Buster Olney: MLB

Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

Kershaw with no answers for loss 

October, 4, 2014
Oct 4
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Clayton KershawRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw may not get a chance for redemption.
LOS ANGELES -- A brood of reporters and cameramen waited near the locker of Clayton Kershaw, gathered for the expected confessional. With his hair still damp from the shower, Kershaw -- taller than most in the crowd before him -- glanced around the room, in the modestly sized Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, and decided to move, probably so he wouldn’t inconvenience his teammates any more on this day.

Kershaw walked into the hallway outside the clubhouse and the media horde followed, and after Kershaw backed against a wall and the cameras and iPhones settled in a semicircle around him, he went about the business of dispensing blame.

On himself. Entirely.

It makes no sense that the best pitcher on the planet blew a five-run lead.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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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.

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Pace of play committee lacks right voices 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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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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Marlins in Price-like bind with Stanton 

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Giancarlo StantonRob Foldy/Getty ImagesGiancarlo Stanton leads the National League in two Triple Crown categories (homers and RBIs).
The dollar amount of the long-term contract Giancarlo Stanton will sign, according to industry expectations, is growing with every home run, every RBI, every piece of confirmation that Stanton is going to be a franchise anchor for years to come.

But the question lingers: For which franchise?

Stanton is only 21 months older than Mike Trout, and whether he wins the National League's Most Valuable Player Award or not, he has established this summer that he can stay on the field without repeated trips to the disabled list and that his production is monstrous in an era when offensive numbers are in decline, which only increases his value. On Wednesday, he homered for the third straight game.

He has 36 homers, tied for the most in the majors. His 102 RBIs are the most in the majors. His .968 OPS is the highest in the National League and the second-best in baseball. He has 90 walks. His defense has improved.

But Stanton is not signed to a long-term deal yet, and with his free agency just two winters away, some evaluators believe that his next deal will be something in the range of $250 million to $300 million.

It's possible the Marlins will be open to a massive investment for a homegrown slugger such as Stanton, whose outsized power still translates in their cavernous ballpark. They have almost no payroll obligations and could afford him as their franchise centerpiece.

But a lot of rival officials believe Stanton won't sign long term with the Marlins, that it's inevitable he will depart. They believe the Marlins soon will have to face the reality that they need to trade him, or lose him to free agency, the same quandary that forced the Tampa Bay Rays to deal David Price on July 31.

And the looming cost of what it will take to trade for Stanton and then sign him will effectively allow him to dictate exactly where he wants to go, rival executives say.

All Stanton needs to do is stick to the same line, said one official: That he doesn't intend to sign until he reaches free agency. So if Stanton, a California native, really wants to play for the Dodgers (or whatever team, for that matter), he could simply respond to any trade proposal to any other team by saying he won't commit to a long-term deal.

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Bo PorterBrian Blanco/Getty ImagesManager Bo Porter was fired by the Astros just after his team posted a winning record in August.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we know a lot more about the position that Bo Porter signed up for in the fall of 2012, when he became manager of the Houston Astros. Whether he knew it or not at the time, this is what the job notice probably should've looked like:
Wanted: Manager of a Major League Baseball team
(Note: Your team will be designed to lose more games than any other. It has been stripped down completely, with all 25 players making less money combined than CC Sabathia or the MLB commissioner.)

Benefits

Tremendous opportunity to travel and see the whole country, with big league accommodations. Good pay.
(You will be paid less than other managers.)

Tremendous opportunity for growth.
(We'll stock your team with what rival executives rate as Double-A talent, a lot of young guys who really aren't close to being finished products as players and will be completely overmatched in the big leagues.

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Time off was transformative for Duffy 

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Danny Duffy Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter previously trying to overpower hitters, Danny Duffy now displays more nuance to this game.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Rehabilitating an elbow after Tommy John surgery can be the working definition of monotony, and Danny Duffy's experience was no different than that of many who preceded him. When he was going through the process at the Kansas City Royals' facility in Arizona, he would arrive at the ballpark by 9:30 a.m., finish all the work he was allowed by midday, and then hang out by the pool.

The early evenings presented the best part of Duffy’s groundhog days; he would head to the same restaurant for Mexican food, always ordering carne asada to enjoy from the same seat, and he would watch the other Royals do what he couldn’t wait to do again: play baseball.

“I didn’t miss a game,” Duffy recalled. “As painful as it is to watch knowing you can’t play, it’s important to stay on that learning track.”

This was a crucial part of Duffy’s mental and physical makeover, and when he takes the mound against Cleveland on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), the Royals will either be a half-game ahead or behind Detroit in the AL Central. Duffy is well-suited to bear the responsibility of the moment.

Duffy ranks fifth in ERA (2.47) among all MLB pitchers with at least 130 innings. That's a little ahead of Corey Kluber and Jon Lester, a shade behind Johnny Cueto.

He absorbed a lot while eating rice and beans in baseball purgatory. Before that, Duffy was renowned for his big arm, but also for what he did not know about pitching efficiently, about controlling his effort.

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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
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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
9:44
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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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