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A Chase Utley story shows us how the sausage of baseball history gets made

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The Dodgers brought Chase Utley back because, in addition to still having at least some baseball left in him, he’s a good clubhouse guy and a good leader. No one has ever questioned that. It’s a reputation he’s had for most of his career. Now, in the twilight of it, his leadership and the example he sets with his hard work and preparation may be his primary calling card.

But even if he is unusually valuable in these respects, it’s possible to go overboard when talking about the guy. Like some unnamed Dodgers coaches apparently did to Peter Gammons recently:

Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.

This was brought to my attention by our own Matthew Pouliot, who added that he did not believe it ever happened, as no Chase Utley HBP in a Dodgers uniform fit this pattern. In the interest of double-checking, I looked at his Dodgers game logs at Baseball-Reference and that seems to be accurate. He’s been hit 17 times in the past two seasons. Most of them came in close games and games the Dodgers lost. In the games where the Dodgers had leads of more than three runs they came with no men on base or without anyone having stolen a base earlier in the inning and I could find none that came late in a game with the Dodgers winning big.

That doesn’t mean the story is bunk, of course. As Matthew allowed, it’s possible Utley requested this once but the opposing pitcher chose not to drill him because opposing pitchers aren’t usually in the habit of allowing more base runners. But it sure does smell like one of those stories people tell in order to make a valid, general point — Utley is a principled leader who plays the game the right way — sound more convincing by virtue of supporting data, whether it exists or whether it doesn’t.

Does it do any harm? Nah. It’s a fun story that tells us something, even if it’s not literally true. Here it tells us that Dodgers coaches think super highly of Utley. So highly, in fact, that it’s possible that they’re either misremembering something that happened — or inventing it — in order to illustrate a point. And the point, as I noted above, is valid, even if Utley never martyred himself with a plunking like they said he did.

Anyone who studies baseball history knows that this pattern is a common one and that apocryphal tales have a habit of becoming accepted as fact over time. We tend to think of it occurring back in the Golden Age, with tales told by old timers. But it’s worth noting that it is still occurring, even with modern players, and that the pattern will continue to color baseball history in a particular way. A lot of the joy of baseball comes from this sort of thing. So too does a lot of the bunk that causes traditions and particular aspects of baseball culture to become entrenched and ingrained.

Regardless, it’s worth examining them. Either for pleasure or, when necessary, as a corrective.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.