Daily Dose: Cliff Lee can't buy a win

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Cliff Lee’s win-loss record has suffered from a lack of lineup and
bullpen support all season and that continued Thursday night, as he got
stuck with a no-decision despite tossing seven innings of two-run ball
against the Pirates. Lee has thrown a Quality Start in 12 of his last
13 outings, with a 2.20 ERA and 69/21 K/BB ratio during that time, yet
has just a 4-4 record to show for it.

He’s just 4-6 overall despite a 2.92 ERA after going 22-3 with a
2.54 ERA on the way to the AL Cy Young last year. With the Indians
falling to 30-44 and a dozen games back in the AL Central rumors are
starting to swirl that Lee may be on the trading block. General manager
Mark Shapiro is believed to be holding out for an elite pitching
prospect, but Lee’s poor record likely hurts his perceived value.

While the misleading nature of individual win-loss records displays
itself perfectly in Lee, here are some other notes from around baseball

* John Smoltz made his Red Sox debut Thursday night, allowing four
first-inning runs before holding the Nationals to one run over his
final four frames. Losing his first start in more than a year clearly
isn’t good news, but Smoltz retired the final eight hitters he faced
and struck out the side in his last inning. It wasn’t the debut that
Boston fans were hoping for, but he looked good enough to be an asset.

* Eric Byrnes is expected to miss 4-8 weeks with a fractured left
hand after Scott Feldman plunked him with a pitch Thursday. Byrnes is
hitting .216/.260/.361 this season after batting .209/.272/.369 last
year, so his absence obviously isn’t a big blow to the Diamondbacks and
basically just guarantees that Gerardo Parra will continue to play
regularly once Chris Young returns from a groin injury.

* Josh Hamilton has begun swinging a bat following June 9 surgery on
a partially torn abdominal muscle and general manager Jon Daniels
revealed Thursday that “there’s a reasonable chance” he’ll be able to
return from the disabled list before the All-Star break. Hamilton has
indicated that he’ll probably skip the Home Run Derby, but he’s also
third in the fan voting for a starting spot in the outfield.

* Despite general manager Neal Huntington announcing earlier this
week that he would remain in the rotation for at least one more start,
Ian Snell was demoted to the minors Thursday and the move apparently
came at his request. Snell is 9-20 with a 5.40 ERA in 46 starts since
the beginning of last year, but Pittsburgh has turned down trade offers
and resisted what may be a smart move to the bullpen.

AL Quick Hits: Frank Thomas said Thursday that he’s close to
retiring, but is “still in shape, ready to go if anything happens” …
Kenji Johjima (toe) is set to return from the disabled list Friday and
will resume starting … Armando Galarraga gave up four runs in six
innings Thursday, but won for the first time since April … If his
bullpen session goes well Friday, Roy Halladay (groin) should be
cleared to start Monday … Evan Longoria sat out Thursday’s game, but
his hamstring injury isn’t considered serious … Ichiro Suzuki went
4-for-5 with a homer Thursday and now has a career-high .901 OPS …
Denard Span returned from the DL with a triple and three walks Thursday
… Yuniesky Betancourt’s hamstring injury sent him to the shelf
Thursday, which is addition by subtraction for the Mariners … Asdrubal
Cabrera (shoulder) may come off the DL as soon as Friday … Aaron Poreda
picked up his first career win Thursday by pitching a scoreless 13th
inning.

NL Quick Hits: Brandon Webb will be examined by three more
specialists before making a decision on his shoulder injury … Homer
Bailey will start Saturday and should get a chance to stick in the
rotation if he can throw strikes for once … Not willing to wait for
Milton Bradley’s next injury, manager Lou Piniella has benched him for
a couple games … Antonio Bastardo exited Thursday’s start in the fourth
inning with a strained shoulder … After losing three of his past four
starts, Johan Santana tossed seven innings of two-run ball Thursday for
win No. 9 … Kenshin Kawakami isn’t expected to miss a start despite
being hit on the neck by a liner Wednesday … Jake Fox went 3-for-4 with
his first homer Thursday … Hitting just .214 overall and .125 since
being dropped to sixth in the lineup, Jimmy Rollins has been benched
for two games … Reed Johnson (back) went on the disabled list Thursday,
so the Cubs replaced him with Ryan Freel … Geovany Soto tested positive
for marijuana during the WBC, but called it “an isolated incident.”

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.