Daily Dose: Bossman Junior back on track

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B.J. Upton spent the first week of the season on the disabled list
following winter shoulder surgery and hit just .204 with two homers, 60
strikeouts, and a measly .587 OPS in 45 games through the end of May.
Everything changed for him once the calendar flipped to June and
Upton’s hot stretch continued Sunday as he tied career-highs with four
hits and four RBIs in a win over the Mets.

Upton is now hitting .330 with three homers, six doubles, 13 runs,
and 15 RBIs in 18 games this month while going 11-for-13 swiping bases.
He’s also struck out in 22 percent of his plate appearances after
whiffing 28 percent of the time through two months and as usual Upton
has drawn walks in bunches. He’s still sporting a sub-.700 OPS, but the
time to buy low is clearly disappearing in a hurry.

While the Rays score double-digit runs for the 11th time in 71 games
to increase their MLB-best total to 401, here are some other notes from
around baseball …

* CC Sabathia was yanked from Sunday’s start against the Marlins in
the second inning with left biceps tendinitis. Sabathia wanted to
remain in the game and said afterward that he plans to make his
scheduled start Friday against the Mets, but manager Joe Girardi
expressed less optimism about his status. For now at least no MRI exam
is planned and he’s slated for a bullpen session Wednesday.

Sabathia has just 70 strikeouts in 102 innings after racking up 251
in 253 innings last season, but his fastball velocity is actually up
slightly compared to 2008 and prior to Sunday’s abbreviated start he
was 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 45/15 K/BB in his previous eight outings.
Phil Hughes would likely get the nod to replace him if needed, but
Sabathia will no doubt try to pitch through the injury if possible.

* Barry Zito had a season-high with eight strikeouts Sunday against
the Rangers, missing that many bats for just the fifth time in 79
starts with the Giants. Zito had 205 strikeouts during his first full
season in 2001 and averaged 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings through the
age of 24, but has failed to reach 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings in
any of seven seasons since then.

However, after eight strikeouts in seven innings Sunday his
strikeout rate is up to 6.8/9 for his highest mark since 2004. Zito’s
average fastball was under 85 miles per hour in 2007 and 2008, but his
velocity has improved to a 86.5 mph this year and he’s again having
tons of success with his amazing curveball. Since two bad outings to
begin the season Zito has a 3.85 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 74 innings.

AL Quick Hits: Justin Morneau’s league-high streak of 319
straight games ended Sunday because of “general soreness” … David Ortiz
homered Sunday for the fifth time this month after going deep just once
through 46 games … Mike Lowell missed his second straight game Sunday
because of soreness in his surgically repaired hip … Kevin Millwood had
a season-high 10 strikeouts Sunday, but took a loss while allowing
three runs … Gil Meche came into Sunday with 16 straight scoreless
innings and a 3.31 ERA, but was rocked for nine runs … Mark Buehrle
tossed seven shutout innings Sunday, improving to 7-2 … Denard Span
(ear) is expected to come off the disabled list when eligible Thursday
… Evan Longoria broke out his June slump by going 4-for-5 with a pair
of doubles Sunday … Ricky Romero hurled his fourth straight Quality
Start on Sunday … Dallas Braden cut his ERA to 3.26 with seven innings
of two-run ball Sunday.

NL Quick Hits: Albert Pujols homered twice and drove in six runs
Sunday, giving him an MLB-leading 26 long balls and 68 RBIs … Ryan
Howard homered as a pinch-hitter Saturday, but returned to the hospital
Sunday and saw his MLB-high streak of 343 straight games snapped
because of the flu … Cole Hamels struck out 10 and allowed just two
runs in eight innings Sunday, but took a loss … After giving up 25 runs
in his previous five outings, Wandy Rodriguez allowed one run on two
hits over seven innings Sunday … General manager Dan O’Dowd denied
Saturday that Brad Hawpe is being shopped … Geovany Soto homered Sunday
for the fourth time in June after going deep just once through 40 games
… Khalil Greene homered Sunday for the third straight game, but left
with a bruised leg after being hit by a pitch … Troy Tulowitzki notched
his first three-hit game of the season Sunday and also added a walk.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.

 

Sure, Carlos Gomez is the problem in Houston

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez (30) reacts after hitting a double in the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Associated Press
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No one will claim that Carlos Gomez is playing up to his ability. He’s got a .634 OPS in the 65 games he’s played for the Astros between last year and this year. Not good at all.

Still, he seems to be taking an outsized amount of the blame for the Astros’ slow start to this year. I do a weekly radio hit on a Texas station and Gomez has been the talk for three weeks when the Astros’ troubles are mentioned. Today Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle spends a whole column going at Gomez, with the usual dash of “you can’t be flamboyant if you can’t back it up” sentiment often given to players like Gomez when they struggle but which is seemingly never given to players whose act is more “tough guy.” Funny that.

More notable: nowhere in the column is it mentioned that, overall, the Astros’ offense is above league average and that, in reality, it’s the pitching that’s killing them. Gomez may not be carrying his weight, but his teammates in the lineup are for now, as teammates do for every hitter at one time of the year or another. Meanwhile, Smith doesn’t seem to be writing columns about how three of the Astros’ five starters have ERAs above 5.00 and how the bullpen has been a disaster. Gomez, however, gets a “Rally Killer” subheading in reference to his performance in a game his team actually won, primarily due to the offense.

There’s also an unfortunate quote in the article. Specifically, Smith quotes Gomez as saying “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

I’m sure that’s what he said, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the quote’s imperfect English fits satisfyingly into a column designed to rip Gomez and that it’s going to play right into stereotyping a certain sort of reader who has just HAD it with those allegedly lazy, entitled Latino players likes to engage in. For the record, its not uncommon for other players whose grammar is less than perfect to get [the bracket treatment] to make the mistakes less noticeable. Or, if the quote is less than clear or enlightening, to get the paraphrasing treatment and have his sentiment conveyed in keeping with the intent of the sentiment. I guess Gomez doesn’t get that treatment. He gets to be portrayed in such a way that a certain sort of reader will unfortunately interpret as him being too dumb or too lazy to learn proper English or something.

And no, it’s not just sensitive old Craig noticing that:

Empathy is the key word here, I think. Smith as no interest in portraying Gomez as a player who, like all players, struggles from time to time. He has to be the bad guy who is responsible for all of the Astros’ woes, it seems.