Commentary

Focusing on baseball's many mysteries

There aren't any clear explanations for why some things have happened in '09

Originally Published: June 25, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't true that the 2009 baseball season has been scripted by John D. MacDonald and Clive Cussler. It just seems like it.

So join with us now as Rumblings presents another award-winning episode of "Unsolved Baseball Mysteries."

Why can't the Phillies win at home?

It makes no sense when any team starts a season by going 13-22 in its home park. But it's Bizarro Theater when the team that does that is the team that won the World Series, not to mention a team that did that by winning its last 10 home games in a row (seven of them in the postseason).

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
Al Bello/Getty ImagesCole Hamels has allowed seven home runs in eight starts at home this season.

So there's no simple answer to this question. Charlie Manuel told Rumblings he sees a combination of things. He sees a team that's a little too caught up at times in the World Series afterglow. He sees a lineup that has tried to "push the game" by expanding its strike zone and swinging at way too many pitchers' pitches. And lately, he sees a team dealing with major injury issues.

But that's not all we see. We think this all starts with pitching. Doesn't it always?

The Phillies have gotten just 16 starts all year in which their starting pitcher got at least one out beyond the sixth inning. Only the Nationals (15) have fewer. And only nine of those starts have come at home, tying the Phillies with the Dodgers for the fewest in the big leagues. That Phillies rotation also has the worst ERA (5.19) in the NL, which means it has put incredible strain on both its bullpen and its offense.

Now add in what we think is an even bigger factor: This is not a staff that produces much swinging and missing, aside from Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. And that's trouble.

Subtract those three -- who have fanned 138 in 137 2/3 innings -- and the rest of this staff is averaging just 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings, which sits below the NL average of about 7.0 per nine innings. And when the ball is always in play in Citizens Bank Park, that's the definition of living dangerously.

"I think that's absolutely part of it," one NL scout said. "It's not the reason, but it's one of the reasons. It's definitely a contributor."

Who bat-napped the Cubs' offense?

Was it really only last year that the Cubs led the National League in runs (5.31 per game), slugging (.443) and on-base percentage (.354)? Yep, sure was. You can look that up.

So is there a logical explanation for why almost an identical lineup -- substituting Milton Bradley for Mark DeRosa -- should rank 26th in the big leagues in runs scored (4.24 per game), 21st in slugging (.397) and 20th (.325) in on-base percentage?

Well, there are explanations. You can decide for yourself how logical they are.

Aramis Ramirez has been out since May 9 with a dislocated left shoulder. And that's a gigantic factor. "He's got such a presence," one scout said. "You fear that guy."

And no one has done more than Geovany Soto to perpetuate the idea that the sophomore slump is no myth. He's hitting .228 (down from .285), slugging .372 (down from .504) and has gotten shockingly pull-conscious. "He didn't get off to the same kind of start," GM Jim Hendry said. "And he's really tried to overdo it."

Then there's Bradley, who couldn't possibly have gotten off to a rockier start -- going 3 for his first 31, spouting umpire-conspiracy theories and turning himself into a local boo magnet. "He's a good player," one scout said. "It just seems like there's always a tension that follows him."

And finally, you have Alfonso Soriano (hitting .167, with two homers and a .231 OBP, since May 19) and Derrek Lee (finally picking it up after spending the first six weeks under the Mendoza Line).

But if you're looking for one pivotal number, it's 29. That's the number of points this team's on-base percentage is down from last year, an enormous plummet.

"What that tells me," Hendry said, "is that we've got a lot of real high-character guys who care, and they got off to slow starts and now they're trying to do too much, chasing bad pitches and trying to be the guy who gets us going. And it snowballs."

But maybe not for long. Ramirez should be back in a couple of weeks. Bradley has hit .341 the last two weeks. Lee has a 21-game hitting streak. And Soriano is 41 points below the lowest batting average of his career, and 105 points below the .531 slugging percentage he put up from 2002 to 2008. So "hopefully," Hendry said, "in the second half, we can play more like we did last year."

How did the Rockies turn into the '98 Yankees?

Was it all Clint Hurdle's fault? Or is Jim Tracy just the biggest genius since Ken Jennings? And if changing managers has this kind of impact on a club, shouldn't about 14 teams be ready to try it?

All we know is that in their seven weeks under Hurdle, the Rockies were on pace to lose 99 games. And since Tracy got this job, they've gone 19-7 -- a pace that would translate to a 118-44 season. So can they possibly keep this up? Heck, could anyone?

[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesTroy Tulowitzki is batting .355 and has a .758 slugging percentage in the month of June.

"We'll see," GM Dan O'Dowd told Rumblings. "To me, it was nothing that Clint did wrong. They're just different personalities. Jim has settled some things. He saw some things. And it's had a calming effect on the club."

But could that calm really have led to this powerful a storm? The Rockies' batting average is up 34 points (to .283) since that managerial change. Their slugging percentage is up almost 50 points (to .474). Their ERA (3.77) is down more than a run a game.

Tracy let Clint Barmes settle in at second and Ian Stewart take over at third. Troy Tulowitzki has hit .338 and slugged .718 under Tracy. Four other regulars have hit .299 or better. Five have slugged over .500. Meanwhile, on the mound, Aaron Cook, Jason Marquis and Ubaldo Jimenez have combined to go 10-4, with a 3.18 ERA. So no wonder Tracy is so calm. What is there to get worked up about?

"They've had better starting pitching, but part of that is that Jim Tracy handles pitchers better than Clint," said one scout. "His approach is much more confident. Clint had such a quick hook, he wore his bullpen out. But I think the biggest thing is, it's a new voice. It's not the same old same old."

Will it last? Uh, we'll let you know. But history is on his side. Tracy was just the third manager since 1900 to win 19 of his first 24 games after a midseason managerial change. The other two (Joe Morgan of the 1988 Red Sox and Charlie Grimm of the 1932 Cubs) both found themselves managing in the postseason that same year.

What happened to the Angels' bullpen?

It's been one of the great constants of the 21st century, right up there with Britney Spears' paparazzi and Bill Belichick's hoodie. If you couldn't depend on the Angels' bullpen, what was there in life that you could depend on?

That 'pen has ranked in the top five in the American League in ERA in seven of the last eight years. But a not-so-funny thing has happened this year, in the first season of the post-K-Rod era: The Angels' bullpen ranks dead last in the big leagues in ERA -- nearly two runs higher than last year (5.64, versus 3.69).

"Coming into the season, we felt our bullpen would be as strong as it's been in the past," GM Tony Reagins said. "But obviously, it hasn't turned out that way."

So why is that? Forget the K-Rod factor. It hasn't been closer issues. Brian Fuentes (20 saves in 23 chances) isn't Frankie Rodriguez, but "he's been fine," Reagins said. "It's been building a bridge to get to Fuentes that has been the issue."

Scot Shields, a set-up rock for seven years, ran up a 6.60 ERA and then needed knee surgery. Jose Arredondo, once viewed as K-Rod's heir apparent, had a 5.55 ERA and then got sent to Triple-A Salt Lake City for a tune-up. So this team has run through a dozen relievers already. And it's still trying to figure out which of them ought to pitch the eighth inning.

"I don't think they made a real good read on their bullpen, to be honest," one scout said. "Shields has been a tremendous set-up guy, but his shoulder almost comes off every pitch he throws. So it's hard to believe they didn't think he could break down. And I think they made a fundamental error in judgment on Arredondo. He was getting all the adulation last year. But it was such a short, fleeting look. It was just one year."

Nevertheless, this picture could change in a hurry. This relief crew still has enough live arms to rank second in the league in strikeout ratio. And the Angels certainly have the resources and prospects to make a deal.

"So I still like the position we're in," Reagins said. "And I still think this bullpen will right itself."

Carlos Quentin
Quentin

Mini-mysteries

Where's the White Sox's offense?: The Cubs aren't the only Chicago team that has forgotten how to score. The White Sox were sixth in the big leagues in runs scored last year. They're 21st this year. Two big issues: They're more dependent on the home run than ever, with 44.4 percent of their runs coming via homers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And the absence of the underappreciated Carlos Quentin (out since late May, homerless since April, because of plantar fasciitis) has been a huge blow. "That guy," one scout said, "is one of the toughest outs in the league."

GM Kenny Williams' take: "Quentin's being out hurts, but we've had some others playing banged up all year, and they are finally starting to feel like themselves. This will be a team whose second-half run differential will be much different than the first half."

What's the deal with Jimmy Rollins?: Two years ago, he was a 30-homer, 41-steal, 20-triple, 38-double, 139-run MVP. But this year, Rollins seems as if he's lost all feel for both his swing and the strike zone. He's dead last among NL qualifiers in on-base percentage (.254). He recently went 18 straight games without a walk. And even the contact he's made has been so funky, he's hitting just .218 on balls in play.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told Rumblings: "I believe in Jimmy. I still think he'll be OK." But one scout we surveyed wasn't so sure, saying: "I've got to write a report on this guy, and I don't know what to write. I mean, this guy looks really bad. You want to say we'll look up in August and he'll be right there. But right now it's June, and he's not showing any signs. So I keep asking myself, 'Is this what he is now?' He's definitely better than he's playing right now -- but how much better?"

Scott Kazmir
Kazmir

Why haven't the Rays pitched like last year?: It wasn't Mohawks, catwalks or Joe Maddon's thesaurus talk that drove the Rays to the World Series last season. It was (what else?) pitching. They had the third-best ERA in the whole sport (3.82). And that'll work every time. But this year, the Rays have slipped to 14th in ERA. And let's clear up the biggest myth about that tumble: It hasn't been the bullpen's fault. In fact, their bullpen ERA is exactly the same as last year's (3.55).

It's actually been the rotation that has self-destructed, falling from second in the AL to 10th. And almost all of that decline can be traced to the issues of Scott Kazmir (7.69 ERA before a DL stint) and Andy Sonnanstine (6.60). But Kazmir is about to return. And sooner or later, David Price will turn into a Cy Young waiting to happen. So this is still a staff with plenty of upside. Nevertheless, the Rays exemplify how impossible it is for any team to look at its roster in February and predict how good it will be.

"The one thing I knew, in spring training and the offseason, was that I didn't know what was going to happen," said GM Andrew Friedman, "because pitching is very unpredictable, especially considering the increased workloads for much of our staff."

Then again, what we've learned from this episode is that the whole darned sport is unpredictable. Which is exactly why we foresee many more episodes of "Unsolved Baseball Mysteries" coming to a ballpark near you -- for the rest of the millennium.

Ready to rumble

Pardon me, is this shop open? Before we get rolling with the Rumor Central-type material, we need to make an announcement: This is one of the slowest-moving trade markets in a long time.

Just a year ago, CC Sabathia and Rich Harden were both traded by July 8. Well, the one-year anniversary of those deals is coming up in less than two weeks. And we can't find a decent trade rumor of anything even close to that magnitude. Instead, we're hearing this:

From a high-ranking official of one contender: "The deadline is still 5½ weeks away. Everyone wants to start churning the rumor mill already, but it's way too premature. The only calls right now are introductory call. It's, 'What are you looking to do?' And it's, 'Here's what we might do.' That's it."

From an official of a team dying to upgrade its bullpen: "We'd love to add somebody. But I don't see anyone on the outside available yet. Anyone."

From an official of a club looking for starting pitching: "Nobody is really available. Everybody we've looked at is still in a race. We'd do something sooner rather than later, but there are just about no sellers right now. And the teams that are selling -- let's just say the prices are not cheap."

From an executive of another contender: "More so than any other year, I don't really have a feel for this market. We've had conversations with at least four teams that have changed dramatically just in the last few weeks. Either they went from buyers to sellers, or sellers to buyers, or they were looking for this but now they're looking for that. It's such a moving target."

So what should you make of these little tidbits that people like us are passing along these days? They're interesting. They're fun. They give us some insight into what teams are thinking. But none of this is about to explode -- for weeks.

Cliff Lee
Lee

Hanging from a Cliff: We'll be shocked if the Indians trade Cliff Lee at any point before July 2010, as much because he's irreplaceable as because he's still affordable. But when we asked one GM this week whether he thought there was any potential rotation difference-maker available, he answered, without hesitating: "Maybe Cliff Lee."

We've heard talk that a bunch of teams have called. Brewers. Dodgers. Phillies. Mets. And others. What the Indians have told those teams is that they'd "have to be overwhelmed" to deal Lee. But given the lack of top-of-the-rotation alternatives, is it possible that somebody could succeed in overwhelming them? Sure, theoretically -- especially if the overwhelming offer included a future No. 1-type starter.

But the Brewers aren't trading Yovani Gallardo. The Dodgers aren't trading Clayton Kershaw. The Phillies aren't trading Cole Hamels, or even Kyle Drabek. So it's doubtful any of those deals can happen.

Meanwhile, an executive of one club says he'd be wary of overpaying for Lee with the assumption that you'd have him for this year and next, because if he's dealt, he has the right to demand a trade over the winter. So regard all Cliff Lee trade rumors you hear with at least one raised eyebrow.

Mark DeRosa
DeRosa

Reunion time?: And now for another potential Cleveland deal to watch: For all the weird talk in Chicago last week about some kind of fictional rift between Mark DeRosa and Lou Piniella, we've been hearing that the Cubs have kicked the tires on a deal that could bring DeRosa back to Wrigleyville.

For one thing, the reason the Cubs traded DeRosa in the first place had nothing to do with any "rifts." It was because they'd have had to play almost an entire right-handed-hitting lineup if they'd kept him, and because they needed to move salaries to fill other needs.

But by late July, DeRosa would have only about $2 million left on his $5.5 million salary. So we're guessing the Cubs might be allowed to take on that kind of money. That's still unclear, though, given their ownership issues.

Finally, we know the Cubs have been doing some preliminary poking around for a bat. But because they aren't sure where they'd play that bat, they've been asking about what one exec they talked to described as a "DeRosa-type player," with enough versatility to be moved around as needed. But nobody fits that description, obviously, better than DeRosa himself.

Manny Acta
Acta

Where's the fire?: A funny thing happened to Nationals manager Manny Acta on the way to the unemployment office: His team won four games in a row against the Yankees and Blue Jays. One source tells Rumblings that when Acta met with Washington's powers-that-be in the Bronx after rumors of his firing exploded, he was told that the team didn't want to fire him -- so he should "win some games so we can stop talking about this." Talk about following orders.

Incidentally, we've heard zilch to suggest that those Bobby Valentine-to-D.C. rumors have any shot of coming true. Valentine's past connections with deposed GM Jim Bowden (who once hired Valentine as a scout and coach) wouldn't exactly seem to work in his favor with this organization.

Phil it up, please: Even before they imploded on their last homestand, the Phillies were one of the most aggressive teams out there in hunting for pitching. And interestingly, clubs that have asked them about some of their most ballyhooed prospects, such as outfielder Michael Taylor and infielder Jason Donald, have gotten indications the Phillies would trade either, or both, for an impact starter. (Don't ask who, but that's another story.)

"They know they have to move somebody big to get what they want," said an official of one team they talked to. "And I think they're willing to do that."

The six young players the Phillies wouldn't listen on, the same official said: outfielder Dominic Brown, catcher Lou Marson, and pitchers Kyle Drabek, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco and Antonio Bastardo.

Meanwhile, we're hearing the Phillies have knocked Pittsburgh's Ian Snell and Arizona's Doug Davis off their shopping list.

Shoes to Phil: One scout's review of the two rookie left-handers in the Phillies' rotation: J.A. Happ and Bastardo: "Both of those guys are guys I'd like to have. But here's the problem: When you're built for today, you can't afford the growing pains. And that team is built to win today. So they need another starter."

Catch some Rays: Contrary to what we (and others) have been reporting, we're now hearing that the Rays aren't necessarily shopping for bullpen help. Clubs that have talked to them say they're shopping for "upgrades." And those upgrades aren't exclusively bullpen upgrades or even big-league upgrades. They'd also prefer long-term upgrades over short-term upgrades. So what they're looking for in the bullpen, in other words, is the next J.P. Howell, not the next Eric Gagne. And they've been asking about the potential availability of young corner outfielders, as opposed to the Jermaine Dyes of the world, an indication they clearly think they can live, for now, with the .805 OPS and excellent defense they've been getting from their Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler/Ben Zobrist rotation in right.

Pedro Martinez
Martinez

The Pedro Watch: If you're hanging by the TV and waiting for that imminent return of Pedro Martinez, it might be safe to make other plans. The latest word on the Pedro front is that he's still looking for what one executive describes as "a Brad Penny contract" (a prorated $5 million, plus lots of incentives). And he's interested only in being a starting pitcher. An official of one team reports that in his workout last week, Martinez was "throwing 85 [mph] -- and it's soft." Asked what he could read into that, the official replied, "Let's say it's not what I had in mind to pay $5 million for."

Central casting: A scout who has covered the NL Central says that of the teams in contention in that division, the Reds have by far the most prospects to deal.

Beyond Josh Vitters, the Cubs "don't have one young player I've seen where I say, 'We've got to have that guy,'" the scout said. Aside from the spectacular Alcides Escobar, the Brewers have "nothing to get excited about," he said. Ditto with the Cardinals once you get past third baseman Brett Wallace. And "Houston's system is not real good," he said, flatly.

But the Reds have a bunch of legit prospects, from pitchers Homer Bailey and Matt Maloney to impact bats like Drew Stubbs, Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco. So this is a team with the ammunition to make a move, and more than enough pitching to hang in this race, assuming Edinson Volquez comes back.

Garrett Atkins
Atkins

The Colorado trail: You can add the Mets to the list of teams that checked in on Colorado's Garrett Atkins, in this case as a potential first-base option. These teams don't seem to match up real well. But if the Mets would take on all of the $4 million or so left on Atkins' $7.05 million salary, it might still be doable. From a pure baseball fit, though, the Mets appear to rank Aubrey Huff and Nick Johnson ahead of Atkins.

Vlad all over: Angels GM Tony Reagins on Vladimir Guerrero: "He's a guy who's still getting his legs back at the plate. I think he still can swing it, but I know he's pressing a bit. … He may not be a 30-home run guy, and he may not be a 100-RBI guy, but I think he can still be productive in the middle of our lineup."

Asked how he viewed Guerrero's market value as a free agent next winter, Reagins replied: "If he plays the way we know he can play, there will always be a market for a player like that."

Don't mess with Al: Finally, here's yet one more way to measure the greatness of Sir Albert Pujols: He just went through an 0-for-15 funk this month -- matching his longest oh-fer since 2001 -- "and I bet the teams he was playing didn't even notice," quipped one NL executive.

"Let me put it this way," the exec said. "Even when he was 0-for-15, they sure weren't walking the guy in front of him to get to him."

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again, we check in with America's most incisive scouting minds to learn what they're seeing and hearing.

On Alex Rodriguez: "He looks like he's aged about five years overnight. He can't move. He can't run. And when he does run, he looks like he's got a weight belt on. I see that guy with nine years left on his contract, and I say, 'Uh-oh.'"

Wieters
Wieters

On Matt Wieters: "He's just starting to turn it around. He was feeling for it at first. But now he's getting a feel for the big leagues. I see a lot of the same things in him I saw in Joe Mauer when he first came up. He's not as good as Mauer. But he'll be a tough out."

On Adrian Beltre: "I have a hard time believing anybody would trade for this guy. I don't like him at all. He catches the ball. But offensively, you can't rely on him, especially for those kinds of dollars."

List of the week

We made reference earlier in this column to the Phillies' rank near the bottom of the Most Starts of 6 1/3 Innings or More leaderboard. Here are those leaders -- and trailers -- in that category, according to baseball-reference.com's Play Index:

Headliner of the week

This just in from the eminently amusing Philadelphia sports-parody site phillygameday.com after the Phillies finished off their gruesome 1-8 homestand:

Rare Photo Capturing Phillies' Last Win Found in Old Shoebox

Late-Nighter of the Week

From Conan O'Brien:

"At a San Diego Padres game over the weekend, a 103-year-old man threw out the first pitch. I think that's great. Unfortunately, his entire arm went with it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com