Monthly Archives: April 2008

JOE GIRARDI FAILS HIS FIRST REAL TEST AS MANAGER OF THE YANKEES

                                                                            Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas   

You probably already know the situation:  Yankees-Red Sox, 2-1 Yankees, bottom six, two out, second and third for the Red Sox after Mike Mussina struck out David Ortiz.  Here comes Manny Ramirez with, arguably, the game on the line.  This is Baseball 101 stuff:  walk Ramirez and take your chances with just about any other hitter on the planet.

 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Yankees having their best chance to win the game:  new manager Joe Girardi went out to talk to Mussina and they apparently (jointly) decided to pitch to Ramirez.  This was a terrible error whether they got Ramirez out or not.  Of course, Ramirez doubled in two runs and, for all intents and purposes, the Yankees best chance to win the game had left the building.

    

How could this possibly have happened?  Well, Joe Girardi said that he had discussed it on the bench before going out to speak to Mussina (I hope this isn’t like last year with Joe Torre, because, with no Mel Stottlemyre and, even earlier, with no Don Zimmer, the decision-making was poor last year).  If there’s nobody on the bench to say to Joe Girardi   that Manny Ramirez is one of the five or ten greatest right-handed hitters of all time and, oh, by the way, he hit a moon shot off Mussina last time up, then there are already judgment issues on the Yankee bench.

    

After the game, Girardi said that, during his conversation with Mussina, “we talked about the comfort level with both hitters [Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis] was basically the same… .”  Stop right there!  You don’t know what’s inside a pitcher’s mind (hopefully it’s Mussina’s competitive nature), but that’s absurd.  That’s when the manager has to say: “I appreciate your competitiveness.  Now walk Ramirez and go after Youkilis.”  Who was the manager, Grady Little?  Unbelievable.

    

After the game, Mussina said “I feel the same with both guys.”  Yikes!  It’s as if Lou Gehrig was coming up after Babe Ruth.  Kevin Youkilis is a very good hitter and a tough out.  But he’s not in Manny’s neighborhood as a hitter (and, remember, Ramirez hit one off the Volvo sign over the Green Monster the previous at-bat).

    

For the last few years, it’s been a pick-your-poison deal with the Red Sox.  Pitch to David Ortiz and he kills you.  Walk Ortiz and pitch to Manny and he kills you.  And, of course, both are well-established Yankee killers.  Girardi correctly decided to pitch to David Ortiz because, at 3-43, he’s having a miserable season (so far) and isn’t anywhere close to hitting like DAVID ORTIZ.  But Manny, again, is already hitting like MANNY.  A stunning blunder by the Yankees.

    

What can be done about this?  Well, I didn’t hear anyone ask Joe Girardi the magic question:  If the same situation comes up again tomorrow, will you talk to your coaches, talk to your pitcher and pitch to Manny again?  If the answer to that question is yes, then Joe Girardi has learned nothing from this experience.

    

Would the Yankees have won the game if Girardi had told Mussina to walk Ramirez?  Of course, we’ll never know.  But know this:  Joe Girardi, no matter what anyone says, did not give the Yankees the best chance to win the game yesterday.  And that’s the manager’s number one job.  Very surprising. 

       

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved. 

Advertisements

ADVANCED BASEBALL: WHY DID JOE MADDON CALL FOR A SQUEEZE BUNT?

                                        Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas

Lost in the shuffle due to the Final Four over the weekend was a fascinating play in the Tampa Bay Rays v. New York Yankees game on Sunday afternoon. With the Yankees leading 2-0 and Tampa Bay batting in the top of the fifth, Willy Aybar was on third and Shawn Riggans was on first with one out. At the plate was number-nine hitter Jason Bartlett. On deck was leadoff-hitter Aki Iwamura.

Jason Bartlett, facing Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang, squared to bunt. Willie Aybar broke for home. Unfortunately for the Rays, Bartlett missed the squeeze bunt and Aybar was tagged out (officially scored a caught stealing, but that’s an absurdity for another day).

Your initial reaction, before you thought it through, could very well have been “what a stupid play; trying a suicide squeeze down two runs (as opposed to one run).” In fact, the next day, Maddon was slaughtered on New York radio (WFAN), with none other than Mike Francesa saying the attempted squeeze was “the dumbest play ever” and that it was “a ridiculous play that made no sense.” His partner, Chris Russo, also couldn’t understand it, coming up with “maybe Willy Aybar couldn’t hit Wang.” Aybar, of course, was already on third after singling off Wang (Bartlett was at the plate and missed the bunt attempt).

Of course, if you follow baseball, that simply doesn’t make sense. If you know one thing about Joe Maddon, it’s this: he’s a baseball lifer who really knows the game. If he does something that, at first glance, doesn’t seem right, deeper analysis should be required before one can even think about criticizing him.

In fact, it was a brilliant play (until, of course, the bunt was missed). Here’s why: in a 2-0 game where runs were obviously hard to come by, you’ve got to get your runs early against the Yankees. With the already obviously potent Yankee bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings (shades of 1996, when it was a six-inning game against the Yankees before Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland shut the door), Maddon had to do something.

Maddon would later say that, in fact, he had called for a safety squeeze (runner on third doesn’t break until the ball is actually bunted and, even then, only if he can make it home safely), rather than a suicide squeeze (runner goes on the pitch and whatever happens, happens). Those with a deep understanding know that’s true because the runner on first, who would absolutely go if it’s a suicide squeeze (he gets into scoring position no matter what happens at the plate), didn’t break for second.

And therein lies the brilliance of the play: if Bartlett gets the bunt down and the run scores, you’ll have the tying run in scoring position for your leadoff hitter, the tough out Aki Iwamura. So, one bunt and a bloop single would have tied up the game in a game where Tampa Bay simply couldn’t score. Of course, it didn’t work and the game ended up a 2-0 victory for the Yankees, the same score as when Maddon tried the squeeze.

Tampa Bay, a much-improved team, is simply in the wrong division, having to face the Yankees, Red Sox and also much-improved Blue Jays. So Joe Maddon, already one of the five best managers in baseball, has to do whatever he can to make things happen. Remember, even if a safety squeeze bunt was laid down and Aybar couldn’t score from third (obviously the main goal), Riggans probably would have made it to second and Iwamura, again with just a two-out bloop single, still could have tied the game.

One final thing: maybe you would be smart enough to review the box score to see what Iwamura had done that day against Wang. Well, he was 0-2, but had put the ball in play twice against a tough pitcher. But you can bet that Joe Maddon knew this when he put the safety squeeze on: Iwamura, a solid .285 average hitter last year as a “rookie” in the major leagues (he had previously played in Japan), was also 3-6 with a triple against Wang last year. Hopefully, you get the point.

So what we have here is a brilliant play called by a manager who is not really known in New York and who then gets slaughtered on New York radio because, as often happens, the hosts don’t really quite understand what happened in the game.

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP LOST: MEMPHIS (AND EVERYBODY ELSE) DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO DEFEND THE THREE

                                                                    Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas   

It’s been an epidemic in college basketball (and the NBA) for many years.  At the end of the game, nobody knows how to defend the three.  This year, it cost Memphis the National Championship.

Here’s the situation (it happens every week in the NBA):  You’re up three, it’s very late in the game.  What do you do?  Many “experts” say you foul, put the team that’s behind on the line for only two.  That way you can’t lose, right?  Wrong.  Coaches with the lead have been taught forever not to allow the other team to score with the clock stopped late in the game.  And, frankly, the only way you CAN lose the game in regulation is to foul:  the other team makes the first, misses the second on purpose, the ball gets smacked out to the three-point line and, at the buzzer, the “losing’ team hits a three and becomes the winning team (or the team that’s behind gets the rebound, lays it in and gets fouled).  A longshot?  You betcha.  But the kind of loss that would cost someone their job.  Hopefully, you get the point.

Here’s what should happen late (under 10 seconds) in the game when you’re up three.  The team that’s ahead MUST defend above the three-point line.  You play defense between the three-point line and the ball, not between your man and the basket.  If, during the final few seconds of Memphis-Kansas regulation, somebody from Kansas throws it down low to a wide-open teammate for a dunk, Memphis thanks Kansas and wins the National Championship.

Yet, with the National Championship on the line, up three, four of the five Memphis defenders were BELOW the three-point line, defending in two-point territory.  WHY?  Because no coach in college (or the NBA) seems to understand exactly how the three-point line has changed the game.  It’s stunning.

Understand the obvious:  If you put four (or even five) athletic guys above the three-point line on defense, the only possible thing the ball-handler can do is take about a 30-35 foot three under pressure (Derrick Rose of Memphis on Sherron Collins — I’d take my chances on that if I’m John Calipari) or make a game-losing mistake by throwing it inside the three-point line for a game-losing two.  Instead, Memphis had no idea what it was doing and, even though Rose (who inexplicably had drifted below the three-point line with the National Championship at stake) contested Mario Chalmers on the shot, the reality is that Chalmers got an excellent look right near the three-point line.  When will these coaches learn?

While many will (correctly) point to the fact that Memphis missed four of five foul shots in the last 1:15 (7-14 in the second half), viewed by many (including this writer) to be their Achilles heel in the tournament (they shot fouls in the tournament great prior to this game), the reality is that they were still in great position to win the game.  But after the defense broke down (nobody accuses Calipari, who didn’t call time, of being a great bench coach) and Chalmers hit the three, the overtime Kansas victory was just a formality (no Joey Dorsey for Memphis in OT – he had fouled out with a terrible foul late in regulation).

Someday, maybe in two or five or twenty years, a high school coach will understand this (maybe it’s happened already and we don’t know about it) and defend the three-point line rather than defend the basket.  Quickly, it will spread to college and the NBA.  Then they’ll show a highlight reel of games of the past that were lost because coaches in the early 21st century still hadn’t learned how to defend the three.  Memphis-Kansas will be the first game on the reel.    

 © Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.

ANATOMY OF A PITCHER GETTING KNOCKED OUT OF THE BOX

                                                       Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas   

So it was highly-touted Ian Kennedy’s first start of the year for the Yankees on Friday against the not-so-lowly-anymore [Devil] Rays.  Knocked out of the box in the third inning, Kennedy was panned for a terrible performance by virtually everyone who covered the game (and, in today’s world, virtually everyone who didn’t cover the game but commented on it anyway).  He gave up six earned runs on four hits and four walks in only two-and-a-third innings.  Every highlight show that covered the game (on Friday night and Saturday morning) showed pinch-hitter Shawn Riggans’ three-run double on a 3-1 pitch, the final nail in Kennedy’s coffin, at least for this night.  Terrible, right?  Well, let’s take a closer look at it (stay with me on this one).

    

You can’t really expect a young pitcher like Ian Kennedy to get many borderline calls from the home-plate umpire (Doug Eddings).  But Kennedy, known for great control and not known for tremendous velocity, is going to need some calls to be a good major-league pitcher.  He got off to a tough start when both his 0-1 pitch and 2-2 pitch to leadoff-hitter Aki Iwamura were called balls, when either, if called a strike, would have changed the complexion of the at-bat.  Other pitches to Crawford, Upton and Floyd were also borderline and called balls.  Welcome to the big leagues!

    

Kennedy had a 1-2-3 inning in the second, despite, once again, a borderline pitch called a ball to Jason Bartlett.  Then, the roof caved in.  In the third, after a single, a groundout and a walk, Kenned y was squeezed on both an inside and outside pitch to BJ Upton.  Despite that, he threw a great 3-2 pitch to Upton, jamming him, but Upton beat out the weak groundball that he hit to the left side.

    

Kennedy’s best pitch might be his two-seam fastball that he throws inside to left-handed hitters.  The batter gives up on it and it runs back over the inside corner.  For those of you who seriously follow the game, it’s the Greg Maddux pitch (Maddux has made his living off that pitch).  Now, with the bases loaded and the still-dangerous Cliff Floyd up, Kennedy threw him the Maddux pitch, close but called a ball.  At 2-2, he threw Floyd a pitch near or maybe over the outside corner, called a ball.  Then, not giving in, he threw ball four for the first run of the inning. 

    

Now, pinch-hitter Shawn Riggans comes to the plate (starting catcher Navarro had been injured).  The 1-0 pitch to Riggans, which could have been called a strike, was called a ball outside.  Then, the 2-1 Maddux pitch over the inside corner (believed to be a strike by all the Yankee announcers) was called a ball.  So, Kennedy had been squeezed inside AND outside by umpire Eddings on the prior Floyd at-bat AND the present Riggans’ at-bat.  Having given up a walk already to a much more dangerous hitter (Floyd), Kennedy must have felt that he had no other choice but to come over the plate (he would have walked in another run if he didn’t).  He did, and the three-run double to right-center ended his pitching for this day.

    

Thankfully, Kennedy understood, saying he didn’t feel that his control was that bad.  It wasn’t.  Usually, if you are getting squeezed, it’s on one side or the other of home plate.  But when it happens on both sides of the plate, as happened to Kennedy against Upton and Floyd in the third, you feel like you have to throw it over against the Shawn Rigganses of the world.  Kennedy did and Riggans, to his credit (first time up in the big leagues with the bases-loaded) made him pay.  Game over.

    

Unfortunately, this is life in the big leagues (and most other leagues, as well) if you’re not a power pitcher.  Even a great pitcher like Tom Glavine got squeezed early on after he left the cocoon of the Atlanta Braves and started pitching for the Mets in 2003 (see Kallas Remarks, 4/1/03).       

    

But there should be brighter days ahead for Ian Kennedy.  Despite what you read and heard, he really didn’t pitch that poorly.  We’re talking an inch here, an inch there; a call here, a call there.  That’s why the nuances of baseball make it such a great game.  We’ll see how Kennedy does down the road.

 © Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.

THE BUNT RETURNS TO NEW YORK

                                     Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas    

It had virtually disappeared from the New York Yankees during the Joe Torre era.  For awhile, people wondered aloud:  How come the Yankees never bunt?  But with all the early success (four World Championships in five years), the (mild) criticism faded away, and only came back slightly when the Yankees, in the last four years, were terrible in the playoffs.    

But there’s a new sheriff in town at Yankee Stadium and one of the immediate, tangible changes one can see is Joe Girardi’s use of the bunt.  The most underutilized offensive weapon in baseball (no matter what the “experts” say), the bunt won a game for the Yankees on Thursday, April 3.  Tied at two in the bottom of the eighth, Melky Cabrera singled and Johnny Damon’s sacrifice bunt was mishandled by Blue Jays reliever Scott Downs.  With first and second and nobody out, Derek Jeter then sacrificed the runners to second and third.  Bobby Abreu’s bloop single would then drive in the third and final run of a 3-2 Yankees victory.    

While the bunt has been criticized for years and recent statistical analysis suggests that sacrifice bunting isn’t really a good idea, it’s actually more of a feel thing.  If you’re early in a game and the manager has a sense it’s going to be a pitchers’ duel (they still happen sometimes), you should play small ball and get the run.  If you’re late in a close game (depending on the exact situation), you should also probably use the sacrifice bunt.  In the old days (1960s and before), this was considered good baseball.  With the re-emergence of the home run in the last 10-15 years (steroids-aided, of course), that line of thinking had, essentially, gone out the window.  At Yankee Stadium, especially, the sacrifice bunt was like an almost-extinct animal – rarely, if ever, seen on the premises.    

I recently saw a documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers highlighted, of course, by their sole World Series victory in 1955 against their hated rivals, the Yankees.  Nobody remembers that, in the top of the sixth of Game 7, leading 1-0 and with Pee Wee Reese on first and nobody out, both Duke Snider (whose bunt was misplayed) and Roy Campanella laid down sacrifice bunts to move Reese to third.  Gil Hodges (his Hall of Fame snub, a baseball disgrace, will be left for another time) then hit a 400-foot sacrifice fly for his second RBI of the game (final score 2-0).  For those of you who don’t know, Snider and Campanella are two Hall of Fame sluggers who batted third and fourth in the Dodgers lineup that day.    

Flash forward to today and the notion that both a number three AND number four hitter would even attempt to sacrifice bunt consecutively would be laughed at and ridiculed as embarrassing to the hitter.  He would be insulted (again, Snider and Campanella are two legendary players).    

Which brings us back to Girardi and the 2008 Yankees.  You’ll see more of this during the course of the season.  Girardi still has that old “National League mentality” when it comes to moving runners along and playing for one run (given the way the Yankees are hitting right now with runners in scoring position, that’s actually a necessity).  So if the Yankees win a division by a game or win the wild card by a game, remember this win (in only the third game of the season).  Long live the bunt!    

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.

CALIPARI, HOWLAND OWE THANKS TO DAVID STERN

                                         Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas

  

The game of college basketball has been severely hurt in the last decade when star high school players went straight to the NBA (whether ready or not).  Once upon a time it was an issue, when a player could sign that three-year contract and not be set for life.  Today, however, anyone with a good family and/or good advisors can sign that initial NBA lottery-pick contract and not worry about money, virtually for life.

   

The game of college basketball became nothing compared to what it once was in the 1960s and 70s into the 1980s.  Routinely, in virtually any four-year period you could select in the last decade, 30 or 40 or 50 of the top (eligibility-wise) college players were already in the NBA.  This hurt the top programs (where the superstar high-school phenoms would generally go) and gave the “mid-majors” and senior-laden teams a better chance to compete at the highest level in the NCAA tournament.

    

What did this do for the quality of play in college basketball?  Well, whether anyone involved in the game (and/or makes his/her living off the game) will admit it or not, it’s been lowered drastically.  Imagine if Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) in the 1960s or Bill Walton in the 1970s had skipped college and gone right to the NBA.  Hopefully, you get the point.

    

Which brings us to David Stern.  Last season was the first year in which high school seniors could not go directly to the NBA.  So you had Greg Oden leading Ohio State to the championship game.  Then he was one and done, off to NBA Portland.  Even with the new rule, there are about 50 players in the NBA who could still have been in college (Kevin Durant, for example, would be a sophomore).

  

Is the rule racist?  Well, that’s already been debated ad nauseum, but whatever side of that argument you’re on, know this:  the rule doesn’t allow (mostly) African-Americans to make a great living when they want to.  Is it a mistake for some of these guys to go pro?  Absolutely, but, what, it’s OK for them to make the mistake a year later?  This is America, remember? 

   

So UCLA coach Ben Howland gets freshman Kevin Love and makes the Final Four.  Memphis coach John Calipari gets freshman Derrick Rose and makes the Final Four.  Would they have made the Final Four without this Stern rule?  Unlikely.  Would these guys have gone to college even if there were not such a rule?  That’s hard to say, no matter what anyone says, because you’re dealing in hypotheticals at that point (although a fair statement would be: the poorer you are, the more likely you would be to come out immediately).

  

While former coach (now ESPN commentator – that sounds funny, doesn’t it?) Bob Knight said “it’s the worst thing that’s happened to college basketball since I’ve been coaching” and, since kids literally don’t have to go to class during their second semester in college, “that has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports,” the reality is that the integrity ship long ago sailed for college sports, especially basketball and football.  Are there many “clean” coaches?  Sure, but there are many with “unclean hands,” as the lawyers like to say in their arguments.  And if Coach K down at Duke really isn’t going to recruit the “one and done” player, then he’s going to have a very hard time getting all the way back to the top.

          

So this is the way it’s going to be now and into the future.  The best high school players will have to go to college for a year, making a mockery of academics and burying coaches (even great ones) who won’t recruit that kind of player.

    

But David Stern should check his mailbox.  This year’s leading thank-you cards will be from Ben Howland and John Calipari.  Next year?  Who knows?

  

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.