A long-overdue update

Let’s get started with a quick fact.

Rockies record on May 19: 18-25
Rockies record, since May 19: 41-29

Why May 19?  Well, it was on May 19 that the Rockies finally decided enough was enough, cut John Mabry, and recalled Ryan Spilborghs from AAA.  Now, that wasn’t the only move the Rockies made around that time; on May 13, the Rockies shipped out BK Kim, and on May 21 the Rockies got Kaz Matsui back after over a month on the disabled list, but it seems like the biggest move.  (On the subject of Kaz, the Rockies were 5-7 when he went on the DL, 13-20 without him, and 41-27 since.)

Yeah, Spilborghs is just a fourth outfielder, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that he’s a big reason why the Rockies have been a better team from mid-May on.  Even in a bench role, replacing Mabry’s .118/.231/.235 with Spilborghs’s .343/.389/.615 was an obvious improvement.  Coupled with the return of Kaz — who’s hitting .299/.339/.424 — the Rockies clearly got better around that time.  It meant Jamey Carroll could return to the backup role he’s suited for.  Furthermore, the recall of Spilborghs meant that the Rockies had a capable platoon partner for Brad Hawpe, relegating Jeff Baker, whose .218/.290/.319 has been a severe disappointment for the team.  Spilborghs’s ability to play center at least adequately meant that Steve Finley and his .181/.245/.245 were no longer necessary.

Sure, the Rockies as a team started hitting better around that time.  But to cut straight to the point, having Spilborghs available off the bench suddenly made the offense that much more dangerous.  When the Rockies had Mabry, Finley, Carroll, and Baker — and, in Kaz’s absence, some combination of Omar Quintanilla and Clint Barmes — available off the bench, opposing pitchers had nothing to fear.  Baker can hit for power, but he hasn’t been doing it.  These days, it’s Carroll, Spilborghs, Sullivan, and Baker.

Just how important is a team’s bench?  Late in the game, it’s key.  Having to face Ryan Spilborghs late in a game is more daunting than having to face John Mabry (at least, the 2007 version of John Mabry.)  And pinch-hit situations late in the game are, almost by definition, high-leverage situations.  Spilborghs’ 1.73 WPA is seventh on the team, behind Hawpe, Holliday, Helton, Matsui, Tulo, and Francis.  It’s a far cry from Mabry’s -0.60.  (Props to Fangraphs for that.)

How good would the Rockies be if they’d made the right move and carried Spilborghs on Opening Day?  We’ll never know.  Somehow the Rockies weren’t convinced by the .412/.432/.735 he hit in Spring Training.

To change subjects — well, there’s a new home run champ, and his name is Barry Lamar Bonds.  I’m no Bonds defender.  However, I do think Bonds has received unfair treatment from the media.

First of all, even if Bonds has used steroids, he’s certainly not the only baseball player to have ever done it.  Steroid controversy has surrounded Mark McGwire pretty much ever since he broke Maris’s record.  Same goes for Sammy Sosa.  Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids.  Jose Canseco freaking wrote a book about it.  Jason Giambi has, through a few cryptic statements, probably admitted to using steroids.

All four of those players prove two things: first, that if Barry did anything, he certainly wasn’t the only one who did it; and second, well, none of those other guys hit 756 homers, now did they?  From the way the media treats the story, you’d almost think that if I, a random, 5’9", 180-pound white guy, started using all of the performance-enhancing drugs that Bonds did, took on his workout regimen, and hired his personal trainer, I’d hit 756 homers, too.  Hey, it’s a done deal, right?

Uh, wrong.  Steroids may be a reason for the increased number of homers in the 1990s, but they’re not the only reason.  Smaller ballparks, a smaller strike zone, "diluted pitching," and Major League Baseball’s expansion into Colorado have all played a role.  29 of Barry’s 756 homers have come in either Mile High Stadium or Coors Field.  Without Colorado, Barry might still be looking for number 756.

I said the same thing when Barry hit #714: it’s still an accomplishment, steroids or not.

Also this weekend, Tom Glavine won his 300th career game, something that only 22 other players have ever done.  Almost immediately, sports commentators said that Glavine was going to be the last guy to ever win 300 games.  Apparently they didn’t learn their lesson when they proclaimed back in 2004 that Greg Maddux was going to be the last pitcher ever to win 300.  Back then, Glavine was 41 wins away from 300 and was 38, so I suppose it was reasonable to think that Glavine would not get to 300.  But still… are we just stupid now?

To say that nobody will ever win 300 games again is incredibly dumb.  Sure, right now almost every team uses the "specialized bullpen" model, but who’s to say that twenty years from now some team won’t go back to the model that expects the starters to go seven or eight innings every time out?

While eleven active pitchers have won 200 games, nine of those are already 40.  Mike Mussina, at 38, has 246 career wins, and while it’s certainly no guarantee, were he to pitch four or five more years, he could conceivably win 300.  Further down the list, Tim Hudson, at 31, has 131 wins.  He could get to 300 by pitching until he’s 42 and winning 15 games a year — which, if he continues to play for good teams, could happen.  Barry Zito and Roy Oswalt, both 29, have 110 wins.  Mark Buehrle, at 28, has won 106.  C.C. Sabathia, at 26, already has 95 career wins.  Heck, Felix Hernandez is 21, and he’s already got 24 career wins.

And you’re telling me that none of these guys will stay healthy, pitch long enough, and play for enough good teams to get to 300 wins?  Saying that it’s unlikely to happen is one thing; saying it like it’s a guarantee is quite different.

That’s all for now.  19-4 today.  I can smell the playoffs from here.  Thanks, Spilly.

Your obligatory post about the NBA referee scandal

Question of the week: Was anybody really that surprised that an NBA referee was fixing games?  Heck, after watching the NCAA Tournament the past couple of years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some college refs were fixing games, too.  Of course, that’s primarily because I watched the Memphis-Ohio State game in the Elite Eight this year and was convinced that the refs were jobbing the Tigers because they wanted Greg Oden and the Buckeyes in the Final Four.

Yes, I realize that this is a baseball blog, but this thing’s huge.  Of course the sports media is blowing it out of proportion and making me think that yes, in fact, the referees in that Memphis-Ohio State game were in a bookie’s pocket.  I’m also really surprised that nobody in the media that I know of has come out and blamed gambling as the root of all of this.

No, gambling itself is not the problem here.  We lived in a society that has a very mixed view on gambling.  We accept it, but there are large segments of society who don’t think it’s acceptable.  For anyone.  Now, different kinds of gambling have different levels of acceptance.  The lottery?  Heck, that’s perfectly fine.  It pays for education, and anything that pays for education is good.  My state, Tennessee, instituted a lottery five years ago in order to start handing out college scholarships designed specifically to keep Tennessee kids in Tennessee.  Based on the kind of people I see buying lottery tickets at the gas station, and based on who still forms the majority of college students, it largely seems that the lottery is a way for the state to make poor people pay for rich people’s kids to go to college.

Somehow, that’s acceptable to many people, but a far greater number of people dislike the concept of betting on sports.  If we still had a Republican Congress, I’d expect them to come up with some knee-jerk reaction to "address the issue," but with a Democratic Congress and, specifically, a Senate Majority Leader from Nevada who was formerly the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, I’m not expecting that.  The current "problem," according to a lot of people, is offshore sportsbooks, which really have nothing to do with this problem.  One thing most people don’t realize is that anybody who wants to place a bet with one of those, or in Vegas, is that one has to have the money up front.  That’s different from your local bookie, who will probably allow you to make bets on credit and "settle" them at the end of the week.  Any time you hear about somebody having a massive gambling debt, that’s with a local bookie.  Vegas won’t let you bet money you don’t have.

Of course, never mind that ESPN televises the World Series of Poker all the freaking time (how that’s a sport is beyond me.)  Open any sports magazine and you’ll see some ads for online sportsbooks, usually with a bunch of scantily-clad women gracing them, attempting to entice you to go on there and place a bet.  Newspapers outside of Nevada print the lines for basketball and football games, even though that’s supposedly illegal (unless you’re planning to catch a flight to Vegas that morning before the game.)  Heck, some newspapers even go so far as to print some columnist’s picks against the spread on Sunday morning before the NFL kicks off for that day.  And all this is legal?  It’s almost as if the media is telling you to put a bunch of money on that afternoon’s football game.

The major argument against it is that it "taints" the game.  Players or referees agreeing to fix a game does, but I fail to see how Joe Sportsfan placing a $50 bet (or, heck, a $5000 bet) on a game affects the outcome of the game at all, unless Joe Sportsfan has some great mafia connections.  This issue extends about as far as the players, officials, and others directly involved in a sporting event.  I don’t even see why a player betting on a game that he’s not involved with would be such a problem.  The only danger there is that if he runs up a debt, he might be tempted to fix one of his own games in an attempt to pay off his gambling debts.  But this issue begins and ends with those people.  It doesn’t extend to all the regular Joes out there who might want to do it.  What’s the problem with that?

Of course, that’s probably not how the media will end up spinning this.

Could this happen in baseball?  I suppose.  But baseball umpires have a lot less leeway than refs in the NBA or NFL have.  The home plate umpire has some leeway as to calling balls and strikes and I suppose that by calling a bigger strike zone than normal an umpire could limit the number of runs scored — or by calling a smaller strike zone increase the number of runs.  Most calls in baseball, however, are straight forward.  The guy’s either out or safe, the ball’s either foul or fair.  Just about any blown call by an umpire is going to be obvious.  In other words, it’s hard for an umpire to really affect the outcome of a game that much.  Basketball and football referees, on the other hand, have a ton of leeway.  The no-call is an accepted part of both cultures, and in fact is even encouraged to a certain extent.  Officials in football are given so much leeway when it comes to pass interference that we’re surprised when an official in that sport actually calls it.  Same for traveling in basketball, or blocking/charging.  Basketball officials can artificially affect the outcome of a game by calling a bunch of fouls on a star player and forcing him onto the bench for a good part of the game.  And don’t get me started on star treatment.  That exists in baseball, too, but to a much lesser extent than in football or basketball.  Barry Bonds might get a bit smaller strike zone than most hitters, some pitchers might get a bigger strike zone than most pitchers, but there’s virtually no such thing as star treatment by umpires.

But I digress.  I like basketball, but I’m not about to go thinking that any referee who makes a bad call in a game is in a bookie’s pocket.  It happens.

The trade deadline approaches

Every year, the trade deadline comes in with a lot of fanfare, fans talk about which teams are buying, which are selling, and who’s going to be in a new uniform come August.  And then the deadline passes, and we come to find out that the best player who was traded was Carlos Lee.

Apparently, most sportswriters have caught onto this, and the trade deadline isn’t coming with near the usual amount of hype.  There are two reasons for the decline in the trade deadline.  First, increased revenue sharing means that even the smaller-market teams can find ways to lock up their best players.  The Twins might have still been willing to let Shannon Stewart get away, but there’s no way they’re going to let Johan Santana get away.

Second, increased revenue sharing (along with a number of other factors) has led to increased parity, meaning that fewer teams are willing to give up on the season on July 31.  Right now, exactly half of the 30 teams in MLB are within five games of either the division lead or a wild card spot, including the Yankees, who are never, ever going to consider themselves "sellers" at the trade deadline.

What’s more, deadline deals always seem to hit some sort of hangup.  Most of the teams who are selling are looking for prospects.  Of course, many of the teams who are buying got to where they are by trading away prospects for established players and signing big-name free agents.

So should the Rockies be buying or selling?  There are points to be made on either side.  While they’re only 4.5 games out in the West — and 3.5 out in the Wild Card — those aren’t going to be easy gaps to make up.  They’re behind three teams in the division and five in the wild card, meaning they’ll either have to play excellent ball down the stretch or hope for several teams to fall apart.  The Dodgers and Padres, in particular, don’t look like the kind of teams that are about to start collapsing.  What’s more, the Rockies don’t really have that much to gain by buying.  They could add a bullpen arm, sure, but after seeing what the Padres got back in return for Scott Linebrink from the Brewers, we can be pretty sure that a bullpen arm won’t come cheap.  Aside from catcher, where our best bet, really, is to sit back and hope Chris Iannetta can turn things around, there aren’t any gaping holes in the offense.  With Aaron Cook starting to pitch more like an ace and Ubaldo Jimenez being a decent stopgap, there’s nothing to be gained by trading for a starting pitcher, either.

On the other hand, there’s not much to be gained by selling.  The obvious reason to sell would be to get rid of Todd Helton’s contract, but even then, the Rockies would still be eating a good chunk of Helton’s salary.  While Helton isn’t the player he once was, neither has he declined to the point that the Rockies should be paying him not to play for them (as they once did with Mike Hampton.)  The presence of Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith (currently lighting things up at AAA) means the Rockies could trade a corner outfielder for somebody who needs a bat, but what kind of message would it send for us to trade Matt Holliday when we could be contending in a year or two?  (Trading Brad Hawpe, on the other hand, might not send the same message and could net us a couple of nice prospects.)  Basically, the Rockies shouldn’t be selling because it would send an awful, awful message to the fan base if we’re trading away players for prospects at a time when we’re within striking distance for a playoff spot.  The fans are starting to come back — 37,127 showed up for a Tuesday night game against San Diego — and trading away Helton, Holliday, or Hawpe would only serve to run them off once again.

So my prognosis?  The Rockies should hold.  Play the cards you have in August and September, then see if you can put together a big deal in the offseason.

I’m not the only one who dislikes ESPN

Everybody should read this post over at Dawg Sports (hey, I’m a Vandy fan, but I’m open to good reading on a Georgia blog) and you’ll better understand this.  I’ll forgive them for failing to mention anything about Vandy in their segment on the SEC Media Days.

Now, ESPN draws a lot of animosity from the college football blogger world — much moreso than from the baseball bloggers, who really don’t expect that much from ESPN.  My major gripe with ESPN has long been that they talk way too much football.  March?  Hey, let’s talk about the draft.  June?  Hey, training camp is next month.  August?  Hey, it’s the preseason.  October?  Hey, it’s the regular season.  Baseball?  What’s baseball?

I kid, ESPN has the still good Baseball Tonight, which at the very least has not devolved into NFL Live, where Sean Salisbury can barely contain his animosity for John Clayton, the man who constantly shows up Salisbury to the point that Salisbury is left asking him if he ever played football.  Trust me, if your lawyer ever asks you "Did you go to law school?" it means that (a) he has no idea what he’s doing, (b) you probably know more about the law than he does despite never having been to law school, and (c) you should find a new lawyer.  There are plenty of them out there.  Also trust me when I say that if Peter Gammons pantsed John Kruk on-air and Kruk sat there and asked him if he ever played baseball, you’d be scrambling to find your remote control to change the channel faster than you can say "Boo-yah!"

All in all, though, football fans’ beef with ESPN pales in comparison to those that can be raised by baseball fans.  While I love football, I don’t want to hear about it 365 days a year.  Sure, I’m thinking about football season right now, even though aside from my love for Vandy I’m basically a free agent fan.  But I live for baseball.

Now, ESPN’s coverage of baseball is pretty awful.  They’ve essentially ceded baseball to Fox and its various networks.  You can really tell, though, that ESPN is a very Northeast-centric organization.  The Yankees and Red Sox are basically the only teams that the network cares about.  And did you notice how much the network talked about the Celtics when it came to the draft lottery?  Everything was focused on the possibility of Oden going to the Celtics, despite the fact that the Grizzlies had the worst record in the NBA.  College football, I suppose, gets a pass because there aren’t really any major powers in that sport from the Northeast, though Rutgers is making a push for it.  ESPN has to be excited about the possibility of a New York-area team being a major power in the traditionally Southern- and Midwestern-dominated world of college football.

Of course, these days baseball’s coming out pretty well.  The NFL has to deal with the ugly Michael Vick saga, the NBA has to deal with a referee who was allegedly fixing ballgames.  The worst Bud Selig has to deal with right now is whether or not he’ll be present when Barry Bonds breaks the home run record.  While there are all sorts of questions about Bonds right now, from whether or not he used steroids to whether or not he’s a big jerk, the one thing nobody can question is that he’s a supremely talented baseball player regardless of whether or not he ever used the cream and the clear.

Did he use steroids?  Probably.  Would he have come anywhere near 755 if he hadn’t ever touched steroids?  Probably not.  Is 756 career home runs still a great accomplishment?  Yes.  Is Alex Rodriguez going to eventually break whatever career mark Bonds sets?  Probably.

I admit, I was happy when Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s single season home run record.  Granted, I’d prefer if Roger Maris still held the record, but since that’s not happening any time soon I’d actually prefer Bonds over McGwire.  Bonds at least was a very talented baseball player in the years leading up to 1997 (when he reportedly started using steroids); McGwire, if Jose Canseco is to be believed (and when it comes to McGwire, I believe Canseco), is basically entire the creation of performance-enhancing substances.

Are We Contenders or Not?

It’s a good question.  The Rockies have always been frustrating to follow, but never moreso than this year.  One week, they look like they could be the best team in baseball (like, say, the 5-1 homestand against the Mets and Phillies to close out the first half.)  Of course, that was immediately preceded by that ugly 1-9 road trip.  The current ten-game road trip at least won’t be that bad, with the Rockies currently 3-2 with the final game in Pittsburgh this afternoon.  And I can’t imagine the Rockies doing anything other than destroying the Nationals.

5.5 games in the standings isn’t that much, but the problem is that the Rockies trail three teams in the division.  The Diamondbacks do seem to be fading at least, and the Giants are going to ensure that the Rockies don’t finish last, but the Dodgers and Padres seem to be planning to get by with good pitching and virtually no offense.  The Dodgers, to their credit, finally realized that playing Nomar at first base was pointless and are giving James Loney regular starts, which is vastly helping the offense.  The Padres’ offense… well, it’s still no good, and they’ve done little to address it outside of acquiring Michael Barrett to catch and potentially fight with their pitchers.  But hey, scoring three runs a game is okay when you have Jake Peavy and Chris Young shutting down the opposition every time out.

As for the Rockies, our pitching certainly could be worse than it is, what with us actually getting contributions from Josh Fogg.  Hey, Francis today!  Things could be good in the second half.

Night and Day

Was that really the same Rockies team that just got back from a 1-9 road trip that we’ve seen the past two nights?

Answer: Well, yeah.  Other than Brian Fuentes, the Rockies weren’t really that bad on that trip.  If Fuentes converts four saves instead of blowing them, the Rockies are 5-5.  Throw in the two wins over New York this week, and we’re six games over .500 right now.  Other than being shut down by Dustin "Sideburns" McGowan and Wandy Rodriguez, of all people, the offense had a good trip, especially Troy Tulowitzki.  The starting pitching could have been better, but for the most part it wasn’t awful.  It’s funny what happens when the team gets a huge lead and the bullpen isn’t an issue.

Speaking of starting pitching, Jason Hirsh went on the DL after hurting himself running the bases on Monday night.  With the All-Star break coming up, it’s not going to affect the Rockies all that much.  Aaron Cook will go on Sunday (on normal rest), and the four-day break for the All-Star Game will give the Rockies plenty of time to get their starters rested.  The team may need one spot start from Taylor Buchholz, at most.

Coors Equilibrium

Well, this is just great, huh?  The Rockies follow up a three-game sweep of the Yankees by … getting swept in their next two series.  I call this Coors Equilibrium.  A stretch of brilliantly-played baseball, followed immediately by a stretch of mediocre or worse play.  The 20-7 stretch from May 22 to June 21 obviously wasn’t going to last forever — even the best teams don’t play .740 baseball over an entire season, as that would equate to a 120-42 record, which nobody’s ever done — but did anyone expect it to come crashing down so suddenly?

I think what may become the turning point of the Rockies’ season, when all is said and done (and no, I don’t mean this in a good way) was the 10th inning on Friday night in Toronto.  Tulo homers to put the Rockies up two in the top of the 10th, and everything’s good, right?  Then Fuentes can’t nail the door shut.  Then Iannetta botches things even further by throwing the ball into the outfield and allowing the winning run to score.

That started the Streak of Very Bad Things.  Immediately following was a pretty awful start by Aaron Cook that resulted in an 11-6 loss.  Then, the offense, evidently bored with scoring a bunch of runs and losing because of poor pitching, decided to shut it off the next day and get no-hit for eight innings by Dustin Freaking McGowan.  Then, on Monday night, the Rockies inexplicably erased a five-run deficit in the ninth inning, capped by another Tulo homer that gave the Rockies a one-run lead and led to a crazed Cubs fan running out on the field at Cubs pitcher Bob Howry.  Of course, Fuentes again blew the save.  Rodrigo Lopez then decided he’d join the rest of the starting rotation by mailing it in in an 8-5 loss (only the second game Rodrigo’s started this season that the Rockies have lost.)  Then the Rockies got shut down by Carlos Zambrano today.

At this point, it’s almost too obvious to rag on the bullpen, but they’re certainly the weak point of this team, and the ‘pen turned two losses into wins this week.  That alone would be the difference between being two games over .500 and two games under.  But the starting pitching isn’t any good, either.  Anybody who still thinks that the Rockies are selectively using the humidor to influence the outcome of games needs only look at Jason Hirsh’s 5.63 home ERA (versus a halfway-decent 4.39 on the road.)  It used to be that Rockies pitchers stunk at home and, strangely, were even worse on the road.  That really doesn’t seem to be the case any more.