Peter Gammons: Tired Baseball
Last Thursday night, May 30, the Royals and Cardinals sat around in the St. Louis rain past 3 am (Friday, May 31), forcing the visitors to have to arrive in Arlington, Texas past dawn and have to begin a three game series against one of the best teams in the American League.
It was so ridiculous that the umpires, led by crew chief Joe West—who abided by the rules and made everyone wait for more than four hours because it was Kansas City’s only trip down I-70—arrived at their Chicago hotel at 9:40am that morning and were at Wrigley Field around noon for their Friday afternoon game.
The weather in the first two months of the 2013 season has seemingly been an aberration, from rain and snow and, worst of all, tornados that have ravaged most of the nation. Add on the fact that in the first two months there were 18 games that went at least into the 12th inning. On May 31, the Blue Jays and Padres played 17 innings in four hours and 58 minutes, finishing approximately 20 minutes after the rain-delayed Rays-Indians game in Cleveland.
“Everyone is playing under these conditions, between the one-time-visits schedule and the weather,” said one Boston coach. “I’m not making excuses for any one team. But the fact is we’re seeing some tired baseball.”
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“The way it is now, you really need 35 to 37 players before the season’s over,” says Buck Showalter. Of course, Showalter, Dan Duquette and the Orioles masterfully juggle their roster between Baltimore and Norfolk. In many ways, it is born of necessity, because they do not have the big starting pitching horses, especially with Wei-Yin Chen on the disabled list. The ten starting pitchers the Orioles trotted out through June 1 made a combined total of approximately $13M; there are 27 individual starting pitchers around baseball who make $13M or more.
But the Orioles are not alone in their need for 12 and sometimes 13 active pitchers. “We see that more and more,” says Showalter. Problem is, teams that require 12 and 13 pitchers find their benches strapped. Play extra innings, get to bed at 6 am, get up and play the next day…
In reality, baseball’s meet and right banning of amphetimines has made the travel schedule more difficult. While players from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s decry the Steroid Era and its records, it was a different game in the era of greenies, red juice, etc. Now it isn’t worth the threat of suspension and the loss of pay to use amphetimines, no matter how tired the player might be, or how short the bench may be. Bud Selig has been adamant in trying to clean up the game as much as possible. He has suspended players for the use of amphetimines, and consequently, teams now have to adjust their rosters and some managers have suggested that rosters be expanded to 27 or 28 players.
“Depth is more important today than it ever was,” says Billy Beane, who has tried to fill his roster with 25 players who can play multiple positions and assume a myriad of roles. “The schedule is a huge factor. So are injuries, which may be related to the schedule. It isn’t who necessarily has the best core of star players, it’s who has the best depth and, most important, has the healthiest players.”
Versatility is key
Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay figured this out years ago. The Rays have had a roster dotted with versatile players like Ben Zobrist. They have found ways to keep their pitching healthy (that is, until David Price went on the disabled list in May). The Cardinals also seem to always have depth and flexibility. The Indians added Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn—versatile and virtual regulars—to combat the schedule. “You’re going to see teams play their prospects at different positions in the minors,” says one general manager.
The Rangers brought up Jurickson Profarand installed him at second when Ian Kinsler got hurt. But when Kinsler returns in mid-June, Profar will likely remain in the majors, playing five days a week between short, second and DH; that can allow Elvis Andrus and Kinsler days off and days as designated hitter in the Texas heat. Thus what we’re now seeing is teams bringing talented young players and breaking them in the way the great Earl Weaver Orioles of the seventies broke in young pitchers, using ultimate starting pitchers like Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor and Sammy Stewart first as relievers.
Young talent - young energy
The Red Sox may have been frustrated with what some perceived as Jose Iglesias’s bigleague-itis in Pawtucket, where he was benched, hit .202 and got on base at a .262 clip. But when Will Middlebrooks was disabled with a back injury, Iglesias came up and played third base. Not only did he bat .434 in his first 16 games with a .456 on base percentage and 1.241 OPS, but he fielded magnificently. Now the play is to keep Iglesias when Middlebrooks returns, but play him at short and third. The Red Sox are also planning to work Xander Bogaerts at different positions in Portland, thinking he may add more versatility the last two months of the season. Once Mike Olt proves his early season vision problems are resolved, he may be moved up to the Rangers to add a power bat at third, first and the outfield.
“What these kids bring is necessary depth to teams having to carry 12 or 13 pitchers,” says one general manager. “But when you get young players like Profar or Iglesias, they bring an energy with them. At their age, they aren’t prone to getting tired because of the schedule and the delays.”
Every day, Iglesias goes onto the field to warm up and says, “today we have fun.” They got over the perception that he’s a better player in the big leagues, and what that might mean.
“Jose can help us in a lot of ways,” says John Farrell. “And he can still lean as he goes along.” Profar, ibid. It may eventually come down to the same for Anthony Rendon in Washington or Jonathan Schoop in Baltimore, and teams throughout both leagues.