first place in the AL East, despite the fact that the division is relatively mediocre this year. Matt Moore was among the legions of pitchers lost to Tommy John surgery, and this undoubtedly has hurt, but the extent of the Rays’ struggles are mind-boggling. Third baseman Evan Longoria, who needs to be the anchor of the lineup, ranks 87th among all players in OPS, at .740 -- and he is the best every-day player the Rays have.

It seemed within the realm of possibility that the Rays would run out of bullpen pixie dust, or that they would have the usual struggles of a franchise that operates without much margin for error and be taken down by injuries.

But they can’t really blame injuries this season, and mediocrity has infected them almost across the board. They’re 28th in runs, they’re 16th in starters’ ERA, 19th in bullpen ERA and they’ve got the worst record in the majors.

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