Daily Dose: Pujols, Smoltz team up for win

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John Smoltz and Albert Pujols made for a nice combo Sunday, as Smoltz threw five scoreless innings in his Cardinals debut and Albert Pujols went deep to become just the eighth player in baseball history with 40 or more homers in at least five seasons before the age of 30. Who are the other seven? I’ll give you the answer after talking about Smoltz’s impressive return to the National League.
Smoltz flopped in Boston, going 2-5 with an ugly 8.32 ERA in eight starts, but a 33/9 K/BB ratio in 40 innings, average fastball velocity of 91 miles per hour, and plenty of break left on his hard slider suggested that he could still get major-league hitters out. Or at least that’s what I’ve been opining in this space for the past couple weeks. Not only did Smoltz get hitters out Sunday, he struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced.
He didn’t look as dominant as those strikeout totals suggest and left plenty of pitches out over the plate, but as Cardinals fan and Rotoworld news guru Drew Silva pointed out on Twitter during the game: “Smoltz has hung a few, but this is the NL and these are the Padres.” The good news for Smoltz is that he’s in the NL to stay and, while he doesn’t get to face the Padres every time, he does get to face the Nationals next.
While the answers to the trivia question are Alex Rodriguez, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Ralph Kiner, Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and Juan Gonzalez here are some other notes from around baseball …


* This year has been a rough one for Aaron Harang, who has just one win since May despite hurling nine Quality Starts during that time and is now finished for the season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Saturday night. Harang went 32-17 with a 3.75 ERA for the Reds between 2006 and 2007, but is 12-31 over 55 starts in the two seasons since then.
Based on his brutal 12-31 record you’d assume that Harang has been an absolute mess in those two years, but that’s hardly the case. He has a 4.52 ERA and 295/93 K/BB ratio in 347 innings over that span, which given neutral support from the Reds’ lineup and bullpen would leave him at something more like 21-22. He’s certainly not great, but Harang will be massively undervalued by anyone focused on his record.
* Scott Feldman continued his improbable run as one of the league’s top starters by shutting out the Rays for seven innings Sunday. With the victory Feldman improved to 13-4 with a 3.87 ERA and he racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts in the process. Prior to Sunday he hadn’t missed many bats, which along with mediocre control and just an average ground-ball rate equals success via plenty of smoke and mirrors.
AL Quick Hits: Fausto Carmona had eight strikeouts and one walk in seven innings of one-run ball Sunday to beat Felix Hernandez … Scott Downs (toe) is set to come off the disabled list Monday, but may not resume closing right away … Mark Buehrle gave up five runs in 5.1 innings Sunday and has just one Quality Start in six attempts since his perfect game … Trevor Bell was chased from his third career start in the second inning Sunday … Jarrod Saltalamacchia (arm) is slated to begin a rehab stint this week while eyeing a September 1 return … Michael Cuddyer homered twice in one inning Sunday while subbing for Justin Morneau (ear) … Brian Roberts reached base four times Sunday, including his MLB-leading 47th double … Jim Leyland said Sunday that the Tigers will limit 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello’s workload down the stretch … Brett Tomko has won both starts since joining the A’s, but don’t count on the 36-year-old being anything but mediocre going forward.
NL Quick Hits: Tim Lincecum took a loss Sunday despite throwing a Quality Start at Coors Field … Scott Rolen returned from the disabled list by going 0-for-3 with two walks Sunday … Angel Pagan hit two homers Sunday, including an inside-the-parker that got stuck under the outfield padding at Citi Field … Bud Norris coughed up six runs and failed to make it out of the second inning Sunday … Thanks to Oliver Perez imploding Pedro Martinez picked up a win Sunday despite letting the Mets score four runs in five frames … Ryan Dempster allowed just an unearned run in seven innings Sunday and has a 4.03 ERA since returning from a broken toe … Ubaldo Jimenez stayed on a roll with eight innings of two-run ball Sunday, striking out nine in his 12th win … Alcides Escobar smacked his first career homer Sunday after going deep four times in 109 games at Triple-A … Vicente Padilla is scheduled to make his Dodgers debut Thursday at Coors Field … Matt Diaz missed the cycle by a homer Sunday and is 14-for-29 with three homers in his last nine games.

Rob Manfred is prepared to implement a pitch clock unilaterally for 2018

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Rob Manfred has long been on record wanting to speed up the pace of play in baseball and, to that end, last year proposed a 20-second pitch clock. Pursuant to baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, he could not implement that unilaterally last year. However if, one year after a proposed rules change, no agreement can be reached with the union, he has the power to impose the originally-proposed change unilaterally.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says today that he is prepared to do just that — imposing that pitch clock and a rule limiting mound visits — for the 2018 season. He further says that the players might very well allow him to do that, despite the fact that they and Manfred are currently negotiating an agreed set of rule changes.

Why? Because, Rosenthal says, if they step aside and let Manfred do it by himself and the rules changes prove unpopular, he’ll take the blame for it:

If enough players oppose the changes, they could absolve themselves of responsibility and allow Manfred to force the issue by introducing the two key elements of MLB’s plan: a 20-second pitch clock and reduction in mound visits. The onus then would be on Manfred to deal with any public fallout and unintended consequences the new rules might trigger.

I’m not sure, based on the story itself, if that’s just Rosenthal’s speculation or if it’s actually a potential union strategy to do nothing and let Manfred own the rules changes. If it’s the latter, though, it’s a monumentally stupid strategy. For a few reasons.

The first and biggest reason is that it is not a union’s job to play public relations games. It’s a union’s job to make workplace conditions as good as possible for its membership via bargaining. Rob Manfred is required to engage with the union on these rules changes for a limited time and is doing so, apparently in good faith. The union, while not possessing great leverage here, has at least some ability to put its two cents in on a rule that impacts all of its members and could, conceivably, make the rules a bit better for them. Barring that, they could at least attempt to obtain some sort of concession in another area in order to get their agreement to the rule. Blowing the chance to have input on work rules because of a chance to win a public relations fight is an abdication of responsibility for a labor union.

Second: there is not going to be any sort of public relations win for the union regardless of what happens. Indeed, to even think there could be one is to ignore what has happened with every rules change in baseball history and how they have played with the public.

No matter how much some people complain about a change in baseball — and some people love to complain — most folks eventually get used them. The DH rule just celebrated its 50th anniversary. People moan, but it’s just part of life. Same with interleague play and divisional realignment and expanded playoffs and no-pitch intentional walks and the takeout slide rules and everything else. The complaints about such things are loud, but they’re not deeply felt or widely felt by any but a handful of self-proclaimed traditionalists. The game chugs on and most people get used to it without there ever being the kind of P.R. fallout that puts egg on the league’s face or which puts the players in some better light. If the pitch clock rule is imposed, people will complain a lot and lot of ink will be spilled about it, but it won’t do anything to substantially harm the league let alone help the players.

That speaks to a larger historical lesson about public relations and players, of course: they’re almost always going to be seen as the bad guys by fans, no matter what they do.

Owners abused their power for a century and fans didn’t care. Starting in the 1960s, when the players finally began to effectively assert their leverage, the players were cast as greedy mercenaries. An owner gives out a foolishly large contract and the player is blamed for taking it. The owners band together in an illegal scheme to harm the players’ interest and the owner who orchestrated it is inducted into the Hall of Fame. The DH rule gets imposed and players who excel as designated hitters are viewed poorly by the writers and the public when it comes time to consider their Hall of Fame case. A new rule gets implemented to deal with slides and it’s not “The Rob Manfred slide rule” it’s “The Chase Utley Rule.” The players are the visible ones. They bear the brunt of just about anything that happens.

Which is to say, if the pitch clock creates some weird situations or controversies, the players involved in those situations and controversies are going to be the ones to take the blame. Just imagine a Dodgers-Giants game that turns on some weirdness involving Madison Bumgarner taking too long to deliver a pitch to Yasiel Puig, forcing in the walkoff run. Imagine that both Bumgarner and Puig saying the other was to blame. Imagine that the umpires messed up the application of the rule. You think Rob Manfred is going to catch hell for it as opposed to the players and the umpires involved? Hell no. Giants fans will yell that Puig did something that should’ve caused the clock to be reset. Dodgers fans will blame Bumgarner for taking too long. It’ll dominate the news for a couple of days but it won’t be the league and its owners taking crap for it.

Against that backdrop, why in the heck would the union try to win some P.R. battle? Screw the P.R. battle. Union leadership — including Tony Clark and the player reps — should negotiate for the best rules possible for the players they represent and let the public relations chips fall where they may.

Will they do that? Based on how the last few management-labor battles have gone, I don’t have a lot of confidence. In recent years the union has seemed far more focused on relatively short term and picayune concerns while trying not to look like the bad guys to fans. Meanwhile, the meat and potatoes labor issues which sometimes require a union to take unpopular stances in the long term, big picture interests of the players have been dominated by the owners. Ask the free agents who can’t find a team because the luxury tax is far lower, compared to revenues, now than it was 15 years ago and is serving as a defacto salary cap. Ask the guys who are being lowballed because of the qualifying offer.

It appears as though we’ll have a pitch clock in 2018 one way or another. The players need to decide pretty quickly if they’re going to have some say in that process or if they’re going to allow themselves to be marginalized in the management of the game even more than they already have been.