Usain Bolt: pinch runner?


Bolt Braves cap.jpgMatt Stroup over at Universal Sports has noted that sprinter Usain Bolt has some conflicting baseball loyalties.  Recently he was spotted wearing a Red Sox cap. Yesterday, he had on a Braves cap. Jamaica doesn’t have a team so all is forgiven, but the image of the fastest man on the planet in a Braves cap did give me a quick, cheap thrill.

Would it be worth it to sign the guy and make him a pinch runner?  It’s been done before: The Athletics signed track star Herb Washington to be their full-time pinch runner for the 1974 season.  Washington scored 29 runs and stole 28 bases in 91 games without once coming to bat or playing defense.  But even the A’s — who were pretty crazy about pinch runners in general back in the Charlie O. Finley days — didn’t think so much of Washington that they kept him around. He was cut early into the ’75 season and was never heard from again in baseball circles.

The problem: he was just too one-dimensional. And he wasn’t really that great in that dimension: in two seasons he was caught stealing 17 times in 48 attempts, which is below the level of success that makes stealing bases a value-added proposition (you usually want to see a 75% success rate or higher).  Washington’s failure as a pinch runner clearly shows that there is way more to stealing bases than speed. Indeed, there was probably no one faster than him in the game at the time. But you have to be able to read pitchers’ moves and pick your spots, and to do that you need experience.

These days it would be even harder for a guy like Washington — or Bolt — to make that job work because (a) stealing is way less a part of the game now than it used to be; and (b) roster spots are just way too precious to be used on a runner.  In 1974 the A’s basically had a nine-man pitching staff.  Today teams typically carry 12 pitchers and, on occasion, go with 13. Yeah, that’s ridiculous, but it’s how it is, and as a result a baseball team in 2010 would be more likely to sign a chef who only prepares bear steaks than it would be to sign a pinch runner.

The upshot of all of this is that I can see only two situations in which Usain Bolt would ever appear in a major league game. Either as (a) a pure gimmick, on a losing team after the rosters expand in September; or (b) after someone teaches him to shag flies and decides that they can stick him in left-center and thereby eliminate one of their three outfielders.

Given that Nate McLouth is currently patrolling center for the Braves, I’m not sure that a Bolt-Heyward outfield isn’t a bad idea.

Which teams improved and declined the most in 2015?

Joe Maddon

I was curious about which MLB teams changed their fortunes the most this season compared to last year, so I crunched the numbers.

First, here are the biggest win total improvements from 2014 to 2015:

+24 Cubs
+21 Rangers
+16 Astros
+15 Diamondbacks
+13 Twins
+11 Mets
+10 Blue Jays
+10 Cardinals
+10 Pirates

The top five teams on the biggest-improvement list all had managers in their first season on the job, led by Joe Maddon joining the Cubs after tons of success with the Rays. Also worth noting: Of the nine teams with the biggest win total improvement, eight made the playoffs. Only the Twins improved to double-digit games and still failed to make the playoffs.

Now, here are the biggest win total declines from 2014 to 2015:

-20 Athletics
-16 Tigers
-15 Orioles
-14 Brewers
-13 Nationals
-13 Angels
-12 Braves
-12 Reds
-11 Mariners

Not surprisingly, a whole lot of those teams have changed managers, general managers, or both. And a couple more may still do so before the offseason gets underway. Oakland retained manager Bob Melvin despite an MLB-high 20-win dropoff and just promoted Billy Beane from general manager to vice president of baseball operations.

MLB games were six minutes shorter this year

Pitch Clock
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According to STATS, INC., the average game in 2015 was 2 hours, 56 minutes. That’s six minutes faster than games in 2014.

The gains came in the first half, when games averaged 2:53. Second half games averaged three hours even. One can probably thank the expanded rosters in September for that, as games then see many more pitching changes. Of course, it’s likely that second half games were faster in 2015 than 2014 as well given the rules changes.

Those changes: agreement to enforce the rule requiring a hitter to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box and the installation of clocks timing pitching changes and between-inning breaks in ever ballpark.

It remains to be seen if MLB stays satisfied with that modest improvement or if chooses to go the way Triple-A and Double-A leagues did. They installed 20-second pitch clocks and started penalizing violators with balls and strikes. Triple-A’s two leagues, the International and Pacific Leagues, saw game-time decreases by 13 and 16 minutes, respectively.